14:32 on Hill 518
Drenched in sweat, the fatigued Private First-Class Richard P. Burrows trudged forward through Vietnam’s jungle with Company A, 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Firebase Bastogne in I Corps, Vietnam, below the DMZ. The day was August 22, 1971, and for eight months, he had survived the hothouse-like jungle with its relentless clinging leeches engorged with his blood and a deadly, unseen phantom enemy who hunted him in the northernmost geography of South Vietnam. Even during the day, sunlight could be blocked by a thick canopy of foliage.
Nights were terrifying. Would they be infiltrated and overrun? The tripwires designed to trigger the deadly Claymore mines that were placed around their position to kill the stealthy enemy provided some assurance of protection. However, the Americans had to be careful for at night, the VC would turn the Claymore mine around toward the unsuspecting US soldiers. The tripwire was rearranged so that the grunt retrieving the mine would detonate it thus killing himself and a few of his buddies.
The jungle air was sweltering, stale, heavy with moisture, and suffocating. Billowy rolling clouds blanketed the valley’s canopy. Threatening humming insects swarmed and darted as if directed by a conductor. Some were just pesky, but others were aggressive.
The jungle’s dense vegetation was a kaleidoscope of shapes, sizes, and hues of bluish to more yellow-greens emitted from the tall elephant grass, bamboo, and the broadleaved shorter plants. A misty rain had coated the dense landscape with moisture. The deposited water gathered itself into droplets on the leaves and created sparkles of reflected light. The edges of some plants were razor sharp. A machete was required to advance through this dense jungle environment.
Moisture turned the jungle floor into slippery muddy trails that the grunts carefully navigated. They were not on a picnic. They were being hunted by the Viet Cong. This trail could be booby-trapped with explosives, or there may a camouflaged punji stick pit of spear-like bamboo shafts to fall into. There could be an enemy ambush at any time.
Salty sweat dripped from every pore. Eyesight was blurred. Eyes burned from the torrent of sweat that could not be stemmed by a saturated tie-dyed headband. Everyone carried at least two canteens of water at all times. Leeches were constantly sucking blood from their skin.
The insect bites itched severely. No one could refrain from fiercely scratching these aggravating sites resulting in scattered puss-encrusted, inflamed ulcerations that covered their arms, neck, and torso. They knew the mosquitoes carried malaria. That’s why, to prevent becoming infected, they followed orders and took that white pill for prevention every morning. Diarrhea was a frequent side effect.
Fatigues were soaked and adhered to their skin but at times hung from their lanky frames, accentuating the expected fifteen to twenty-pound weight loss. Their shirts were open. Love beads, peace signs, crosses, wedding rings, and other amulets decorated tanned chests, hanging from chains or string around their necks. The grunts’ pants were ripped and caked with mud. Even after soaking in the last stream the patrol had passed, they still smelled like shit from recurrent episodes of diarrhea. Their boots and socks were soaked. The soles of the grunts’ feet became thickened and inflamed due to a combination of bacterial and fungal infections. It was called immersion (trench) foot and when debilitating, required hospitalization for treatment.
Private Richard Burrows lamented “Can I call this survival?” to no one in particular. “My goddamn hemorrhoids are dropped and hurt like hell. They’re bleeding due to constant diarrhea from the malaria pill. My butt cheeks are worn raw. I have these huge draining abscesses on my arms from the freaking insect bites, my feet are puffed up and aching from trench foot, and I reek like an outhouse from crapping myself.”
He was eighteen and from Amsterdam, NY, a small city on the Mohawk River, about twenty-five miles west of Albany, the state capitol. He graduated from Fulton Montgomery Community College and had deferred the completion of a four year degree to volunteer for combat in Vietnam. He was an outstanding athlete, adapted well to army life, and had the conviction to honorably serve his country. He’d then return home and marry Michelle, his high school sweetheart.
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