Before I Die
I lay flat on my stomach, looking through the scope of the rifle. The weapon sits firmly atop stacked sand bags. I surveil the area within proximity of my position with great precision. The thick tree branches and tall grass provide an excellent coat of camouflage that blends well with my dark green outfit. Basically, I am invisible to anyone who looks in my general direction.
The unusual elements of the scorching hot Cambodian jungle is unforgivingly harsh. Mother nature shows no mercy towards me as she unleashes the sun’s sizzling rays upon the land. My uniform feels as if it weighs a hundred pounds due to the excessive amount of sweat buildup that absorbed itself into the fabrics. Giant mosquitos have a war of their own to fight and I am their main target. One large wave of pests after another continuously attacks my body like a swarm of B-52’s cutting through the air.
My task is to provide surveillance and be alert of any suspicious activity that develops in the village of Song Doh below. For weeks there had been ongoing chatter amongst our officers that the villagers of Song Doh were in great peril. The threat of Vietcong attacks is high, as the village sits directly in the line of fire between us and the enemy. Shortly before the mission began, Lieutenant Leonard, my commanding officer and handler, briefed me on the ordeal. A garrison of South Vietnam and United States soldiers were to arrive and provide support if a deadly situation beyond my level of control were to arise in the village. They needed boots on the ground to watch for these impending attacks and have somebody there to forward the first-hand intel as soon as possible. I was chosen for this crucial assignment for a specific reason. They need the best for an operation like this, and I, John Elmer, an expert marksman am their man. I am the best shot around. My comrades didn’t dub me The Rifle King for my cooking skills, thats for sure. While in training, word got around of my specific skill-set. Before I knew it, I found myself in special forces. Time flies when you’re focused on a war. Two years. Two long, gruelling years have passed since I first arrived in Vietnam. The idea of home now sounds like a complex word of an unfamiliar language to me.
The hilltop overlooking Song Doh has a significant incline to it which gives me an excellent vantage point. I can see for miles beyond the canopy of the jungle as well as every square inch of the village. Nothing can escape my eye from this position. My rifle rests vertically on it’s stand, covered in a shroud of leaves and branches. The barrel of the gun peaks through a small opening in the wall covering me. I lightly tap my finger on the trigger, anxiously waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly, a suspicious man down below catches my attention as he paces back and forth in front of a fish stand in the marketplace. His head is covered in a brown hood. I notice him reaching into his pocket. Out comes a tiny piece of destruction…. a grenade. No doubt this man is an enemy Vietcong soldier. I quickly aim the sight of my rifle to his body. With a quick inhalation of humid jungle air and a breathless pause, I pull the trigger. The bullet discharges with powerful force, slicing through the thick air like butter. A fountain of blood explodes through the back of his skull as the bullet penetrates his flesh. Civilians of Song Doh begin to disperse in an uproar of panic from the sound of the guns echoing boom. The Vietcong soldier now lays flat on his back in the middle of the road…lifeless…in a pool of blood.
Many Vietcong soldiers begin to exit the bushes and swarm the village. They all appear out of nowhere and in great numbers. I realize the severity of the situation, so I immediately reposition the scope of the rifle and line up to enemy targets that are flooding the area. One Vietcong soldier opens fire on fleeing civilians. His comrades follow his lead by throwing molotov cocktails at houses, causing a fiery blaze in the streets. More and more Vietcong soldiers keep on appearing from the trees and start rounding up and violently beating down villagers. There must be as many as twenty civilians lying dead in the streets already. They were shot like dogs. Massacred like cattle. Hung like traitors. It is an atrocious sight. I can feel the sickening agony of horror stab through the flesh of my soul. Large amounts of blood puddles in the grass and screams of suffering humans echo throughout the jungle. There is no time to waste as innocent people are dying before my very eyes. I was sworn to protect this village at all costs. As every vital second passes by, the mission endures bitter tastes of colossal failure. I must do what I can.
I turned on the radio to contact my commanding officer stationed at our base not too far away from my position. The radio begins to ring a signal through the cable……no answer comes back. I pass on my coordinates and explain the deadly situation unfolding…… again, no response.
Ten minutes pass before I finally hear a muffled voice come through the radio. It is Lieutenant Leonard.
“Reinforcements en route to your position,” he said.
