I seen a splint of red come out of a distant green, felt a whomp near my shoulder, then heard the small roar
of a firing rifle. Rifle were probably one of them AK Chinese kind, but I ain't no good at telling weapons by sound
like some of the guys in the platoon claim they is. I heared the whomp, I think, same instant I felt it, but I
ain't sure, my mind being preoccupied with its feel. The pain seemed at first to be in my shoulder, then I thought
it were my chest. After a few moments I realize I were hit maybe three inches below the top of my shoulder and
maybe an equal distance from the center of my torso, on the left side. Seem like should be couple vital organs
there, but I were alive, so my heart couldn't of been there, and I didn't have no trouble breathing, so my lung
must not be there neither. A few moments after the whomp, even after I thought about a vital organ being hit, I
realized something that happened the instant the bullet entered me: I shit my pants.
It came out in a single shot, a mixture of hard and soft and liquid and gas, and the odor coulda felled me if
the bullet didn't. The bullet pushed me back, only an inch or so, but enough to throw me off balance, to make me
fall back into a sitting position, to go plump on my ass, so I was sitting in my shit. When the whomp first hit
me, I were thinking something like, What the fuck were that, and when I realized it were a bullet and that it came
from the red splint that come out of the green trees, I were thinking, Christ, I've been shot, and then when I
were sitting and I realized what I was sitting in, I thought, Shit, it's shit. I went in a second or two from surprise
to fear to disgust. That was my first reaction to getting shot.
Then everybody were making noise. Guys were shouting things like "Over there" and "Anybody see
where it came from" and "I think Dinkie's been hit." But it weren't Dinkie were hit; it were me.
Guys were shooting their M16s and I heard what sounded like a grenade so somebody must have thrown one, maybe Gage;
he were always throwing grenades; once he threw one at a water buffalo and killed a gook kid. Me and some of the
other guys sure yelled at him for that, but the Louey told him it was all right, just not to do it again. The Louey
is screwy. I couldn't tell if anyone were shooting back at us.
You can't tell where the shooting is coming from in a firefight; if it comes from here or it comes from
there, if there's enough of it, it all sounds the same. Pow pow, whack whack, snap crackle pop; noise is noise
when there's a lot of it. Know how some guys claim they can sit and listen to a symphony orchestra and pick out
the oboe or the flute when one hundred twenty fucking instruments is playing? Well, some guys claim they can do
that in a firefight. A guy gone to Juilliard for four years and studied music every day, he might be able to pick
out a French horn or a viola, but there ain't no Juilliard for a firefight. You just hear all this noise and it
all blends together, like some big symphonic philharmonic type orchestra and ain't no training in the world can
teach you if the sounds come from here or there, from an AK or one of our own Mattels, from them or from us. You
can usually tell a grenade from a rifle, but you can't usually tell a grenade from a small bomb. Seeing's different,
but you can't separate the sounds; they just blend.
So I'm sitting in my shit listening to all these sounds and they make my head pound and my heart keeps going
boom, boomboom, boom, boomboomboom, beating extra hard every time there's a snap crackle pop from an AK or a Mattel
or a grenade, and everybody's shouting, the Louey into the phone and the guys at each other and if anybody says
they could hear anything they're Juilliard graduates or liars and I know ain't nobody in my platoon been to Juilliard.
The noise in my head and in my chest hurts so fucking much I feel my eyes getting wet and my lower lip is trembling
and my gut is sucking in and out, like a kid's when he sobs. And I hate myself for crying. I hate the fucking noise
and I whip my helmet off and clap my hands so hard over my ears it's like getting whacked with the stock of an
M14, and I'm whimpering so goddamn fucking much from the noise I don't even notice for a moment or two the pain
where the bullet whomped into me. That was my second reaction to getting shot.
I want my helmet. Whether or not some gooks is shooting at us is immaterial. There's bullets flying around and
grenade fragments and God knows what else. I don't want nothing in my head. Chest is bad enough. I see my helmet
about three, four feet from me, with netting on and grass and twigs sticking in the netting, the way I rigged it
up, cause I liked that look when I seen it in a World War II movie. You learn to be a soldier partly by being in
basic and partly by what ya see in movies. You learn more by being in the jungle, but you don't realize that till
after you learn it. Looking back now I know I learned that if you're sitting in your own shit and you're trying
to scoot a foot or two to reach your helmet, the shit slides down your leg and the piss and everything else goes
with it, and that feels so disgusting you stay put. I know now that I learned that then, but I didn't know it then.
