Confession Of A Soldier
Elvis Bray (elvisbrayauthor.com)
Based on a true story.
Abraham Lincoln gazed down from his marble monument at the old couple walking silently past without speaking. A misty fog hovered just above the Reflecting Pool. The morning crowd hadn't arrived yet and they were the first visitors.
They paused for a moment at the Korean Memorial. Through the mist, the gray ash soldiers frozen in time, looked lifelike. The old man's wife thought perhaps her husband might change his mind this time and wouldn't continue. But, he moved on and she followed.
The old man paused again when The Vietnam Wall came into view. Reluctantly, he approached the black granite with a heavy heart. His wife stood at a respectful distance. This was to be a private meeting.
The old man removed his Blackhawk cap and held it close to his chest. He reached out to touch the wall, but couldn't. His hand hovered an inch away by some unknown force like two opposing magnets pushing each other away. He wasn't surprised. It's always been this way. He knelt down, bowed his head and said a silent prayer.
After he stood up, his wife stepped forward to escort him home. This time the old man didn't turn away. Putting his cap back on, he raised his head to the heavens with tears in his eyes, and began speaking: "You remember me. I'm Sam. I've been here before on several occasions. I hope you can hear me.
I'm sorry I don't know your name but it's written somewhere on this wall. I don't know where you were born or raised or if you had a family. Perhaps you had brothers and sisters or a wife. Maybe you were a father. I'm not sure.
But you were a good man and you shouldn't be here. I'm sorry I killed you.”
The old man paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "My burden is heavy. I've prayed for you many times and asked for forgiveness. But I've never felt forgiven. Perhaps if I explain the circumstances of your death, you will."
The old soldier stood in silence for a moment, took another deep breath and continued: "I'm not sure where to start. It's been so many years and I tried to block it out of my memory. That's proven impossible. I think about you all the time. I believe it is impossible for a man to get over something like that. I just have to learn how to live with it. That’s why I’m here."
He glanced back and forth at the wall as his memory drifted back in time. Then he began speaking in a loud and clear voice: "It was 1969, a long time ago. I'm not sure of the exact date but I think perhaps March or April. My memory isn't very good anymore. It was a clear day with no clouds. I do remember that.
"My unit, the 7th Squadron 1st Air Calvary flying out of Vinh Long, were operating deep in the Delta of South Vietnam when we received the call for help. You and I had never personally met, but you knew who we were because we'd assisted you on other encounters with the enemy.
"You didn't make the frantic call for help that day. I don't know who did. I thought he was an Army Officer while talking to him over the radio. Perhaps he wasn’t. During the inquiry, I overheard someone say something about a civilian, possible CIA. I don't know his name either, but I'm sure you know who he is. I hope you have forgiven him. His burden must be as heavy-if not heavier-than mine. I pray he's all right.
"When I arrived on the scene, the battle was already in progress. The man on the radio said he and his men were pinned down by enemy fire coming from a line of trees on the other side of a rice patty. He asked me to put some rockets into the tree line. I thought I knew which tree line he was talking about, but something inside me told me to hold my fire. I asked him to mark his position and direct me in from there. He popped smoke and I confirmed his smoke was green. He said the tree line was to the east across the rice patty from the smoke. I knew exactly where he wanted those rockets. But a voice inside me kept saying, 'Don't do it.' I now believe God was talking to me but I'm not sure.
"I radioed I would put a marker rocket into the rice patty to confirm I was at the correct spot. I could tell by his voice he was annoyed and getting impatient. My marker rocket fell harmlessly in the center of the rice patty. The man confirmed this was the correct spot and instructed me to put rockets in the tree line on the other side of the patty. Again a little voice inside of me told me something wasn't right. I asked him if all his men were accounted for. He assured me all of his men were with him.
"As I lined my Cobra up for the dive, I saw men running in the tree line and thick under brush. I fired two pairs of rockets. A moment later a frantic voice came over my radio, 'Cease fire! Cease fire! Those are our men down there!'
"I pulled out of the dive and climbed to altitude. I prayed, 'God please don't let this be true.' The radio came alive with many voices. It was very confusing. My mind raced. I didn't know what happened. My Commander came over radio telling the slick helicopters to respond to pick up the casualties. I knew my biggest nightmare had come true. I had wounded or killed some of our own soldiers.
