Jerry’s lost last letter from Vietnam
Dear Mom and Dad,
and Jana and Jason,
I need to tell you about what happened here in Vietnam. In my other letters, I glossed over details because, Dad, you know war and so I don’t have to tell you what it’s like, and Mom, I didn’t want to worry you. Jana and Jason, I hope you never have to know what war is like.
But I can’t deny the truth of what happened over here, the pain and the glory of it.
You hear stories about Vietnam before you leave. A lot of people give into evil. You have to kill to survive, that’s one thing. But the things people let themselves do…become no better than the enemy they’re fighting. They let the war cloud their minds, muddy their morals. I was self-righteous about this at first. I would never fall.
Oh how wrong I was.
I hesitate to tell you. Especially you, Jason, who looked up to me so much. I wish you could keep this heroic image of me, but that would be selfish.
The truth is, I gave into evil. I was proud, to start with. It blinded me to the fact that deep down I’m no different than anyone else and it’s only by the saving grace of Jesus Christ that I have anything salvageable inside me.
It’s not like I did it myself; I just let it happen. But that doesn’t justify it. Fear is no excuse either. It can’t be, here. Especially when you’re an officer; you’re responsible for the men under you.
One reason I’m hesitant to tell about this is that it’s top secret. And it involves someone else and her safety. But with the uncertainty over here—when the war will end, overall or just for me—it’s worth the risk so you can help her in case I’m….not around anymore.
We trudged through the mud, sheets of rain pouring down, soaking us. The gray sky pierced by green knives of grass, slashing our arms as we searched for the enemy. We hadn’t had any action for days and some of my men were itching for a fight, just to break up the gray sloshing mud with bright flowers of fire.
This kid, Jenkins, had glasses and that made it so he could see even less than the rest of us in the rain. Barely 18, smaller than most, the guys all teased him but he took it well and so they were good-natured about it. He was kinda like our mascot. We thought he had a charmed life; he once stepped on a mine and it didn’t go off, some of the men thought he was lucky and even that we were an invincible unit.
We were checking out a weapons cache when some VC ambushed us. Shattered Benny’s leg, that’s my sarge. Good man. I dragged him to safety and fired back—we were surrounded on this little island in the swamp, just a raised bit of land, not much cover, so we were sitting ducks. I had to get my men out of there. I ordered some men to make a feint to the left, others to cover our rear as we retreated into the swamp. But they caught us as we came down, popped up right out of the gray water and shot some point-blank. I fought hand-to-hand with one—he stabbed me in the thigh and blood swirled into the water like red ink. Somehow we fought them off but by that time they’d killed five of us and Jenkins was lying face down, so much blood in the water around him we knew he was gone.
A chopper flew us back to base for R and R and to take care of the dead. Rally, one of my squad leaders, wanted to go right back out and find those VC—he didn’t use that term—and kill them. Something in him snapped that day. I should’ve seen it but we were all grieving. We were a tight-knit unit, even more than most, I thought, and to lose Jenkins and four other good men…it hit us hard. But we forged on. I had to get a new platoon sergeant temporarily so I promoted Rally to the acting position.
About a month later, early August, we captured some VC. My men and I secured the village while Rally began the interrogation of the prisoners, two men and a woman, in a vacant shed. While I was occupied, the prisoners attempted to escape and Rally shot them. That was his story. I have no doubt they were trying to escape, but they were shot in the back, which wasn’t really necessary as they were bound and couldn’t have gotten far. When I returned, one man had died and Rally was beating the other man’s face in. He was incoherent and useless as an intel source. Jackson offered to “put him out of his misery”; I held him back and had the medic take care of him.
Only the woman was left to interrogate. I let Rally be the bad cop and threaten to kill her family, but I didn’t let him lay a hand on her. She taunted us, told us we were dead men like the buddies we’d lost. Rally swung a fist toward her; I shoved him out of the way and had a nice, civil talk with her. She seemed to thaw a little; I saw some of the fear in her eyes beneath the bravado, and we even shared a little about our families. She gave me a nom de guerre: Ana.