I reply back to acknowledge my understanding of his orders and quickly refocus my attention to the chaos erupting in front of me. I aim at another target. With a click of the trigger, another throbbing blast rings out of the barrel of the rifle. The bullet pierces through two Vietcong soldiers standing beside each other. Ironically, before I went through training, the thought of taking another mans life chilled me to the bone. I never thought I’d actually be capable of such violence. This wasn’t like playing with toy guns against my brother in the backyard. This was much bigger. Now years later, I am living through the real thing. Its funny how life works sometimes. My imagination becoming my reality; but like all human beings, every person has their breaking point. Once you manage to bust through the shield that protects your mind, virtually anything becomes doable. Maintaining sanity through intense, difficult times like this can be an incredible challenge. I hope to never reach that level of forgone madness. A certain side must be released in time of war. A ruthless side. The problem is, that newfound dark side can consume a man very easily. It can happen at any given time. Ive heard too many dark stories from my comrades. Only your body knows when enough is enough. The mind can only take so much. One by one, I pick off attackers causing havoc in the central area of the village. Body after body falls to the ground. Flames from the fire consume the houses like an unstoppable force. I scramble mightily to defend the villagers with all the power I possess.
I spot another small garrison of Vietcong forces enter the area from the north side. Soldiers charge up the steep hill towards me. It is clear and alarmingly so that my position is about to be compromised. I try to bury myself in leaves and branches to avoid being in sight of the enemy…
A faint noise comes from directly behind me. I turn my head quickly to investigate, when all of a sudden, a burning sensation envelops the upper right side of my body. I look over to see a hole in my right shoulder. A shock of agonizing pain takes ahold of every nerve inside my body. I have been shot. A great deal of blood spills out of the gapping wound. I slowly lift my head up to see Vietcong forces gathering around me with their guns pointed. They all shriek like seagulls. A year of duty in Vietnam helped me develop an ear for a few words and phrases in Vietnamese language. Clearly the soldiers were demanding that I surrender. This is not the time to be a reckless hero. I simply let go of my rifle, put my hands on the back of my head and planted my face to the ground in a helpless fashion. One of the soldiers comes up to me and rests the barrel-end of his gun against my ear. He orders me to get up…
…“Thuc day!”…“Thuc day!”…“Thuc day!”…
…“Thuc day!” …”Thuc day!”…“Thuc day!”…
A Vietcong guard loudly enters the cell, screeching like a siren. He slaps me hard on the head with a wooden stick. My eyes shoot open. Yet again I have had another nightmare about Song Doh. It all happened nearly two weeks ago now. Since arriving at this hellhole camp, every single night consists of the same recurring nightmare that has plagued my mind since the day of the massacre. The mental and physical agony this place has put me through is starting to get to me. Nearly all of the fifteen prisoners that I originally arrived here with are now either dead or missing. It is down to me and this Vietnamese prisoner I share a cell with. The cell has two straw beds. It is always damp inside due to the cracks and openings that allow the rain to seep into the wooden shelter. The cell itself is barely big enough to house two grown men. Since the Vietnamese man does not speak any English whatsoever, I can never really ask him anything important or have a heart-to-heart conversation. I know so little of his language that any attempt to initiate a useful, in-depth interaction is fruitless. People imprisoned in the barracks either await execution or endure around-the-clock torture sessions on a daily basis. I am lucky to have lasted this long; but honestly, I would have preferred execution the day I arrived. Waiting to die feels more painful than actually dying. My will to live withers down into a hopeless pit of nothingness as each gruelling day passes by. Every sleep I have always leads to a trip through the mental time machine. I relive the horrifying events that transpired at Song Doh. I constantly find myself waking up to jolts of shock and drenched, sweaty skin. The guilt I feel is unbearably strong. My sole responsibility was to protect those villagers; but I let them die and I got myself captured to boot. Their screams still haunt me at night. I can hear the agonizing moans of innocent women and children as they are mercilessly slaughtered. The potent, smoky smell of burning wooden huts set ablaze by hostile Vietcong adversaries stains the walls of my nostrils. I should have died with the villagers. A heavy burden feels cemented in my chest, like a massive weight dragging my body down to the depths of the ocean floor. I have scars overlapping other scars from countless beatings and torture here at the camp. My skin is starting to develop sores as a result of too much time spent in this wet, muddy shanty, where rats roam around on the floor, gnawing away at my flesh while I sleep. In spite of the routine traumatic episodes, the guards of the camp have yet to get what they want from me. Intel. They did however find out that I am special forces. Maybe thats why they haven’t killed me yet.
