The Mighty Pen Project is a new Virginia War Memorial initiative with Richmond-based author and teacher David L. Robbins. The first group of veterans and their families met this past spring for a 10-week seminar called “Words of War." This month, in recognition of Veteran's Day, we present a story based on actual events* by Malik Hodari, 68, a lawyer and a recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, where he served from October 1966 to October 1967.
Hodari has used meditation since 1978 to help cope with Vietnam-centric PTSD and polysubstance abuse. He also has used a vegetarian diet to control his Type 2 diabetes for more than 15 years. Hodari says he "sees meditation and vegetarianism as part of the peace paradigm for our communities and humanity." He holds a bachelor's degree from Harris Stowe State Teachers University, a master's from Michigan State University and a law degree from North Carolina Central University. "This is all so healing for me," Hodari says.
"I hope the story helps others." "Blue Devil" was Hodari's radio call sign in Vietnam, where he volunteered for point-man duty daily.
Hodari joined the Mighty Pen Project on the recommendation of his Veterans Affairs' therapist Dr. Brian Meyer. "A Dragon on His Back" covers one chilling day in Vietnam. The essential memories of that day in 1967 were suppressed for 42 years. A VA physician triggered the recall when she routinely asked Hodari an obligatory intake question: "Do you need mental health help?" Face to face with this buried horror, Hodari sunk into a suicidal depression. Immediate intervention and daily sessions resulted in a referral to Dr. Brian Meyer, who helped Hodari recover. — Susan Winiecki
*names have been changed
Dark clouds persist after a light morning rain. The search for an enemy base camp resumes. The platoon passes the beaver dam then fords at the spot recon identified last night. Just beyond the west bank of the dammed stream, hundreds of tree stumps reveal the dam’s construction. The remains of gnawed trees stretch 180 degrees north and east over two hundred yards, forming a fan-type clearing parallel to the stream. Blue Devil avoids crossing the clearing here. He leads the platoon north about twelve o’clock, staying inside the tree line the beaver left near the bank. Satisfied there is no danger, he turns toward two o’clock, crouches slightly like a hungry lion and across. Blue Devil motions for slack man Gonzalez to wait. The gesture signals Gonzalez to maintain a gap of nine or ten feet before following.
The platoon performs the maneuver in every open field crossing. In turn, each man gives the same silent motion before crouching into the open space. The slack man is also obliged to scour the left, opposite direction of the point man. The third man searches a zone similar to the point but farther to the right. The fourth man searches farther left of the slack man. It is right-left spacing duty that creates overlapping search fields. Properly performed, unit eyes cover the 180-degree expanse.
In an open space assault the men flank to the right or left based on their right-left spot in line. Blue Devil silently signals “fan out” by extending his right forefinger then his left. The soldiers race to their zones in a frontal assault. Each notifies the next to fan out.
Before leaving bivouac they softly sound off “right” or “left” so that each knows where to assemble. Blue Devil asks each soldier his position. Since Fairfield confessed that he will not shoot at the enemy, Blue Devil adjusts the second left assault position, assigning it to Charles Paul; Fairfield swaps to the rear. Placing Fairfield at the rear is risky but will force him to fight or die.
Blue Devil hears youthful laughter; he sees people playing. Some are children. He slows, stalks lower, scours the area at two o’clock where the clearing ends. No beavers live here. He hurries the assault gestures. “Boom.” He fires his grenade launcher in the area of the laughter; body parts fly. He advances, rushing to keep the advantage. He empties his M-16, set on automatic, using the firing assembly to steady the weapon. While the M-16 is firing, he ejects the grenade shell then reloads. He steadies the weapon with his left hand, shoots another grenade then reloads the M-16. He fast breaks the position. The fleeing enemy frantically grabs bodies during their fallback. Amid the chaos they return fire; the onslaught presses. Blue Devil sees the entire battlefield like Willie Mays sees the seams of a Bob Gibson pitch. A grenade explodes blowing a body in half; the enemy drags it in retreat. The point man has never seen this behavior in combat.
Blood is everywhere. The enemy scurries: hundreds of men, women and children scatter left and right. Adrena-line rushes. Blue Devil leaps over a 50-caliber machine gun. Mid-leap he barks assault directions to his men. He empties another automatic magazine. Trees prevent using the grenade launcher. He sees the main trail, wide as Fifth Avenue, almost as busy. The dirt is red, littered with arms, legs, intestines, brains. The enemy is escaping. The tree line ends, creating an opening for grenades: destruction again, more blood. He barks directions.