I didn't tell myself I'd rather be shot in the head than have shit sliding around my legs, but that was the choice
I made. I whimpered even harder, but it wasn't just for the noise now; it was just as much because I was sitting
in my own shit and didn't know how to get out of it. I don't know why I'm keeping count of these things, but that
was my third reaction to getting shot.
I looked for my M16 and saw it was maybe ten feet in front of me, on the ground, the muzzle facing toward me.
Too far away. I never carried grenades; they bounce on your chest or hip, depending where you pin them, and that's
annoying. I didn't have any way of taking part in the battle because of the shit. I realized the shit was immobilizing
me. That was my fourth reaction.
I looked at my wound. It surprised me. It was clean; just a small hole, neat, without blood, nice and round,
about an inch above the flap on my fatigue shirt. I opened the shirt to look at it better. I pulled down my green
Tshirt and pushed my chin into the lower part of my neck. I was looking partly through my glasses and partly under
the frame. My lenses were covered with sweat and jungle dust, so I was seeing better under the frame. There was
a little blood on my skin, but not enough to mat my chest hairs. The hole was maybe a quarter-inch in diameter;
I couldn't tell how deep it was; it was dark on the inside and I couldn't get my face far enough out to look at
it straight on. I touched it gingerly with the middle finger of my right hand. A small shot of pain passed from
the wound to my back and the other side of my chest. Not enough to really hurt, but enough to make me not want
to touch it; maybe I would move the bullet or something. I didn't think so, but why take a chance. I thought it
wasn't much of a wound. And my fifth reaction was disappointment.
I wasn't disappointed in there not being much pain. You gotta be weird to like pain. The hole felt like a toothache
centered at a rib and the pain around it for an inch or two in every direction was a dull ache, kind of like when
the dentist give you Novocain. Know how that stuff don't so much kill the pain as it makes it dull. It's a pain
you can put up with. The look of the thing, though, made me wonder whether or not I was really shot. I knew I was,
but it looked so clean and neat that I wondered. That was my next reaction.
"Didn't you fire your fucking rifle?" I looked up. It was the Louey; he were standing a few feet in
front of me, to the side of my M16. "What the fuck did you do?" I said, "I'm shot," and he
said, "What are you talking about?" and I said, "I need a medic, look," and he came up, squatted
in front of me, peered at my fatigue shirt, and I realized he didn't believe I was shot until he did that peering.
He shook his head, kind of as if he were saying Damndest thing I ever saw, and he turned his face away from me
and yells, "Medic, medic; Jackson, over here." I didn't like Jackson, and I wished he called Kapinsky
instead, but I saw Jackson lumbering over. Louey said, "Hurt much?" and I said, "Naw," just
like I imagined John Wayne might of said it, you know, denying it hurts when you want them to think it does, but
it didn't. But my reaction this time was, Why the fuck Jackson?
Jackson was a big black guy. He was the least-liked guy in the platoon. He was dirty, he was foulmouthed, and
nobody cared for him, least of all none of the other black guys. He was also a bad medic. I think SamSam's dead
because Jackson didn't bandage him up right back at Purple Hill Four, and a couple of the guys even told that to
Jackson, and he called them racists, because it was white guys who told him, but SamSam was black and some of the
other black guys told me and the other white guys that they blamed Jackson, but I guess they didn't tell him. So
my next reaction was, I'm gonna be bandaged up by an incompetent that nobody likes, and that made it easy for me
to feel sorry for myself.