My mind has yet to shatter itself apart. Of everything the military has taught me, the most important skill I learned is to always be headstrong. To be able to endure extreme stress and counter the feelings of emotional compromise with that of strength and will. It is as if an invisible shroud wraps itself around the brain and shields it from external dangers. Like a butterfly, once it’s wings are damaged, the creature is doomed if these dangers expose weaknesses and enter ones brain. When horrors of reality overpower the mind, the shroud tears in half as the brain is consumed with pure insanity and darkness. The worst thing that can happen to a soldier is his mind deteriorates. My pride and sanity must be fully intact if I am to meet my demise at the hands of these savages. The guard pulls me out of my bed. He points to the doorway. With a forceful shove forward, I exit the cell and walk outside.
The gleaming sun blinds my sensitive eyes as the fresh outdoor elements ambush my frail body. I take a moment to inhale a dose of the cleansing, clear morning air. As I admire nature, I can feel a sense of soothing peace inject into my rotten body, which calms my edgy nerves for the time being; but the faithful moment is cut short, as the guard jolts the back of my head with the butt of his rifle. He ushers me southbound. We then begin on an epic trek through the camp, bound for an unknown destination. Thats how it is here. Nothing is ever known or foreseen until everything just randomly comes to an end one day. Only anticipation remains. Something feels different about this day, though. Maybe today is the day for that randomness to arrive. My luck could finally be running out.
The camp is stationed in the middle of the jungle with massive waves of towering palm trees surrounding the area. Large wooden towers occupy every corner of the camp where guards sit and watch the prisoners. The camp is fenced off with absolutely no sign of any loop-hole in which to escape. Only a fool would attempt to do so. As a result of an attempted evasion, rest assured one unlucky individual will be introduced to a wall of hundreds of trigger-happy guards, and an ocean of bullets. Along the way, I catch yet another glimpse of something my eyes have seen too much of already. All I can see is death and suffering.
My focus shifts to five blindfolded men kneeling down on the ground by the fence. They are all lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with their wrists tied together behind their backs. Judging by their pale white skin, I assume they are my kinsmen from America. I anxiously stare at each man, knowing exactly what is about to become of them. The five men shake profusely with fear. All of the sudden, an armed guard standing directly behind them opens fire on the first kneeling man with a single shot to the head. The guard progresses his way down the line. One by one, each blindfolded man collapses to the ground with holes in their heads and blood gushing out like a water fountain. To my horror, I see one of the five men lying on the ground, still moving and barely alive. The guard casually walks over to him and rather than put the poor soul out of his misery, he begins to kick the man to death. The guard kicked….and kicked….and kicked….and finally…..stomped. The man now lies as still as a statue. Soulless.
In some way or another, the reality of war always finds a way to sneak up and unleash its fury at the most unexpected and vulnerable of times. Executions happen everyday at the camp. Every time I witness one, the feeling in my body never changes. The barbaric things people can do to one another is beyond my comprehension. It effects me the same way it did the first time I saw someone die. Nothing changes. That feeling of hysterical sadness overwhelms my body constantly. As I walk by the corpses, I raise my hand up to my forehead to salute the disgraced heroes of my country.
I continue on through the camp with the guards rifle pressed against my back. I find it increasingly difficult to keep my balance with every step I take. I sense we are getting closer to our destination. The scary, nerve-racking feeling of unpredictability is setting in very quickly for me. I feel overwhelmed with anxiety. I have felt uneasy since the moment I woke up this morning. It is normal to be dragged out of your cell early in the morning or late at night for a routine interrogation and torture session in one of the main cabins stationed in the middle of camp. However, the guard appears to be taking me somewhere beyond the limits of the fence. A place I have never gone. Nothing like this has happened to me yet. I have absolutely no idea what to expect. If I was to be executed today, they would have done it back at the camp; but with where we are heading now, that option seems highly unlikely at this point. Maybe since I am special forces, I get special treatment. Definitely not special treatment as in beneficial for me. More like special treatment as in greater torture or harsher execution. I try to ask the guard where it is we are heading.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask.
“Cam mieng!” he screams.
The guard forcibly rams the butt-end of his rifle into my ribs. For the rest of the walk, there is nothing to be heard. Silence separates the guard and I. Only the sounds of our footsteps crunching the grass can be heard as we continue on to the mysterious unknown location.
