My War Buddy from ‘Nam

This isn’t a story about my time in Vietnam, but it starts there. Bad as ‘Nam was, this is about something much worse.

1968 began with a hot lead rain for most of the military, myself included. The Viet Cong and a few detachments of the North Vietnamese Army simultaneously attacked American and South Vietnamese bases during a supposed ceasefire in what is now known as the Tet Offensive. My squad was spared the initial fighting; the VC in our area launched a particularly half-assed attack that was easily beaten back by the guards on duty. There were no American casualties, though one greenhorn did manage to take his finger off by getting it caught in the action of his weapon. Once our shit was shinola, we got communiques from other bases that hadn’t been so lucky. Chau Doc, not too far from us, had been overrun but the Special Forces and SEAL detachments stationed there had pulled back and were mounting a counter offensive. Hue, near the DMZ, was knee deep in VC. Saigon suffered heavy casualties. Our commander decided the best way to use our manpower was to counter attack bases and supply depots while Victor Charles was away. We pushed northwest from our base towards Cambodia along a known VC supply route. Two forward bases were lightly defended; some of their embedded heavy machine guns were even unmanned. Perhaps the larger third base heard the fighting as it drew near, or maybe it was just more strategically valuable. Either way, the third assault didn’t go as smoothly.

We split into three groups with the two smaller units attacking simultaneously from the left and right. The larger group was to stay hidden until all the enemy attention was focused on their flanks, and then plow through the middle. It worked, but we didn’t count on losing the entire right attack group in the process. There were casualties on the left, but they held their line. I was in the center group. We moved forward, cutting a wide path through the VC. With no one to fight on the right, the enemy was able to pull back and fire at us from cover, which severely hindered our progress. Our radioman called for an air evac, hoping the approaching birds would spook the VC into the trees before they realized they weren’t gunships. It was a brilliant plan. We had a few minutes’ respite while the Hueys were loaded with wounded. We used the time to torch some of the buildings, wire the ammo dump with explosives, and dig in. As soon as the bird took off, the VC came rushing out of the trees in a wide arc. We used some of their mounted guns and recoilless rifles against them, but they didn’t give up. We lost about half our number again before the Hueys returned for more wounded.

It was obvious the VC were pulling back into the trees only far enough to avoid detection and attacking when we expected them to still be regrouping. Our Gunnery Sergeant ran over to have a quick word with one of the chopper gunners. Evac choppers carried only enough ammo to get out of a hot landing zone in order to free up more of the weight limit for passengers. They also didn’t take the time to reload when they let their passengers off in safety; they got right back up in the air and came for another load. Because of that, gunners were trained to make their shots count. Gunny convinced them to unleash hell for the few seconds they could in order to drive Charlie further into the trees and fuck up his command structure. The seven of us who weren’t able to fit on the choppers – including me, Gunny, and a Private named Thomas – chased Charlie into the jungle to prevent him from regrouping when our air support left. We just had to keep Charlie on his toes and hold out until one of the birds came back. I was prepared for a tough slog, but there wasn’t much fighting. Gunny’s plan must have done the trick and sent Charlie running. We blew the ammo dump when we heard the approaching rotors and climbed in the Huey, easy as pie.

We were above the trees when the copilot spotted the telltale trail of an RPG. Our pilot attempted to avoid it, but the grenade exploded on the tail, damaging our stabilizing prop. He was able to hold the chopper together, but maneuvering was a chore. We ended up not being able to head in the direction of our base, but instead further south. Luckily, that was away from the Charlie-infested Cambodian border. Unluckily, it was also away from any American bases or known friendly villages. The tail rotor continued falling apart as the pilot and copilot searched for a clearing fit for landing. Just as the copilot spotted a small rice patty, a large chunk of the stressed stabilizing rotor came loose. The Huey went into a death spin, sending the gunner and two of my group out the open door. I crashed into the rear bench seat and felt my left shoulder wrench backward, ripping tendons. The chopper spun for what seemed like hours before reaching the tree tops. In a Hell of shearing metal and shattering glass, the chopper did a complete barrel roll and landed nose-first. One of the main rotors broke off on impact and flew through the armored side of the bird, cutting up Gunny and one other man.