But Jackson stops about fifteen feet shy of me and the Louey, and he slowly, I mean slowly, opens his shirt
pocket, takes out a pack of Luckies, and taps, taps, taps it against his palm, then takes one out, sticks it between
his lips, puts the pack back in the pocket and taps the lone cigarette against the back of his hand. I could have
blood gushing out of me like oil out of a rig and Jackson would still be tapping his damn cigarette, but for a
moment I think it's all right, cause maybe thirty feet behind Jackson I sees Kapinsky stand up; he has his canteen
in one hand, and I know he fills it with hooch, but I'd rather have Kapinsky work on me stone drunk than Jackson
cold sober; but then Jackson lights his weed and comes up to me, and I know Kapinsky won't do the job on me now,
cause it would make him look like he was upstaging Jackson, and nobody's decent likes to upstage somebody, and
When Jackson's less than a foot from me he don't even squat, but stead he backs off a few steps and says, real
loud like, "Phew, man, you shit your pants?"
I don't answer but I give Jackson a look he must know means I think he's more shit than what I got in my pants.
"Can't work on ya till ya clean yaself. Ain't sanitary. Infect the wound."
"You have to work on him," the Louey says, looking up quickly at Jackson, but not staring. He looks
back at me, at my face, but only for a moment and then he looks into the dirt between his feet, and I know-and
worse, Jackson knows-the Louey ain't gonna push the point.
"Can't do it with him sitting in shit. Somebody got to clean him; I can't do it cause I got to keep my
The Louey purses his lips, then he looks around. "Gage, clean this soldier up."
Gage is sitting on a log, and he pauses for a few seconds before answering, and during those few seconds I figure
out what's happened. I was shot by a sniper who then must have skedaddled out of there, and that was the only VC
or NVA around, and all the shooting were from our side. The whole thing must have lasted maybe one minute; probably
the Louey sent three or four guys out to scout, but this type of thing happened so many times, everybody's convinced
there ain't no more Charlies. Then Gage speaks, and while he's speaking he takes a grenade off his chest and lollilops
it up and down in his palm, like it was a baseball, and he's saying, "Put this here under him and pull the
pin and that'll clean him out good." He has one of them shiteating grins on his face.
The Louey ain't gonna push Gage either, but you can see he's pissed; after a second or two, he snaps, "Put
that back on your strap right this minute, soldier."
Gage does what he's told, but he knows he's won. The Louey can't push him now, and he sure as shit ain't gonna
tell nobody else to clean my shit and take a chance on being backed down again. I see Kapinsky take a long swallow
and I want to say to him, "You do it, man," but I don't cause I think he'll probably say he can't, that
I'm Jackson's patient, and it's just like in a hospital where one doctor won't insult another doctor even to save
a patient's life; a code of honor, sort of.
I still don't think the wound is bad, but I know I shouldn't be moving around; yet, sure as shit, I want something
done to my wound, and I make a decision. "I'll clean myself, even if it means bleeding to death." Jackson
is expressionless, but I sense I got him one good, making the wounded man do his job. I undo my belt and unzip
myself; to my surprise, the Louey's undoing my boot laces. Now Kapinsky comes come over and, standing, he bends
over and undoes my shirt. Jackson's pissed; you can see it in the way he curls his upper lip, but he ain't
gonna say nothing, cause Kapinsky isn't really working on me, just helping me get cleaned. Pretty soon I'm naked,
but I'm still sitting in my shit, piss, and everything. Kapinsky looks around and three four five guys each hold
out some toilet paper; guys sometimes carry a roll, but most guys carry about half a roll folded up. Even Gage
gives Kapinsky some, and Kapinsky hands it all to me; I twist around and clean myself best I can. I throw the used
toilet paper in a little pile, kind of toward Jackson, just to let him know, but he won't back off; he don't wanta
look like he's being pushed around. Kapinsky pours some water from his canteen on some toilet paper, and that helps
me clean off the stuff that's stuck. Then four guys-Gage, Kapinsky, the Louey, and a guy from Kentucky whose name
I ain't learned-lift me and carry me out of my shit. Jackson steps toward the group, as if to hold part of me,
but there's no room, so he just stands there. Bastard wants to make it look like he were helping.