The sanctum is huge, teeming with life: scores of abandoned weapons, cooking pits, clay pots, sleep stations, half-dressed humanity, fleeing. Blue Devil yells for “Tracey” and “Randy.” The camp center is big enough for an outdoor track. Blue Devil needs the machine gunner and his assistant for cover. The men don’t come or answer.
He yells for them again. He searches to the rear. The entire platoon is lying in the grass. They cling to tree stumps. Blue Devil stops the assault. Keeping both eyes on the enemy, he creeps back fifty feet to the machine gun. He turns to his men, screams and waves for them to come. The response is slow. He checks the rear, retreating continues. The enemy is no longer shooting; they are covering the escape. His soldiers creep to their feet, crouching to avoid phantom bullets. Chills crawl. Screaming to heaven, Blue Devil gives orders and prays: “They’re getting away. Get your asses up here. We need the machine gun to advance; get up here.” Three speed up. Blue Devil jerks his neck to the rear again. He wants to engage the fleeing enemy. He waits for his trusted friends, for his machine gunner, for his slack man, for the enemy to take it all back.
The platoon arrives slowly. They rave about the assault. They heard bullets zipping overhead. How did Blue Devil shoot like that? The machine gun is awesome. It is inane babble to the point man. He fires directions to spread out, to establish a perimeter, to protect against a counterattack. Bauer is mute. His terror-filled eyes acquiesce to leadership. Pressed to duty, the men deploy. They pass blood and body parts, eyes wide, mouths agape. They hesitate to enter the camp center. Dark clouds persist. No sun. No rain.
A rock cave on the left side of the clearing has an entrance two stories high. Hand grenades are tossed in as a precaution before entering. Hundreds of weapons line the cave, too many to spot-inventory: automatic Russian AK-47s, mortars, Chinese stick grenades, pistols, sniper rifles plus ammunition of every type. The grenades do not blow the ammunition. Blue Devil reprimands two soldiers for prematurely using the explosives. Bauer brags it is his order.
The post-fight silence creates hair-raising echoes. Blue Devil’s mind bounds from fear to fear. Next to the cave is a blood trail up a hundred-foot ravine. A lighter blood stream trails east on the widest approach to the center. Tracey and Randy guard this artery with the machine gun. The platoon is too small to defend every attack point. Can the platoon withstand a counterattack? Maybe a retreat to last night’s bivouac site is wise. The First Sergeant and Blue Devil advocate retreat. They want Thunder-ball notified. Bauer wants to give the commander a higher body count. The lull appears to awaken the lieutenant, who acts like heroic possibilities sleep here. He orders Blue Devil to pursue the heavier blood trail.
The trek up the steep hill is deliberate. A boulder sits at the top; it must be 200 feet tall and twice as wide. Blue Devil leaves the three-man recon team behind the boulder where the blood trails intersect. He belly crawls left across blood- soaked leaves. Blood-stained tree stumps extend west to the uncut jungle. Scores of sheared stumps create a rectangular field. It extends a hundred yards west to the tree line, twenty yards across. The retreating enemy is visible in the thicket: too many to count. Dark clouds cast a Twilight Zone effect over the activity. The vantage point is not good. Blue Devil considers shooting a grenade, but that will betray his presence. He crawls backward to the boulder and tells the men what he saw. They plead with him to return to camp, but he needs a better assessment.
He belly crawls right of the boulder, where he is offered a safer view of the thicket activity from sparse cover. He inches up behind the nearest tree. Enemy AK-47s crackle. Blue Devil jerks his head back. He freezes. A hail of bullets hit the tree, more zip by. He re-mains motionless. The crackling continues. The enemy tries to fell the tree with bullets. The curved contour of the hill slopes downward near a steep drop to the camp; lower is safer. He slides down two feet; he needs to assess counter attack odds. He sees the enemy. Small-statured shapes treat the wounded. Others leave. Blue Devil could launch grenades but this is war, not suicide. Time flies. This is taking too long. The enemy is not running. They are waiting.
Blue Devil slides prone, then crawls to the team. He greets panic-stricken eyes. The young radio operator is in tears. Gonzalez repeats “Hail Marys” in Spanish. Blue Devil suppresses laughter. The enemy force is cause for pause. He gives his squad the assessment. He observed an enormous contingent. Some treat the wounded. Others flee. Many wait. “Leave ’em alone,” Kendrick blurts.