When everything settled, the forest was completely silent. I was the only soldier left mobile. The pilot and copilot were dead, the nose of the chopper was crushed like a tin can and covered in blood. Of the seven in my unit, only four of us were in the chopper. I had seen two fly out. I didn’t know what happened to the third. The cuts on Gunny were worse than I thought; he was dead, his throat nearly severed clean through. The rotor was stuck in the chest of Private Thomas, the other man it had hit. He was breathing, but only in sharp intakes. I suspected his lung was punctured. One last man lay on the ground near me. He looked fine, maybe just unconscious. I jabbed two fingers to his throat and held them there for a few seconds. He was dead. It was just me and Thomas. I tossed the chopper’s medic bag outside and hauled Thomas out so I could try to save him, ignoring the pain in my left arm.

I was emptying my canteen over Thomas’ chest wound so I could get a view of the damage that was unobstructed by blood when I heard footsteps near us. I cursed myself for leaving my M16 in the chopper. I looked up, expecting to catch a VC bullet in the face, to find a young farm worker. He looked curiously at me, then at Thomas, and motioned for me to follow him. I went with him in hopes I could find someone to help me tend to Thomas. The farmer led me past the rice patty and into the trees to a small village. Unlike other villages I had seen in ‘Nam, this one seemed to hide in the jungle until you were in it. The farmer motioned me into a large, open structure with deep red tapestries on the walls. An old man stood in the center of the room dressed in a white gown with red and gold accents at the hems. He stared at me. Even when the farmer spoke to him for an extended time, the old man’s eyes never left mine. Finally, he spoke.

“Stay here.”

He and the farmer left me alone in the large room. I considered walking out; Thomas needed help immediately or he would die. I didn’t want to be the last one left alive. I couldn’t be. Every soldier has a special group of friends; one, two, or maybe three guys that you would actually kill time with in your normal life in the States. My guys were Bastille and Camacho. Bastille had earned some time in Tokyo thanks to a nasty stomach bug. Camacho was with me on the raid and had caught some shrapnel in his right thigh. He was on the first bird out of the fighting. Thomas wasn’t part of my group, but he was in my unit. We were all brothers and he was the only one with me. The only one I could save. The only partner I would have hiking back to base when we left that shitty little bamboo town.

I was walking towards the door when several villagers brought Thomas in on a bamboo stretcher. The old man followed behind them. He waved me over to a corner of the room. From the folds of his gown, he pulled out a six inch dagger. The hilt was some sort of stone that had been carved to look like skeletal hands reaching desperately out of a grave. The man spoke in unsettlingly unaccented English. He could have been raised in Detroit.

“You were not supposed to find this place. We live apart from your society for a reason. The other belligerents will have tracked your helicopter here. You will help us defend ourselves. In return, we will save this man. If you refuse to help us, we will let him die and you,” he gestured to me with his dagger, “will follow him into the afterlife.”

I had no choice. I was sure I would die in that piece of shit jungle one way or another, so I chose the avenue that offered at least a slim chance of escape. I agreed.

“Good. You will find nourishment and a place to rest if you follow the man by the exit,” the old man said, gesturing to the farmer who had found me by the chopper. “Your comrade needs my help immediately, so I cannot speak long. It will take a few hours. I must warn you, however, that he will not be the man he was before he came to this village. That man may appear often at first, but he will become lost as days pass. It is imperative that you help him complete his affairs while he can and then give him a graceful and dignified exit from this life. Do I have your word?”

“Yes,” I said. Bullshit. If Thomas lived, he lived. I would see that he got out of ‘Nam with a Purple Heart and into one of Tokyo’s finest pink saloons. Without a word, the old man turned away from me and began tending to Thomas. I walked to the door where my guide waited. I was shown to a small hut with a table overflowing with rice and fish. The bed in the corner, though it was simple a woven grass mat, looked almost more inviting than the food. I ate until I couldn’t and then fell asleep.

I awoke to find Thomas and the old man staring down at me. I smiled to see Thomas awake before I realized he shouldn’t yet be able to sit up, much less stand. He was shirtless, but still wore his bloodstained fatigue trousers. In his chest, where the chopper blade had been, was nothing. Just perfect skin. Not even a scar.

“Jesus, how long was I out?” I asked Thomas.

“One hour. We need to hurry. A scout from the village just arrived with word that the Viet Cong are on their way. We should expect them in one half of an hour. I will call the fighting-aged men of the village to ranks while you bring anything useful from the helicopter. We will reconvene in the center of the village to discuss tactics in ten minutes.” With that, Thomas walked out of the hut. I turned my gaze to the old man.

“What the fuck is going on? I saw his wound, it was bad! And why is he talking like that? Like you? What did you do to him?”