Brownie, the black guy from Brooklyn, lays out his poncho and I'm put down on that. Somebody hands me some clean
underwear, and then I get a clean Tshirt from somebody else. Nobody carries clean pants or shirts, so I'm sitting
on a poncho in shorts, the Tshirt on my lap, when Jackson finally decides to look at my wound. He doesn't touch;
he just looks in. He has this little flashlight, smaller than a pen, and he shines it in, and he says, "Don't
look like nothing important been hit. I'd classify it as insignificant." With a tweezers he takes out the
bullet and tosses it a few feet away into a mud puddle. Doesn't even ask if I want it or anything. Finally he starts
to bandage the hole. Pretty much the whole fuckin platoon is circled round us. Brownie says something I wanted
to say but didn't cause I didn't want to look chickenshit. "Ain't you gonna call in a medivac, Lieutenant?"
The Louey crunches his nose and lips together. He's thinking about this one. If the wound was bad, he shoulda
called for a medivac minutes ago, and waiting would make him look bad, so he has to say one ain't needed, and clearly
he's just thinking of the best way to say it. At the same time, everybody in the platoon can tell he's looking
for a way to show up Jackson, and saying a medivac is needed would do it. Suddenly he smiles; you can tell he's
trying to hide it, but he can't. He says, "Kapinsky, what do you think? Think this man needs to be evacuated?
What's your professional judgment?"
Jackson squints; clearly he's pissed, but he knows the Louey is putting the screws to him by not asking his
professional opinion. Kapinsky meanwhile is sitting on his helmet, sipping out of his canteen. He runs his tongue
real slow around the inside of his lips. Finally he says, "I don't think it's a medical judgment, Lieutenant,
so I don't think you have to ask a medical man his opinion. A guy's been shot, he can always get better treatment
back at a base, but some wounds it don't matter. It's a question if you want to hold up the platoon."
Between calling in, waiting, setting up a perimeter, lifting off, and everything, it could take at least an
I wanta ride back in the air, cause by now I'm beginning to form my real reaction to getting shot and that will
fit in what I'm thinking. I says, "I'm all right. I don't need no chopper." The idea is to give
the Louey a chance to override me; he's been backed down already today and giving him an out can't hurt.
But I ain't real good at these psychological games, and the Louey, he says, "OK. If you say you're all
right, that settles it." He stands, "You're a good soldier, and I always take a good soldier at his word."
Then he looks around, like he's scanning the whole outfit, but I can tell he just wants a little time, for dramatic
effect, sort of, and his eyes finally stop on Jackson, who by now is done bandaging me, and the Louey says to him,
"Jackson, finish cleaning this man up and make it quick."
"He don't need no more cleaning."
Jackson's right, but the Louey says, "I said clean him up, soldier."
Jackson shrugs, comes over, looks at the bandage, touches it, then says, "All cleaned up, sir."
The Louey's jaw is kinda slack, and you can tell he feels good. Probably knows he might be putting himself in
line for a fragging, but he'd rather do that than let Jackson get away with backing him down. You can tell, too,
that the Louey thinks he's even now.
I ain't so sure, but I ain't keeping score. Then the obvious hits me smack quick. "Lieutenant, I ain't
got no clothes."
The Louey's face lights up and quick as a trigger pull he says, "Jackson, give this man your shirt."
"You heard me."
Jackson does what he's told and his shirt is so big it hangs over my crotch and covers half my thighs. My boots
are on and I can go through the jungle like this. Jackson still has a T-shirt on, so he don't look so bad.
I must look stupid, but the whole platoon gets up and the Louey tells us where to go, and we do. And while we're
humping through the jungle, back to base, the Louey sidles up to me and says, "You're gonna get a Purple Heart
out of this. What do you think about that?"
"Not much," I lie. I'm smiling like a teenage kid just got his first lay, and the Louey, he knows
He pats my right shoulder. "Sure, sure." He adds, "Sure."
And I'm humping through the jungle, no pants on, and I'm thinking what use I can make of the wound. Girls will
like it, and maybe I can parlay it into a job, and it will make a good conversation piece in bars, but mostly girls
will like it, and maybe it will help me get a few of them into bed. Wish I'd been choppered out, cause that woulda
been a good part of the story to tell the chicks. But what I have to tell them will be good enough. Won't tell
them about the shit, but about getting shot, I'll tell them that.
Martin Naparsteck served in Vietnam as a Spec/4 with the Army Signal Corps and has published two novels about
the war, War Song and A Hero's Welcome. Next year he will be Visiting Assistant Professor of Communications
at Utah State.