We reach what appears to be our final waypoint after nearly twenty minutes of hiking through the jungle. The place we stand in front of is nothing more than a dark cave indented into the mountainside. The guard picks up a torch lying on the ground and lights it with a zippo lighter from his pocket. I notice a United States Marine Corps logo on his lighter. He must be a dirty scavenger. Such disrespect has never made me so angry. The guard walks forward and signals me to follow him. My fists grip with firm intensity and I can feel my teeth grinding together as I try to refrain myself from grabbing him by the neck. Instead, I obey, bite down on my lip and calmly proceed into the cave without any defiance.
The tunnels confined airlessness and thick black darkness is a claustrophobic nightmare. I can hear water leakages seeping from crevices on the roof and eroded rock walls booming with vibrations from exterior sounds of the outside. We come to an abrupt halt. A shred of light manages to sneak through the blindfold on my face. The guard tugs on my arm and leads me into what feels like a much more open, lighter area with pockets of air.
The guard takes the blindfold off to reveal the location. In front of me is a table with two chairs at opposite ends and one chair in the middle. It looks like another interrogation area of some sort. There is a little creek flowing through the middle of the room. Two guards stand near the entrance. At the middle of the table, a Vietcong soldier sits in the chair. He studies me from head to toe. He has on a different attire than the other guards in the room. His outfit is sophisticated, clean and much more distinguishable, which leads me to believe that he is the man in charge around here or at last a soldier of high rank. I hesitate to move forward; but the guard who walked me like a dog on a leash the entire way here forcibly nudges my body forward. The soldier sitting comfortably at the table signals his hand towards the open chair on his left. I walk towards it and sit down very slowly. Silence fills the room as soon as I settle in my seat. The soldier yells at his guards.
“Mang anh ta vao day!”
A mysterious man suddenly strolls through the entrance from which I came. The dark shadows of the room hide his entire upper body. He walks over to the other open chair opposite of me. As he sits in the chair, the light hanging above the table is able to eliminate the shadow covering his face, thus revealing his identity to me.
“Lieutenant!” I yell.
I cannot believe what I am seeing. Sitting across from me is my commanding officer, Lieutenant James P. Leonard. I haven’t heard from him since Song Doh. He was my handler for the mission and the man I communicated with on the radio. Throughout the duration of imprisonment, there has never been any sign of Leonard skulking around here. He must have just arrived at the camp today; but how can he, a high ranking officer, have gotten himself captured? He wasn’t involved in any combat directly. All he did was give orders and organize the plans. He was the last person I communicated with before everything happened. Something isn’t right. Leonard is still in his uniform, all dressed up and clean shaven with no trace of prisoner-like qualities on his body. There is not a single mark or scratch on him. Honestly, it looks like he just got out of the shower. Leonard extends his hand towards the Vietcong soldier sitting at the table with a friendly greeting gesture. The soldier smiles at him and accepts Leonard’s hand. Leonard then directs his head to me and acts in the same manner.
“Its good to see you again John,” says Leonard.
“What are you doing here, sir? Whats going on?” I ask.
He abruptly pulls away from me. I can sense an obvious shift in mood throughout the entire room. Leonard looks at me very sharply and begins to go into a lengthy explanation. A disturbing revelation about the cowardly plot to sell out Song Doh is revealed to me.
“I had met a Vietcong agent in the city of Saigon a week prior. Behind closed doors, I made a deal with the enemy to share intel about the neutral strategic position of Song Doh. In exchange for my cooperation, I was to receive a massive sum of money as well as my own salvation from the war, provided by Vietcong assets. The asset is the man you see here, sitting at the table with us. Yes John I admit that I am the one that authorized and allowed the village to be attacked. I did it so that the Vietcong could advance closer to one of our main bases of operation nearby. I never alerted the General about providing reinforcements when you radioed me at the time of the attack. Before anybody could find out what I had done, I destroyed the intel linking my involvement to the plot and went rogue. You were deceived, my friend and I apologize for putting you through all of this; but I did what was necessary. Everything serves a purpose, John. We all have a small part to play. Song Doh, rest those poor souls, was a means to an end.”
My jaw drops in awe after hearing the haunting revelations uttered by Leonard. The devil himself has been unearthed amidst a time of bloody war and confusing motives. He sits before me, at a small wooden table in a cave, deep in the heart of the Cambodian jungle, spilling the rotten beans. I am livid over the details of this disturbing truth.
“I did it all for the benefit of bringing the war closer to an end. Being able to bring the enemy closer to our lines would make for an epic bombardment that could crush the Viet Cong’s largest battalion. Don’t you see, John?” Song Doh was directly in the way of the operation.”