“This was our agreement; we would save his life if you both defended our village. I will tell you more, but it will have to wait until this storm passes. I will aid you in transporting your weapons.”

The old man and I brought back two cases of anti-personnel mines, four M16s, and six side arms. I made talking tactics with Thomas an even shorter conversation than the situation demanded because something about him made me uneasy. He looked different, stood different, his eyes were different somehow. Most startling, he left no question that he was in charge of the village defense. In every other battle we had been in, he was a brave and capable fighter but waited to take orders from absolutely anyone else. He didn’t seem to trust his instincts and habitually second guessed himself. On that day, though, he could have been Julius fucking Caesar. Even though I outranked him, I obeyed his orders without a second thought.

We buried toe popper mines in a 120 degree arc in the direction of Charlie’s approach, then hid claymore mines at the edge of the village. Villagers who were not as adept to fight as others were given the duty of detonating the claymores when enough VC were in the blast radius. I loaded my M16 and took a position behind a small hill. Three other villagers who had fired rifles before were given the remaining M16s and took positions around the village. The pistols were passed out in a similar way. Instead of his battle rifle, Thomas chose to use one of the large-caliber side arms I had taken from the chopper pilots and a sharp, ceremonial sword he found in the building we had been brought to after our crash.

Thomas’s plan worked well; the mines took out a significant chunk of Charlie’s forces and made the rest cautious and slow. The villagers landed a good percentage of their shots. As one of the best marksmen in my unit, I landed almost all of mine as well. All of those points were completely overshadowed by Thomas, though. I couldn’t find him at the beginning of the battle and wondered if his wounds had taken a toll on him. He had been waiting for the enemy to close in. I was taking aim at one of the VC who was carrying a particularly large machine gun, firing devastating rounds into the villagers, when Thomas appeared from the doorway of a nearby hut and plunged his sword deep into the soldier’s chest. The pistol in his left hand jerked and took down another. Before the soldier had even fallen to the ground, Thomas had sliced his sword deep into a third man’s leg and was running for cover. The battle progressed this way, with Thomas bursting from hiding spots like a hungry leopard, taking out a handful of VC in under a minute, and disappearing into the shadows. He seemed to have his entire attack pre-planned as soon as he emerged, like he had predicted the way the soldiers would move and struck with maximum efficiency. It was effective, but it was scary. The battle lasted no more than twenty minutes. The VC were wiped out to the last man.

Thomas was standing in the middle of the battlefield, boots drenched in gore, just staring at the sword in his hand. From a hut 100 yards away, I could see the old man watching him with hard eyes. The village was safe, but my blood was still up and I had too many unanswered questions. I sped towards the old man, who hadn’t noticed my approach because he was too busy studying Thomas, and turned him bodily to face me. He seemed surprised. It was the first time I had seen any sort of emotion on his face.

“Alright. Now we have time. Tell me how you turned a man who was hours from death into a sword-wielding killing machine.”

After a long pause, the old man spoke. “We practice len dong here. When I say that, I do not mean we partake in the ritualistic len dong that is part of many religions in this region. Those are religions; all religions are based on faith. Our len dong is based on truths, results, and replicability. When we call upon the spirits, they listen. We called upon-“

“I’m sorry. You’re going to have to explain this to me a little better. What in the great motherfuck is len dong?” I interrupted.

“Practitioners of len dong – the true len dong that we do here – are able to move their consciousness to the spirit realm. They are able to ask the spirits for guidance and, in some cases, offer to share their own or others’ earthly bodies with the spirits in exchange for assistance. Le Loi is a warrior king who operated in this region long ago. His spirit is tightly bound here. We called upon him to heal your friend’s wounds and assist us in fighting off the Viet Cong. The sword in his hand,” the old man gestured to Thomas, “is the Sword of Heaven’s Will, a blade that Le Loi used to free Vietnam from the Chinese. As a young man, my grandfather found it in a lake to the north.”

The old man had finished his explanation and seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I had nothing to say. Thomas’s wounds were completely erased, which was somewhat of a miracle, but spirit realms? It was too far-fetched. I shook my head. The old man took that as his cue to speak again.

“You must remember what I said when you first came here. Your friend has been given only a temporary reprieve from death. He belongs to the spirit realm. Unlike most spirits, who are only too happy to leave an offered body once their task is done, Le Loi’s warrior nature does not allow him to yield. He will not return your friend to you. Le Loi is not able to maintain dominance in this new body for long, but his power will grow with time. Eventually, your friend will be a prisoner. It is better to free him to the spirit realm. Let him contact his family and exchange loving words. Then, return him to the dirt.”

