Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Personal Strength of Acceptance - Epiphanies in Vietnam

In previous posts, I've written about being strong to accept the way things are. One of the hardest truths to accept is the fact of our own mortality. In the perilous, faltering journey that is life, eventually each of us comes face-to-face with the fact that our luminous self, which is all we have, does not go on forever. But it’s human nature to deny this truth, and for some, this epiphany doesn’t come until the end.

I remember what it was like to feel immortal. And I remember the moment when that changed. For me it happened when I was 24 years old, a captain in the U.S. Army assigned to advise Vietnamese units about combat operations. 

One day I was on a sweep with an elite Vietnamese platoon, and the leader sent two soldiers to check out a hedgerow. They were doing a painstakingly thorough job. At some point, they found a hole, and the lieutenant told them to clear it with a grenade. The rest of us took cover as best we could behind a rice paddy dike. I still remember the comic image of a soldier trying to pull the pin with his teeth, John Wayne style. He deposited the grenade and ran to take cover with the rest of us. I pressed my head to the ground and waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I wondered if the grenade was a dud, and I peered over the top of the dike. At that moment, an enormous explosion blew me over on my back and covered me with a layer of dirt. I have no recollection of hearing the blast. All I remember is being on my back wondering what happened and checking myself for injuries. Concerned about the others, I rose to my hands and knees. What I saw was so surprising that I broke out in laughter. On the other side of the dike was a fresh crater about thirty feet across and five feet deep. When the grenade blew, it detonated a huge arms cache that was buried in the hole. Luckily, no one was injured. I realize now that as we walked back to base camp that afternoon, something about me had changed forever. Not at the level of conscious thought, but what it felt like to be inside my own skin.

As if to ram the point home, not long after that I was returning to base camp one afternoon after a combat operation that failed to make enemy contact. The Vietnamese unit I was with was walking single file along the edge of a village when an enormous explosion knocked all of us down. I fought to clear my head to determine if we were under attack. This did not seem to be the case, but I saw that the soldier in front of me was badly wounded, as was the soldier behind me. I immediately put in a radio call for a “dust-off”—a medical evacuation helicopter. As I surveyed the scene for more wounded, the patrol leader reported that one person was missing. For several minutes, the status of this individual remained a mystery as we probed the area around us. Then somebody pointed to the top of a tree, and we saw the soldier’s web gear dangling from a branch. That was all we ever found of him. Apparently, he had stepped on a large artillery round planted by the Viet Cong as a booby-trap. The force of the explosion had killed him instantly, scattering his atoms all over the village.

Once again, I was untouched. At the time, I concluded that God had a special plan for me. Later in life, I revised that theory. The truth of the matter is that the random pattern of shrapnel that day caused the hot, sharp metal fragments to pass me by.  That’s the long and the short of it. But in the immortality department, I had lost my innocence for good. 

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . ("Long Range Patrol," 1969 watercolor by James Drake, public domain photo at www.history.army.mil.)


Sean said...

Also, had you been blown to bits, you wouldn't be here today to tell the story.

I get that feeling sometimes due to memories of 9/11... I was four blocks away when the second plane hit, and had commuted through the WTC complex less than an hour earlier.

I still think NYC's going to be hit by attacks again someday.

Beth said...

I am getting back to reading and am looking forward to catching up on your written thoughts, stories and wisdom.

I am experimenting with a new blog that will allow me to have my RSS feed for the things I am writing for Associated Content/Yahoo. I can do that at Switched at Birth, but I just feel the need right now for a fresh start.

The new site (you & K. are on the blog roll) is Westmark Writes, at http://www.elizabethwestmark.com. It's in a beta phase -- not too much there, yet, but would love for you to stop by and say hi.

Joe Hackman said...

Are you still in contact with the men you served in Vietnam with Denny? Please tell me more about the brotherhood with your comrades in arms and how it has influenced you.

Johnny said...

...interesting article, and a good reminder to cherish this day, thank you.