Essentially, the village was a means to an end in Leonard’s eyes; but the truth of the matter is that he is responsible for the massacre of nearly a hundred innocent people that did not have to die.
“Sacrifices must be made for the benefit of the collective good.”
The hogwash erupting out of Leonard’s mouth is unbelievably arrogant and irritating to my ears. The war rages on. Nothing good became of his supposedly war-ending plan. In the end, more innocent people had to die for nothing, which seems to be a recurring theme.
“Are you sure about that? Sounds to me like this is all about you and your own self-interest.” I say.
“You are right, John. You’re absolutely right. Why don’t we even things out then.” says Leonard.
Leonard signals one of the guards over. The guard throws a large brown bag onto the table. Leonard leans over, pulls out a knife and slices the bag open. Pounds of gold coins gush out.
“Fifty thousand…..I’ll give you half of this and set you free from this horrid place. You just promise one thing in return… keep your mouth shut about everything…do we have a deal?”
Leonard is offering me the chance of a lifetime. One get-out-of-jail-free card. Nt to mention, it will make me a rich man. Is this really what it all must come down to, though? Money? Here I thought I was in Vietnam to fight for my country; but in reality I have been fighting for nothing this whole time. All I can picture in my mind is an enlarged, mutated rat that escaped a test facility. That dirty rat sits in front of me right now. Leonard. A scandalous traitor. The man even has the audacity to still wear his United States Army uniform. My fists clench together so tightly that I can actually see the veins pop out. I give Leonard an intense stare down and scream at the top of my lungs, louder than a foghorn.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” I yell.
I launch my body across the table towards Leonard. I wrap my hands firmly around his thick neck. With one powerful thrust, I strike him in the face. His nose shatters like glass from the exploding impact of my rock-hard fist. The guards throw me off of him and start beating on me. Leonard, who is now leaking blood everywhere, snarls with great disgust and spits on me. The glint in his eye is as menacing as it is evil. I have never seen anything look so sinister and corrupt in my life. Not even the cruel treatment of prisoners nor the dead bodies I have seen can compare to this duplicitous monster. As he leaves the room, Leonard screams at one of the guards to pick up and carry his bag full of money for him. He then vanishes into the shadows, never to be seen again. I am a believer in karma. He is going to have to chart through this unforgiving jungle that surrounds us for miles in order to reach his so called salvation. I hope the lieutenant’s first step in that journey is on a trap door to a punji stake pit.
The guards pick me up from the ground and restrain me back in the chair. I know now that this is it. Any chance I had of getting out of here now fades away with Leonard. After all of the details I have learnt, the idea of fate doesn’t seem so scary to me anymore. Even if it means death. There is no way I can live with myself knowing I cooperated with a corrupt, murderous bastard while donning a United States uniform. If I am to die, it must be with a clear conscience. Another guard walks into the room. He is escorting the Vietnamese prisoner who is my cellmate. The guard sits the prisoner down in the open chair where Leonard was. The Vietcong soldier at the table reaches for his pocket and pulls out a large silver revolver. He loads it with two bullets, places it in the middle of the table and spins it around in a counter-clockwise motion. The gun rotates rapidly for about three seconds until coming to an abrupt stop. It now lays motionless on the table, with the barrel pointed directly towards me.
I laugh uncontrollably and cannot seem to stop smiling. A game of Russian Roulette is going to decide whether I live or die. How interesting. The idea seems so very comical to my ears. Since I arrived in Vietnam, my life has been clinging to fifty, fifty chances. What is the difference now? Only two of the six holes in the gun barrel is occupied by bullets. Mathematically, the odds stack in my favour. I am noticeably amused that my chances are slightly better by a mere few percent. The Vietcong soldier looks confused by my actions. I feel no regard for myself or my own self-worth. Actually, I can’t seem to feel anything at the moment. Nothing except overdoes of adrenaline and numbness. The disturbing elements in my current presence are irrelevant. Nothing from the past affects me. Natural elements of the cave seem blank with picture-less meaning. Darkness consumes everything I rest my eyes on. Where exactly am I even? I can hear something in my head that sounds like paper ripping in half. I will fall forever until I finally decide to reach the bottom of the barrel. It is time to get this show on the road. I pick up the revolver and aim it against my right temple. An overzealously crooked smile forms on my face. Without so much as a single thought or word coming out of my mouth, I pull the trigger….