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A trickle of sweat began to inch down my forehead and sting in my eyes as I struggled through the thick brush. The heavy pack crushed my back and the straps cut through my shoulders. Despite the shade of the dense jungle foliage, the heat was stifling and seemed to burn through my whole body. I put a hand to my face to brush away another bead of perspiration and it came away covered with the green stain of camouflage face paint I was wearing.
My back still burned like a thousand tiny needles were piercing the skin, the grim reminder of the consequences of stumbling over a red ant pile. There was an irritating pain in one leg and I knew at least one leach had "hitched a ride" as I'd crept along. Ahead a ray of sunlight was breaking through the brush indicating we were near a clearing. Knowing how dangerous it could be to cross an open area, I gripped my rifle more tightly in my sweaty hands. A branch hit me in the face making a scratch that soon stung with the salty burn of sweat. "Nineteen more days and I will be home," I thought silently. "Home....away from Vietnam, away from the jungle, away from the heat, the leaches, the red ants; and yes, away from the war.
My thoughts were interrupted when Stubby, the man ahead of me, turned and whispered one word..."Dinks", our slang term for the enemy. Instantly I froze, my eyes scanning the trail we were breaking out on. Another trickle of sweat rolled down the tip of my nose and I suppressed an urge to brush it aside. My heart was pounding like a drum but around me all was quiet. Too quiet! It was uncanny. "Nineteen days, " I thought again. "What am I doing here?"
Suddenly there was the sharp, staccato beat of automatic rifle fire. No time to think now. I threw my pack to the ground hanging on to my rifle and my camera. I hit the edge of the clearing at a run and flung myself to the ground behind a mound of dirt, my AR-15 rifle spitting flame and lead almost before I felt the hot dust beneath me.
"Xray, Xray, this is 75, 75...Contact, Contact, Contact," I could hear our radio man Specialist Four Jaime Pacheco yell into the radio.
"How many were out there?" I wondered. There were only seven of us, a mere handful of men. Then came the dull roar of a detonating hand grenade and a cloud of smoke and dust rolled over my position. "I must have been crazy," I said to myself as I kicked an empty magazine out of my weapon and inserted another 30-round clip. Then I had to laugh a little under my breath. "Me, crazy?" That was just what everyone else had been calling me.
For a year and a half my friends had called me crazy for the foolish bravado I exhibited. When I arrived in Vietnam it was to work in the capacity of a combat engineer. But three months before my second tour was to end I was transferred to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division and employed as a correspondent for the military news media.
Because my tour was nearing its completion I'd been informed by my superiors that I would not be allowed to go "in the field" for my stories, but would work in the office and around our base camp at Bien Hoa. I was not one to sit behind a desk for long, and was even worse at following orders. I started making trips to the jungle against orders "bouncing with the Blues", our quick reaction force, on several missions. Our commanding officer would review my stories and photos, shake his head, and forbid further excursions. "You're too short (our slang term for having a short time left in our combat tour) to be going in the field," he would say. "I don't want to have to write your parents and tell them, 'I know Sergeant Sterner was supposed to be home in a couple of weeks but.....'."
His protests aside, he continued to publish my stories and photos. I kept returning to the jungle for more. I enjoyed the freedom of going out with different units and being where the action was, but before my tour ended there was one story I was determined to get, one I was sure would be an exclusive.
For years our office had tried to get a correspondent on a mission with a team from H Troop, 75th Rangers. All efforts had failed, not so much because Rangers were publicity shy, but because the nature of their mission was so unique that an untrained man could mean disaster. These men who wore the much envied black beret were an elite unit that hunted the enemy in the most silent and deadly fashion. Working in teams of five or six men, they were famed for their occasional reconnaissance missions. Their most common mission however, was what they called "hunter-killer" missions, operations where they stalked the enemy with stealth and skill using highly honed guerrilla tactics to out-maneuver and ultimately destroy him.
After more than a year of unsuccessful attempts to write and photograph the Cav's rangers in action, our public information office had given up on the possibility of getting that story. I wasn't satisfied and boasted that before my tour ended, I would get that story. My superiors in turn told me that even if the Ranger company gave their consent (in itself considered an impossibility), they would not allow me to take the job. Normally any man with less than 30 days "in country" was kept on the base camp. I had been consistently in the jungle right up through the Tet holiday just four weeks before my scheduled return home.
Then, miraculously, the Ranger commander gave his consent for me to accompany a team on a mission. No one in our office could understand the change in their attitude and not until later did I understand the reason. For though, at the time, some of the men in our office believed that it was my persistence and military record over two tours that persuaded the Rangers to take me on, I know now that God had a plan behind it all.
"Sergeant Sterner," my senior NCO said just before I left on my first of several missions with Ranger Team 75, "You really are crazy!" And then I was one my way--my last mission in Vietnam and the chance to get my exclusive story.
Actually I would actually pull several missions with the team in the short time remaining in my tour. My first lasted only a few hours. The chopper inserted the seven-man team just before noon and at four in the afternoon we walked within ten feet of an enemy soldier hidden in the dense jungle. When the firing subsided we were extracted and flown back to Bien Hoa for the night. The following morning we were inserted again in another area. So here I was, two contacts in two days, and my tour of duty almost over. I knew I had to make this one good.
Remembering what my job here was, I jumped to my feet and snapped a picture. In that brief instant I saw a flicker of flame. One of our grenades had started a brush fire. Before I could move Jaime was rushing forward at a crouch to beat out the flames. I snapped another picture, then sent a burst of fire from my weapon to cover Jaime's return to his position.
Overhead I heard the beat of helicopter blades slicing the air above the trees. Our team leader was barking instructions into Jaime's radio, "We have movement to the south, about a hundred yards out." Then came the crash of rockets and the scream of a Cobra gunship making its lethal dive. Another grenade thundered and I slapped a fresh magazine in my weapon and continued to fire. And then silence came. The enemy had withdrawn, the fight was over....for me at least.
The team leader jerked his head my way. "Sterner, cover the trail for the radio man," he said matter of factly, treating me as a member of the team and not just a correspondent who was along for the trip. I responded by moving to the center of the trail and taking up a defensive position while a reconnaissance element went out to check our "kill zone".
The recon team found a bunker complex and was gone for some time. Then came the sound of a grenade and Jaime turned and said, "I hope that was one of ours." I nodded grimly and, suddenly realizing how thirsty I was, got out my canteen and took a long drink. I offered it to Jaime and between the two of us it was quickly drained. Still thirsty, we made short work of Jaime's canteen, then went to work on the five quart flask in his pack.
As we waited for the recon element to return we had time to talk and snap a few more pictures to send home. We were two soldiers who had just survived a moment of danger together, and that puts a unique bond between men. Such bonds were not uncommon among the soldiers who fought in Vietnam, but soon Jaime and I would find an even stronger bond, one that would tie our lives together for eternity.
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