An Unknown Soldier
The pace was steady but cautiously slow. Up a worn path through the cool morning
jungle, eighty-two men stopped moving, noiselessly and abruptly. Sudden sounds of gunfire
pierced the sneaking silence from the west where Alpha Company was making a sweep, half a
kilometer away, or as the soldiers themselves would say, half a klick.
The grunts of Charlie Company, in a long line now stationary, breathed silently as they
listened to the sounds. Sgt. Grant Markus, a ten month veteran of jungle warfare, painted the
action in his mind as he interpreted the sounds. Every weapon has a distinct signature sound
when it is fired. American built M-16s sound like large rocks dropped from a great height, hitting
cement in quick, loud rhythmic succession. The Chinese version of the AK-47 growled a slower,
but just as deadly kak-kak-kak.
By the sound, Grant and his fellow soldiers determined the type of weapons fired, and
they knew who was firing at any time by the singular sounds of each weapon. The initial sound
was a long burst of enemy rifle fire from an AK-47, followed by several burst from American M-
16's and more North Vietnamese Army AK-47s. This occurred deep in the Central Highlands of
South Viet-Nam. Operating this deep in the jungle, far from any villages, the Americans would
not encounter Viet Cong guerillas. This was North Vietnamese Army territory.
The sequence of gunfire suggested that Alpha Company walked into an ambush or
stumbled into a bunker-complex. Neither option was a good one for the men of Alpha Company.
Captain Leonard, Commanding Officer of Charlie Company had his point platoon turn toward
the sounds of the action in the west while the rest of Company C followed. This was January 19,
Some memories are discarded as a mental defense while others are slowly covered by the
fresh layers of each new day. We conceal these memories under piles of everyday life so we can
concentrate on normal stress. At times, as a startling surprise, those dusty recollections leak back
to the surface. Buried deep with all his thoughts about combat in Viet Nam this particular
incident was dredged up to the surface of Grant’s consciousness innocently enough..
The spring of 2009 was mild and pleasant in northern Colorado. Grant Markus, now 62
years old was enjoying the sun while reading the morning paper on the backyard deck. Grant
shared the abilities of his concentration between the newspaper and a sporadic stream of
questions and conversation from his son Jeff. His fifteen-year-old son told him about one of the
bigger kids at school tormenting younger freshmen. Jeff asked, ``Dad, who was the worst person
you knew in your life?'' Like many fathers who try to compress too many things into every
moment, he gave a quick, off-the-cuff answer. I guess it was a guy who tried to shoot me in
Viet Nam,'' he said. His son was contented with the answer and Grant returned to his reading but
after reconsideration, he became very dissatisfied with that response.
Grant leaned back in his chair while he considered. How do you make a judgment upon
people for the position of “worst?” Must you use only the actions of a particular day or moment?
Who are these unique people, waiting for you to determine who is worst? Each one of us puts
people on our lists but actually, none remains on it forever. The school bullies, ex-wives,
tyrannical bosses, deceitful lovers--these people are reacting to events in their own lives when
they leave scars upon ours. Time seems to give these people another chance and sometimes a
complete pass. There is also the possibility that events seen through our eyes and with our
perspective do not always match the reality of a particular situation.
Thirty-nine years earlier a young man named Minh had pushed a bicycle along a wide,
well worn trail leading through the jungle. His full name, in the Vietnamese way was Pham Duc
Minh. The first name being the family name and the last was his given name.
Minh left Hanoi in North Viet Nam eleven days prior, with three other NVA soldiers. Traveling
south on the `Ho Chi Minh' trail as the American called it, they proceeded warily. They were
three days into South Viet Nam, fair game for the dreaded American gun-ships; helicopters
equipped with mini-guns and rockets. Each man carried his gear on a bicycle, extra clothing
around their waists, and a weapon slung over his shoulder. Minh and his companions became
good friends before reaching the point where he separated from the small group and headed off
the trail into jungle alone. Minh bid them safe traveling and said good-bye before branching off
the main trail heading east toward his newly assigned Battalion.
He carried a dispatch from Headquarters in Hanoi, wrapped in thin plastic to keep it dry
for the commander of his new camp. The trail he now followed, used less than the main one
required alertness to find so as dusk fell it became harder to see. He found a place off the trail
where he could rest for the night. Minh pulled from his pack a ball of rice he had cooked earlier
in the day so he would not reveal his night position with fire light. It grew dark as he ate and
relaxed from his journey. Tomorrow there would be 8 kilometers to walk before reaching the
battalion camp. Once there, another soldier could use the bicycle to return for a visit to his family
in the North. There were very few places where you could ride the bike because of the rough
trails. The bicycle served mainly as a mechanical pack animal.
