The Last Soldierby Gary C. Ley
July 27, 1993
The jungle heat was oppressive as the temperature soared to over 100 degrees. The heat and humidity were so intense, the noise of the jungle was dulled to a whisper. Even the insects, seemingly immune to such heat, had slowed their activity. L/Cpl Smith lay in the oppressive heat just off the Ho Chi Minh trail, waiting. The bugs crawled over his body, but he did not move, the enemy was nearby. He could not seem to remember how long he had been waiting. Where are the others, he thought to himself? Where is the rest of my team? But there were no others, he was alone - all alone.
L/Cpl Smith's mind began to wander back to now distant memories, dim memories of home. He remembered the new 65' Ford Mustang convertible he left behind. He remembered the first time he got behind the wheel with his girl beside him, what a day that had been.
It had been a perfect California summer day. He had just graduated from high school and his father had given him the Mustang for graduation. Soon he would be leaving for college and a new world of experiences, but for the moment there was nothing more than the Mustang and his girl. Life was good he thought as he cruised down the Pacific coast highway.
The world lay before him in all its splendor, his for the asking. He could not believe his good fortune. Here he was an American citizen, a citizen of the greatest country in the world, with the greatest girl in the world beside him. He looked over and saw Janet's long blond hair blowing in the wind. The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind. The tune ran fleetingly through his brain, prompting him to reach over and turn on the radio. Wolfman Jack was doing his regular program, the Wolfman ended his public service announcement and played the Beatles "Yes It Is".
God she is the most beautiful women on this earth he thought that day. What would he do when he left for college, how could he leave this woman behind to spend four years at engineering school? The thought had barely passed when a road sign came into view - Moonlight Beach. The sun was beginning to set the Pacific ocean on fire as he turned off the road onto the beach area. Their friends were all there, Big Buddy Johnson, Jim Eastwing, Tom Lawson, Bill Geeson. Their surf boards were stuck upright behind them in the sand, as they sat around a fire joking with each other and drinking beer with their girls beside them.
The girls - Linda, Jeannie, Mary, and Tina, what a place for a young man to live he thought as he drew up to a stop in a cloud of sandy dust. He turned off the Mustang's engine and the two young lovers jumped out of the car and began to playfully tag each other as they ran towards the others sitting on the beach.
The picture dissolved abruptly as L/Cpl Smith once again became aware that there was no sign of the others. The others? Where were they? Where were who? What was he doing here, what was he waiting for? How did he get in this jungle anyway? He was confused for a moment, must be the heat he thought. Again his mind drifted back and he began to remember, it had started with the draft notice. The government letter had arrived quite unexpectedly a few days after he and Janet had driven to the beach.
A few of his other high school classmates had received draft notices in the past, but no one had given it much thought as those classmates disappeared to heaven knows where. Anyway, they would be back, after they had served their enlistment. There was talk of a war in India or China or someplace. But in 1965 that war was small and far away.
Indochina thought L/Cpl Smith ruefully, as he now knew the name of that place all too well. He had never been one to do things halfway. After he received his draft notice he decided he would join the Marines, yes he would be one of the best. There would be no Army enlistment for him, no halfsteppin' as the Marines would say. Yessir, he would go all the way.
Funny he thought, it never occurred to him to run. After all no one else had, and if you had, no one would ever speak to such a coward again. So they had all done their duty and went off to war. There would be plenty of running anyway - after you enlisted. And running was what he did all through boot camp and now in Vietnam, L/Cpl Smith ran and ran and ran. He always seemed to be running. He had run all through his recon training. Recon training, he could still feel the pain in his chest when he thought about the jump wings that had been "pinned" there - without the benefit of the small brass clasps. How had he ever wound up in this god forsaken place he thought again. Suddenly he could hear noises - the enemy. L/Cpl Smith lay perfectly still .
The Congressman and his Vietnamese guides passed close by L/Cpl Smith without ever detecting him. One of the guides translated the rapid fire Vietnamese being spoken by a small, hard, and wizened ex-NVA colonel. "The colonel says you can see for yourself there is no one here and we have taken you to all the other locations where American soldiers might be."
The congressman stopped to wipe the sweat from his fat, over fed, face with a handkerchief held in his pudgy, well manicured, hand festooned with gold rings. As he surveyed the dense jungle surrounding him the congressman agreed, "I suppose the colonel is right, there isn't any sign of Americans left in Vietnam." He had barely finished the sentence when the congressman suddenly spun around to face his guides.
"What? What did you say?" The congressman said with slight alarm in his voice. The guides looked at the congressman quizzically. "Did you say something?" The congressman had now assumed the demanding tone of voice he felt gave him an authoritative bearing.
Again the guides gave the fat American a puzzled look. One of them finally spoke "we said nothing." "Oh" mumbled the congressman, "I thought I heard someone whisper never again, just what the hell does that mean, never again?' The Vietnamese made no effort to reply but thought to themselves, "the heat must be affecting him".
"Well hell" said the congressman, " I have a plane to make at 6:00". I gotta get back to my constituents and tell them we have given the area a thorough search. By god, I guess we can finally wrap this thing up now." The rotund frame of the congressman crashed off through the foliage with the small party of Vietnamese following him down the dusty trail, until they appeared to melt into the jungle's intense heat.
The enemy had finally left. Now L/Cpl Smith could finally rest in peace in the small corner of hell where he dove for cover twenty eight years before, the single bamboo stake still piercing his chest, just below his jump wings.
When you stay in a place long enough you lose your identity to that place. A new identity gradually takes the place of the old one, slowly dissolving the old identity until there is no longer any trace of it. The old memories fade, language and beliefs change until the people you once knew wouldn't recognize you. In fact, you probably wouldn't even recognize yourself. No, there are no Americans left in Vietnam. Only their ghosts.