Again, I said nothing.

“If you do not, we will all be in danger.” With that, the old man walked away to tend to his wounded.

Thomas found me as I was cleaning dirt from my arms and face in a small bamboo trough. He spoke to me in a quiet, worried voice.

“Haskel, what’s going on?”

I just grunted my reply. I was still mulling over what the old man had told me, telling myself he was full of shit.

“How did we get out of the chopper? I thought we were dead! And…everything up to now is just a blur. It felt like I wasn’t me. Like I wasn’t in control.”

“Adrenaline, man. Bloodlust. Happens to everybody now and then,” I said, not making eye contact.

“I thought I got hurt.” He touched his chest. “I know I was in pain before we crashed.”

“We need to get our shit together and get the fuck out of here, man. We need to get back to base. Charlie might be back and I don’t think we can hold off another wave like that.” I just wanted to stop talking.

Thomas did seem like Thomas again, though. That was comforting.

It was a three hour hike back to base, but we made it with no trouble. Command let us rest and sleep through the night before we had to start being interviewed and filing official reports. Once Thomas and I had pinpointed the crash site, a detachment flew out to bring back the bodies and destroy the Huey. Thomas and I were sent to Tokyo for three weeks of R and R. I met up with Bastille in the first week and we tried to take Thomas out to enjoy the seedier side of night life in Tokyo, but he had turned in on himself and only spoke in one word sentences. A few days later, he demanded that he be allowed to return to ‘Nam. I was happy to get the fuck out of there for as long as the brass would allow.

When I got back, the morale in the unit had dropped significantly. The barracks was quiet and, though clean, stank of stale sweat. I asked around and learned that Thomas had convinced our new sergeant that Charlie had a mole in the small village we defended. The new sergeant was fresh out of Officer Training School and let Thomas run the op as a provisional commander since he knew the area. Things went south somehow; maybe a nervous greenhorn put too much force on his trigger and accidentally shot a villager he was covering, maybe one of the villagers was on edge and attacked.

Maybe someone purposely fired a stray shot to unleash war.

Whatever the case, it was a massacre. Once the killing started, Thomas never ordered it to stop. He let the entire village burn under his command. Anyone trying to flee the fires was gunned down. In less than an hour, the entire village was wiped from the map. It was terrible to hear, but even more terrible to see each man in the barracks sitting mute, staring at the floor, haunted by the carnage. Hearing the screams of the villagers as they cut them down. Seeing patches of their bodies explode into pink mist.

I couldn’t sleep that night and snuck out of the barracks to burn through a pack of cigarettes. Thomas snuck out a short time later. His eyes were swollen and red, his nose dripping slightly.

“I let that village die. I ordered it. My first order ever and it was to kill those farmers. I knew it was wrong, but… It felt like a dream. I woke up the next day and thought it was a dream until I heard some of the others talking about it. I haven’t felt right since we crashed. What’s happening to me?”

I couldn’t make myself look at him. I wasn’t sure if I would throw up or shoot him if I did, but I thought it was best not to find out. I lit another cigarette and offered him the pack. We smoked for a while before he tossed his butt away and went back in the barracks. I stayed out for another hour, smoking. My throat ached by the time I went back inside.

That was the last time Thomas spoke to me. The last time he seemed like the Thomas I knew. I began to think the old man in the village – the one who had been killed under Thomas’s orders – wasn’t feeding me a crock of shit after all. Thomas began moving up in rank, reaching the highest level an NCO could achieve. Along the way, he seemed to gain followers in our unit. Some of them were new draftees, others were soldiers who had been wounded in battle. He would spend time alone with them and then they were following him around like he was Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas transferred to officer school in time. He returned to our unit after graduation, but my tour ended in the meantime. Thank God. I thought I would never have to see that son of a bitch again.

Like I said, though, this only started in ‘Nam. I didn’t have anyone to go back to after the war; my parents died while I was away, I was an only child, and I had no girlfriend. I got off the first plane that landed in the States and stayed there; I ended up a grease monkey in a shitty little town west of Honolulu called Makakilo. Eventually I had enough experience under my belt and cash in hand to open a garage in Honolulu. I sold it a couple years ago when I learned I had lung cancer.

Now I spend most of my time at the VA hospital coughing up phlegm and trying not to get caught looking at my nurse’s tits. Thomas came to visit me last week. Or rather, Le Loi did.

