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The Grateful Ghosts of Soldiers

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Going Back to Vietnam, by Capt. Bill Pike, Photography by Jim Raycroft (continued)

The cornfield on the Song Thu Bon.

The Grateful Ghosts of Soldiers

A few weeks before departing for Vietnam, I’d gotten antsy. In fact, several times I’d actually hoped I’d either get sick or some emergency would obtrude so I wouldn’t have to go. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, I’d told myself. Why go back and disturb old, disturbing memories? Eventually, however, thanks to the furor that accompanied our actual departure, the anxiety had eased off. But now on the Song Thu Bon, probably because we were entering an area like the ones I used to patrol as a young man, carrying medical paraphernalia as well as machine-gun ammo and hand grenades, the darn stuff was coming back.

“I need a favor,” said Stilwagen, as we approached a bend. We were now well upriver, it was almost noon, and Raycroft, Phuoc, and I were eating a stopgap lunch of French bread, cold Vietnamese hot dogs, Laughing Cow cheese, and Coca-Cola. “The place where I got myself shot—it’s up here on the portside. Can we stop there for a few?”

Beaching our sampan on what the U.S military used to call “Chestnut Island” went smoothly. Our skipper merely angled in toward the bank at a spot that synergized with the appropriate coordinates, obtained by Stilwagen through a prior search of his military records, and put to use via a nifty little Garmin GPS handheld. We all debarked, slipping and sliding in the mud. After climbing a steep rise and proceeding rather circuitously to the edge of a cornfield, we stopped.

“This is it,” said Stilwagen.

A somber, reverential stillness settled down as he began, with the group’s permission, telling us the story of what very precisely had happened to him on the morning of May 4th, 1970, when a communications glitch caused his helicopter to land, not amongst Republic of South Korean allied soldiers who were expecting to be rescued, but in deep elephant grass amongst a contingent of heavily armed Viet Cong guerrillas.

The story was disturbing at first. As a faint breeze wafted off toward the river, gently rustling the dried leaves on the cornstalks, the juxtaposition of the peacefulness of the place with its horrifically violent past engendered feelings of deep sadness and irony, at least in me. And then something else seemed to come. From somewhere. Offering calm reassurance, considerably diminishing the anxiety I’d been feeling all morning. Afterwards, back onboard, I asked Stilwagen about it.

“I feel it myself sometimes,” he replied, “It’s a kind of gratitude, I believe. The spirits are saying to us, ‘Thanks for remembering.’”

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