Just when I thought we were ready for a breakthrough, some of her comrades attacked and we had to fend them off. Once I got back to the shed, I found Rally had continued the interrogation by breaking one of her fingers. I tried to stop him but Jackson held me back. “She’s close to cracking,” he said. “You step in, she’ll clam up again. He’s already got some good stuff, sir. Just a little more. Otherwise this is all in vain.”
“This is not who we are. We’re Americans—this is what they do.”
“I know. I know, sir. You’ve kept us on the good path. But just this once, look away. For the ones we lost. For the ones we can save.”
I left the building, patrolled the perimeter. But no matter where I went, I could still hear Ana’s screams.
When I got back it was like a slaughterhouse. Rally was covered in blood; Ana (I must use her name—to do otherwise would dehumanize her) was unconscious. He’d broken each of her fingers and carved the names of our fallen into her chest. I tried not to look at her directly, as if that would absolve me of guilt, as if she was just a “target” and not a human being.
“We got the intel,” said Rally, beaming like he’d won a medal of honor.
I treated it like just another operation. She was just another casualty of war, an enemy at that. We’d done our job; it was a successful mission. We could be proud of ourselves.
We left her there; I’m not sure if she lived or died. I didn’t feel guilty at first; I didn’t feel anything but the need to keep my men safe. Until we stopped to rest, and she began to haunt me. Even if it was Rally who had gotten out of hand, I was responsible for my men’s actions. I’d allowed it. It was the same as if I’d carved those names into her chest. Hadn’t I wanted revenge too? How could I possibly delude myself I was any different, any better?
Still, I had to do my job, and I began to gain attention as a good leader from my CO. He told a CIA officer about me, and that officer contacted me for a special mission. Inside enemy territory.
We’d really only be glorified couriers; we were to deliver some new equipment to a northern spy. The CIA officer told me that he suspected a mole in his network; every agent he’d sent north had been killed or captured, the expensive equipment confiscated. We had a reputation of getting things done. He commended us for the intel we’d gotten from Ana; his agents had made good use of it. We’d take a different route than the others to throw the VC off track, but we should be under no illusions that this would be an easy or safe mission. He’d only take volunteers.
I took a small group of 10 men and we went north. We’d just dropped off the package when we were ambushed. Two men were shot; I covered the others so they could get away. I emptied my ammo and then fought with my knife—I’d rather be killed than captured—but they stabbed my leg and I went down. Blows rained from all directions until a rifle hit my head and I blacked out.
I came to in a cell at a VC base camp. My body ached; I could barely move. A man dragged me to the interrogation room and the fun began.
My interrogator was the man we’d thought was our agent. He’d been fooling the Americans for years, feeding them false intel, getting their agents captured. I was no different; he’d extract the info he needed then kill me.
He asked me about my mission for the CIA. I couldn’t tell him any more than he already knew. So he hit me. He asked about troop movements and supply routes; I wouldn’t tell him anything. So he hit me again. He wasn’t especially creative even though he always bragged about his abilities. I think he confused enjoyment for expertise. Plus he had a big head from fooling the Americans. He was probably a good spy, but not a very good interrogator. I called him Hack.
Still, he began to wear me down, especially if the sessions ended with him hitting me so hard I blacked out. I probably had multiple concussions, and my wounds were left untreated and infected. One of his COs sat in on an interrogation and I was apparently so incoherent and delirious he ordered a medic to take care of me.
I don’t remember much after that; it was probably days before I was fully conscious again. It was like heaven; my head was clear and I barely ached. Someone came in with food.
No, not just someone. The most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Silky hair that fell like a sheet of black water. Intense brown eyes in a perfect oval face. For a moment I thought she was an angel, especially since I felt no pain and pain had become part of my existence. She also reminded me of Ana…guilt struck my heart.
She handed me the tray of food and then left. When she came back, she aimed her gun at me and told me to follow. I was back in the interrogation room, but this time Hack was gone, replaced by another man. He spoke no English so he needed the girl, Ai, to translate. I knew basic Vietnamese but no complex words or sentences.
His interrogation was perfunctory and he rarely used physical force. It was a welcome reprieve. Plus I got to be in the same room with Ai, who looked at me with disdain as she translated.
This guy didn’t get anything out of me either, so they got some sort of specialist to have a go at me. He was good. Big, brutal, but he knew how to inflict maximum pain with minimum damage. Ai translated for him as well.