"The radio traffic slowed to a halt and there was nothing but the sound of my helicopter. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to go back to base. But I knew I couldn't. I had to protect the helicopters as they picked up the injured, my wounded. I had to be mentally prepared to put more rockets into the same general area if our helicopters came under fire.
"I stayed high above the battle zone as they picked up the casualties. As soon as they were airborne, my Commander's voice came over the radio ordering me to return to base.
"When I landed at Vinh Long, there were several officers and MP's waiting for me. As soon as I shut the Cobra down and exited, they separated my co-pilot and me. We were not allowed to speak to each other or anyone else.
They took us to different locations. They put me in a room by myself for a long time. My mind was still in a state of confusion. I was sickened because of what had occurred. I didn't know if anyone had been killed or not, or if I had killed them. But I was almost certain I had.
"A little while later a Colonel came into the room and introduced himself. He placed a tape recorder on the table and pushed the record button. He said his name, the date and time and told me he was interviewing me in a formal investigation of the death of an American soldier. He read off some numbers I believe were the case numbers. He advised me that an official investigation into today's incident was being conducted. Then he advised me of my rights and asked if I wanted a lawyer.
"This scared the Hell of out of me. I thought I might be going to prison. I asked him how many people were killed. He said one American Captain died. I felt absolutely devastated. I can't remember if he told me if anyone else was wounded or not. For the life of me, I can't remember that Colonel's name.
I said I didn't want a lawyer and would answer his questions. If I screwed up, I wanted to face the consequences. After he completed the interview, he handed me some paper and a pen and told me to write everything for the official report. When I finished, he told me to sign the paper and he left.
"Apparently there was no recording of the radio traffic at the battle zone. Everyone in the air and on the ground during the battle needed to be interviewed. Of course I didn't know what they were saying.
"They kept me isolated for several days while the inquiry was being conducted. They never arrested me but restricted me to my room, the latrine, the showers, and the Mess Hall. The Colonel ordered me not to speak to anyone about the incident. It was a lonely time for me.
I went over the battle again and again in my head to make sure everything I'd told them was the truth and I hadn't left anything out. Sleep was almost impossible and when it came, nightmares haunted me. I kept reliving the battle over and over in my dreams. I wondered what my future held for me. I kept dreaming I was on a plane headed back to the states to be court-martialed. It was a time of uncertainties and isolation.
"A few days passed before the Colonel returned. He told me they had completed the investigation and I had been exonerated of any wrongdoing. He said I placed my rockets right where I had been instructed to and took more precautions than most pilots would have. He said the death of the soldier was deemed an accident. The Colonel shook my hand and told me he appreciated my cooperation and honesty during the investigation. He asked if I had any questions for him. I asked him why I was told to fire on our own troops. He said the man who told me to fire the rockets didn't know some of his soldiers left to pursue the enemy.
"What happened to him?" I asked. "The Colonel didn't answer at first. He closed his briefcase and walked to the door, then turned to face me. 'As I said, it was an accident, a very tragic accident."
"I couldn't think of anything to say. It was over, but it wasn't. How could it be? An innocent man died at my hands. I kept wondering what happened and how it happened. The Colonel had all the details but he wasn't going to share them with me. He asked if I wanted to know the name of the man I killed. I asked him not to tell me. I didn't want to know. He left and closed the door behind him. Now I wish I knew your name. Restrictions were lifted and I returned to duty.
"After the war, I came home and tried to live my life as honorable as possible. I became a loving and faithful husband to my wife, a good father to my kids and a good grandfather to my grandchildren. It was important that I lived a respectful life so you would understand I am not a bad person."
The old man took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and blew his nose. After putting the handkerchief back, he reached up and gently placed his hands on The Wall. "Please forgive me."
After a few moments, he felt his wife's hand on his shoulder. "It's time to go home, dear." As he turned to leave, the old man noticed other visitors had come to pay their respect. They had kept their distances, silently listening to him speak, waiting for his private vigil to end. Tears filled everyone's eyes except his wife. She smiled believing perhaps now her husband could find the peace he'd sought for so long.