Like travelers throughout the ages, Minh rested under the canopy of a towering tree
whose trunk rose twenty feet before the first branches formed on it. He spent the warm quiet
evening thinking of the wife and child he left behind in Hanoi. Their life was one of poverty,
which kept them at a safe distance from the nightly bombings that lately racked the city. The
shack they shared with another family was far from any military emplacements. Poverty was
everywhere around them. When this war was over, the scarcities would end. The life promised
by Ho Chi Minh would finally have a chance to come to completion. This dream only ceased
because of the American invaders and the French before them. Minh knew these things would
change after the war and the country became reunified. The information officers at his former
training camp explained how the agrarian society of the south and the industrial mix of the north
would form a strong country. The people of the North and the South would all live in comfort
It will be a glorious time when Viet Nam would be a beacon to the rest of the world. People of
America and Europe would see that Ho Chi Minh knew the right and proper path for Viet Nam.
Hoa, Minh's wife, loved to tease him about sharing his given name with their countries foremost
leader. Minh mused about his small family. Hoa, his wife was pretty; her name meant `flower'.
Together they had agreed on the name of their one-year-old son: Binh. His name, Binh was the
word for peace, something they hoped for as much as they earlier hoped for the son they now
Darkness ruled the moonless night under the thick forest canopy. Minh awakened to a
distant low moan that filled the sky far above him. His first thought from his concealed position
placed the American bombers flying to some far-away unknown target. They killed many of his
compatriots from the safety of their warplanes far beyond the range of his rifle. Abruptly the
night lit up with quick white hot flashes in the direction of his destination. Crashing thunderous
booms filled the night. The same planes that woke him unleashed their deadly payloads upon his
new battalion. That meant some enemy recon group had been in this area and pinpointed the
location. They were most likely still hiding in the darkness calling in locations to the attackers
from a map.
The bombing went on incessantly. Minh cringed, every muscle tensed and tight with fear.
Trapped in the open with no cover, he used a small spade he carried in his pack to scoop out
enough dirt to lie flat just below ground level. The explosions drew nearer as the carpet-bombing
leveled outlying areas from the main target. The nearest detonation was less than a quarter of a
kilometer from him. The hot, jagged, cast-iron fragments of the exploded bomb hissed and
whirred as they spun overhead. Slamming into trees all around his camp, the barrage left him
very shaken but unharmed. It grew quiet. Dirt and cordite filled the air along with every quick
short breath he took. He lay unmoving in his shallow trench, silently listening. No more sounds
came from the broken jungle or from planes above him. The stillness engulfed him. Minh, filled
with fear, thought he might be the lone survivor of this attack. He would know the following day.
The remaining hours of darkness needed no imaginary monsters. The terrors of reality were
loose in the night.
Grant Markus woke in the late night. Far in the distance, he could hear the rumble of the air
strike. Captain Leonard had briefed Charlie Company during the previous day about the pending
mission. There was a battalion size NVA emplacement twenty-four klicks to the west of Skull
L.Z., a landing zone for choppers where they now camped. The Air Force would do a B-52 air
strike during the night, carpet-bombing as prep for their insertion by chopper the following
morning. The muted distant noise finally stopped and Grant hoped anyone who survived the
attack would be dispirited and leave the area. Only soldiers with the strongest will would stay for
a fight after what sounded like such thorough devastation. This thought made his nerves quiet
slightly as he pondered tomorrow's up-coming action. Sleep returned with no new sounds to
disrupt his rest for the few remaining hours of night.
Morning came fast as did every act and event thereafter. It was a quick breakfast,
chopped eggs and ham. The last hot meal they would enjoy until their return to camp. Alpha and
Charlie Companies humped down to and outside the perimeter razor wire to load onto the
choppers. Grant's fire-team loaded onto the second chopper and lifted off in less than two
minutes. Grant sat on the floor in the open door of the Huey with his feet resting on the landing
skid. There were two grunts on each side seated on the floor and two inside. The two inside got
the seat between the door gunner and crew chief, who were members of the chopper crew. Soon,
as he looked behind his ride, Grant could see a stream of five more choppers and another one
ahead, all in a line. They would unload their live cargo then make two more trips apiece. This
was the procedure to get all of Charlie Company into a select clearing in the jungle of the Central
Every time he rode a chopper, Grant looked down at the jungle canopy with wonder and
occasionally would see a green tracer bullet headed his way. These were shot at the fast moving
choppers by the enemy, hoping for a lucky hit. The North Vietnamese had green tracers and the
American tracers were red. It helped to keep his senses sharp and his nerves on edge in
preparation for the anticipated upcoming assault. The choppers started the long descent toward
the canopy where Grant could see a large clearing. Suddenly from one end of the clearing smoke
appeared and the choppers headed in fast. This time, because the smoke was green the chopper
went clear to the ground before the pilot yelled ``Get out, get out.''
Veterans all, Grant's fire-team was already in the grass running to set up a defensive
perimeter for the remaining in-bound choppers. Two men in camouflage fatigues, not common in
1970 and worn only by the K-75 Rangers, ran to the first chopper and jumped in. They were the
men who located the primary objective, the NVA battalion and the ones who called in the air
strike co-ordinates. Two men alone, deep in enemy territory locating enemy targets for the
infantry. That required large re