“Please, please,” Gonzalez chirps in his native tongue; his message is clear. Blue Devil tells them to pray there is not a counterattack. He assures his men they will not follow the blood trail. Screw Bauer.
The men implore Blue Devil to rejoin the platoon. He calls Bauer, holding the radio mic close to his unshaven face. “White Fox, there is a sky scraper boulder. Beyond is a kill zone, like the approach, request permission to return to your ballpark.”
“No dammit, I told you to pursue that blood trail; get me a body count,” Bauer says, his response interrupted by Thunderball, who breaches radio etiquette. “Jay, let Blue Devil return to your ballpark now.” By the time the commander says “now,” the men are down the hill gasping.
The platoon is huddled. Blue Devil asks why the unit is not ready for a counterattack. Bauer says the platoon is going to pursue the enemy. He is going to use a different point man, Charles Paul. Blue Devil is assigned to bring up the rear, not Fairfield. The lieutenant’s tone is nasty, condescending. Blue Devil has heard the tone before. He encountered it from neighborhood cops dispensing race justice. He encountered it from store clerks fearful he was a shoplifter, from bus drivers or riders moving him to the rear. Raw emotions burn, but lives are at stake.
Blue Devil pleads for counterattack defense. He tells the lieutenant that death waits beyond the boulder. He shares details of the activity he observed: the enemy is retreating but they are also waiting. There are scores of tree stumps; a kill zone lies beyond the boulder. “You heard the AKs; I was pinned behind a tree.” Bauer turns away. Blue Devil looks to the First Sergeant, who shrugs his shoulders then looks off. Orders are orders.
The men move. As they pass, some look puzzled, others terrified. Blue Devil tells the passing soldiers that catastrophe lay ahead: a boulder, tree stumps, an ambush. Blue Devil can’t hide the panic in his voice. He needs them alive. Be careful, he begs. Be careful.
He returns to the lieutenant: “Secure the camp, wait for reinforcements.” Blue Devil explains the wait for help is longer than map views suggest. He reminds Bauer there are no unit casualties, and every man is needed to hold the camp. He warns that Thunderball will not be happy if the weapons cache, left unattended, is lost. Bauer pauses, his eyes dart up and down, back and forth. He orders the recon team to stay, to guard the weapons, to defend against a counterattack.
He marches the other twelve men up the hill.
The platoon passes the boulder-ravine junction, then follows the blood trail. They pass red-stained stumps. Bauer orders a frontal assault. AK-47s crackle again: two soldiers are killed; three are wounded. The others run for cover. Most are pinned down behind stumps. A few retreat to trees right of the boulder. Craig Wayside, the radio operator, is killed responding to an order to bring the mic to Bauer behind a different tree. Wayside had been in country less than a month, still green. He had recently turned eighteen. Shot in the chest, he radioed for help while dying.
Blue Devil rushes up responding to Wayside’s distress message. Fairfield cowers alone behind the boulder.
Rivers of tears roll over his half smile. He points to his right foot where a wound bleeds. “You’re not getting a Purple Heart for shooting yourself, Pat,” Blue Devil reprimands.
“Wayside’s dead, I’m hit,” screams Boyd.
First Sergeant Gray Wolf yells, “We need ‘Puff,’ or we need an airstrike.”
The urgency in his voice belies his characteristic cool. Puff is an assault helicopter. The chopper spews 60-caliber machine gun fire with a tracer every fifth round. The tracer glows fire red. When engaged, a stream of fire from chopper to target cuts the haze and lights the sky. It is nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon” because of its fire-breathing resemblance. Puff is an intimidating assault tool. Gray Wolf screams, like God is deaf: “We’re gonna die without air fire. We’re gonna die without air fire.”
Blue Devil directs the platoon to fire at the distant jungle. He races twenty to thirty feet into the tree stumps to pull Sergeant Boyd to safety. He tells Boyd that Fairfield is wounded. Boyd says he knows the motherfucker shot himself at the junction. Blue Devil returns to the kill zone where he pulls another soldier to safety, then another.
He calls for “Puff” support. Enemy fire is relentless; the platoon has no way to aid the wounded, no way to check the camp below and no way to survive a rear attack. Questions come at Blue Devil: “You call yet?” “Where is Puff?” “Where is God?” “You call yet?”