He had aged but, unlike me, he had aged well. The formerly skinny frame was filled out with muscle. Oddly, Thomas’s vaguely Jewish features had begun to look more east Asian. I wondered if that was a common artefact of aging in his family or if it was due to Le Loi’s presence.

“Is Thomas still in there?” I asked after a long silence.

“He is. But before you ask, I can’t let you speak to him. I’ve worked too long to have you upset any of my plans.” Le Loi sounded less like he had a giant stick up his ass than he used to; I supposed he picked up some rules on colloquial speech in the last forty years.

“Then why are you here?”

“You’re dying. From what I see on your chart,” he jerked his head in the direction of the computer terminal near the door to my room, “you might live another month. How soon will they move you to hospice?”

“So you just came here to gloat about being the last one to survive that chopper crash. Get out.”

“No. I came here to offer you life. After that crash, Thomas was a dead man walking. Modern medicine couldn’t repair the hemorrhaging and loss of blood, let alone battlefield medicine from four decades ago. But I did. At great cost to me, I repaired this body and gave Thomas the chance medicine couldn’t.

“He isn’t the only one. Some of the men in our unit would come back wounded and I would tell them about how I was healed with len dong. Usually their conditions weren’t as dire as mine – as Thomas’s – but perhaps they had an injury that would leave them mangled. I gave them the option to be whole, to return to their loved ones looking like the man who left.”

I scoffed. This guy was just as full of bullshit as he always was.

“That’s just it, ass hole, they look like the man who left. But they’re not. They’re one of you from your fucking spirit realm or whatever.”

“Yes,” Le Loi said, smiling, “through len dong, I imbued the wounded and scared men in our unit with the essences of my generals and most trusted warriors. I never found a suitable host for my closest advisor, Le Sat, however. Your strength, both of body and will, suits his character. If you allow me to perform len dong, you will not die and you will rise to positions of power you have never dreamed.”

“Fuck off.”

“Alright, Haskel. I’ll leave you with a number where you can reach me if you change your mind.”

I had no intention of calling Le Loi and taking him up on his offer. I threw the card into the trash as soon as he walked out the door. I woke up coughing a little after 2 AM, my lungs burning like I had taken a hit off a joint laced with napalm. When the coughing finally subsided, I noticed that my hand, chin, and bedspread were all covered in blood. I still felt like I had been kicked in the chest when morning came. The pain and body racking cough got worse the next day. As I lay in bed with no visitors to break the monotony, I contemplated living the next month with increasing pain until I died an undignified death. I pulled Le Loi’s card out of the trash.

Last night, I finally agreed to allow Le Loi to perform len dong and join myself with Le Sat. Apparently, only the practitioner of len dong travels to the spirit realm, because I was lying awake on my hospital bed the entire time. Sharing a body with a ghost from the spirit realm is not an experience of melding as Le Loi wanted me to believe. It was more like Thomas described after the battle against Charlie in the Vietnamese village; a strange, brightly colored dream. I knew I wouldn’t be in full control of anything, but I thought I would at least be able to converse with Le Sat. Instead, I could see, hear, smell, taste, and feel from a great distance, but could exert no control over my movements. I wouldn’t have known another entity was controlling me if I hadn’t spoken to Le Loi. Right now is one of Le Sat’s down times. I have no doubt that he knows what I’m writing, so it’s important I get it out to as many people as possible before he finds a way to cover it up.

Le Loi’s plan is not just to live in a concrete body and experience earthly indulgences. Like the old man said, he is power hungry and pining over his lost empire for the last six centuries has driven him insane. He has risen through the ranks of the US Military and is one step away from the desk of Joint Chief of Staff. He has placed his followers in other branches of the armed services and intelligence agencies and has cultivated close relationships with powerful people he cannot replace. He is working toward the destabilization of the global economy and fomenting unrest among the American populace. Le Loi and his followers will side with the rebelling citizenry against the government, protecting them and fighting for their freedom as he once did for the Vietnamese against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. This country alone is not enough for Le Loi, though. His grand vision is to begin a Third Le Dynasty that spans the globe. Le Loi has never been one to act timidly; the death toll in his bid for power in the United States will be high. I’m sure this fucker will exceed the figures of the Civil War by a factor of three. At least. When he shifts his grasp to encompass the world, we will run out of places to bury our dead.

Soon Le Sat will be too powerful for me to have any moments of reprieve. I’ll be trapped inside my own body, watching Le Loi lay waste to everything he touches. Someone has to stop him.

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