One day he had me on the floor, just screaming and sobbing with pain, like I was on fire. Ai threatened to stop translating unless he stopped hurting me so badly; he grabbed her and asked what side she was on. She said she just couldn’t stomach this; he said if she was weak she didn’t belong in the VC and began choking her.
First I noticed the absence of pain, then I noticed frantic, strangled cries. I looked up to see Ai kicking at him as he held her in the air by her throat.
I asked God to help me because I knew I couldn’t move on my own. I couldn’t redeem myself for what I’d done to Ana but I could help Ai.
I struggled to my feet and stood, shaking. Somehow I managed to say, “Stop!”
Anger crossed his face. He dropped Ai to the floor and turned on me. Gave me a good old fashioned beating till I blacked out.
When I came to, Ai was shaking me. It was dark. She told me that they would kill me since I had outlived my usefulness. She led me down the hallway and opened the door to the back, where there was a running vehicle. “Thank you. For what you did for me,” she said.
“Thank you for helping me, Ai. I wish—“
“Go! I can’t let them catch me.” She darted back inside.
Somehow I got down the road a bit before anyone saw me. I had to ditch the vehicle and run into the jungle. Survived for days, dodging patrols, eating bugs, till I ran into an American squad and they had me choppered back to base.
Everyone had thought I was dead; they had a big party for me. I recuperated and then went back to leading my platoon. Everything went back to normal. Vietnam-normal, anyway.
Until one day I saw Ai on base, delivering supplies to the soldiers. She drove out before I could catch her.
My men and I were hanging around base for a little while, so I saw her when she returned later that week. I caught up to her this time. She took me aside and told me that she was supposed to be an agent for the VC, but she was really working for the Americans. She had been with the communists when I’d been captured but she wasn’t a die-hard party member or anything. All she wanted was for the war to end and for her country to be at peace. She thought the VC would do that. But I’d changed her view of what Americans were at the same time she’d seen the brutality of the VC. She didn’t want to be complicit in that so she agreed to help us, in part to bring democracy and peace to her country, in part to make up for what she did.
I then told her my own struggle—my own complicity. Hurting a young woman like her. I expected her to leave in disgust. But she forgave me. I felt a dark burden lift from my heart. It wasn’t totally gone—it never will be. But what she did freed me, more so than when she’d let me out of the enemy camp.
Whenever she was on base, I found time to be with her. We began hanging out together. Eating at mess together. The boys began to make fun of me. I knew I should be careful; I didn’t want to blow her cover. Spending too much time with any one American without intel from him would be suspicious to her handlers. So we did things in secret. Had picnics out on this grassy hill with beautiful red flowers. I gave her presents. I felt she deserved the world.
Then I got orders to move out. We’d be deep in the jungle for weeks, perhaps months. My heart felt like it was imploding. I couldn’t be without her. I wished I could just take her and run away from the war and just live with her in peace.
But I decided to do something a little less drastic. When we were out on a picnic, I asked her—Dad, Mom, can you believe this?—to marry me.
And even more wonderful and crazy—she said yes!
Two days ago, we were married on our hill under the moonlight. She had a red flower in her hair. She was so beautiful! We sealed it with a glorious kiss and then…well, I’ll leave it at that.
We had two frantic days together, stolen kisses in the hallway, nights in a little abandoned hut covered in vines. Today I have to move out, leave her to the lonely life of a spy. How I can leave her without my heart breaking I don’t know. I’m sending this letter so you know the worst and the best of me, and so that you know to take care of her in case I don’t come back. Only the chaplain and the witness know about our marriage.
She’s leaning over my shoulder as I write this in our little ‘cabin’, as I call it. Kissing me. Now she’s saying that she wants to say hi to you and she can’t wait to meet you. That she won’t let me leave and if I do she’ll drag me back….Oh I do love her, I can’t tell you how much, my heart’s bursting and I—
I miss you. I’ve got a long tour left but when I come home, I’ll bring a beautiful bride with me.
And, just in case,
Goodbye. (I’ll see you in heaven, anyway!)
Jerry (and Ai) Whittaker
- from Generation