The fire-spewing dra-gon arrives in twenty minutes. Racing hearts slow. Smoke grenades are tossed to mark the platoon position. Puff strafes beyond the smoke. Enemy fire continues. The First Sergeant yells for air support. He is still prone behind a stump. They are out of smoke grenades. Blue Devil radios coordinates, first the platoon’s then the enemy’s. Air Command demands confirmation. The proximity bothers them. “Drop it now,” Blue Devil screams. A test bomb falls beyond the tree line. The ground shakes and then the air does, too — up to the stratosphere. Fire for effect; fire for effect. The siege ends.
Bauer continues shrinking behind his small tree. The monsoon never intervenes. The sun never shines. Dusk arrives.
Radio traffic confirms help is coming. Firefights and thick jungle delay their arrival. Frequent skirmish reports pour in from other units: the battalion-plan works. Midnight passes. A unit is heard chopping through distant brush. Two hours later the company commander breaks through with two platoons. They describe ambushing the retreating enemy. Reports the rescuers were closer turn out to be misinformation. Afraid to use lights for assistance, the reunited company waits for dawn.
The stench of Wayside’s decomposing blood finds a final resting place in Blue Devil’s brain. Another friend spends the night on the ground, writhing, clutching his guts. The medic arrives with the company commander. He administers morphine in the dark. The friend groans on. Blue Devil night vigils the wounded warrior.
Another company arrives at dawn.
Perimeter guards are plentiful; they rotate on two-hour shifts. The enemy is never far away. The company commanders confer with an engineer by radio. They agree the tree stumps make a landing zone impractical. A hover zone for transfers is blown using C-4 to fell more trees. The task begins at noon and takes hours. Additional C-4 arrives by helicopter and is lowered. When the hover zone is finished, choppers bring needed ammunition, supplies and the first hot meals in twenty-three days. Intelligence officers arrive to study the camp, to assess the enemy weapons.
The lowering and raising of men and supplies is perilous and painstaking. A towline from each hovering chopper lowers a loaded bed that is unpacked. The wounded replace the supplies and ride to the ship. Then the dead ship-up with no field ritual, no open grief, no open prayer. The last helicopter takes Fairfield. He is not permitted to ride with the wounded or the dead. Instructions that he is Purple Heart ineligible are radioed to staff.
Night falls again. The star-filled sky is close enough to touch, its pearls of beauty a new source of solace. The presence of two companies is comforting, too, like the heaviest monsoon. Blue Devil reflects on a billboard in the forward camp: “Yea though I walk through the valley in the shadows of death I will fear no evil for I am the meanest motherfucker in the valley.”
The next morning airlift shuttles resume. More hot meals arrive. Blue Devil’s valor is rewarded with a war trophy. He chooses a Chinese sniper rifle. It is tagged with his name and serial number to ship to the base camp. Intelli-gence catalogs the weapons cache. The bounty is shipped to the forward base. The rock cave is sealed with explosives. The tasks take two days.
The third afternoon Thunderball arrives for a brief visit. He commends the platoon for capturing the camp. The weapons cache is a distribution operation, a historic find. He announces a body count north of a hundred. He is jovial. He expresses pride for association with the brigade. He announces that a memorial service will take place when the unit stands down in a few days.
Blue Devil fights tears. He detests the custom. A bayonet mounted M-16 is planted between a pair of boots. A camouflaged helmet adorns the butt. The symbolic soldiers are lined up like crosses in Flanders’s Field. A standard eulogy praises freedom’s new martyrs. Taps blow, Pandora’s box opens: tears gush in; new memories find refuge. Healing never comes, pain increases. Emotion is survival’s mortal enemy.
Thunderball mingles with the men, drinking coffee, small talking. He departs with his intelligence officers. Gray Wolf and Thunderball are old friends. The First Sergeant learns that Bauer will be removed and replaced with a West Point graduate during the stand down. The revelation is a temporary morale booster.
The men wager over the number of days before the enemy returns. Kendrick and Randy tease Charles Paul with a song. Paul’s going home in a plastic bag. Do-dah, do-dah. Paul’s going home in a plastic bag. Yea da-do-dah-day. The individual object of this folly shifts hour by hour, day to day. Few escape the affectionate derision. Seventy-two hours later, twenty-six days of search and destroy end. The platoon stands down.