I’m here to take feel-good photographs of the Navy Doctors and Corpsmen giving medical treatment and dental care to villagers. But the place is too enticing to follow the orders to stay within sight of the convoy trucks. I drift off to explore the back allies.
The place is strangely quiet. Most people must be at the at the village commons having their teeth cleaned. I round a corner see this little girl on her back step. On instinct I reach for the Juicy Fruit gum in my pocket hoping to buy a smile and photograph.
Instead the child becomes livid and yells and curses at me. I back away as if from a hell cat, and duck up the alley at the side of her house. I walk into the mussel of an M-16 rifle that is poking out of a window. I throw my hands up and surrender to a gun that is simply lying on a table.
Looking inside the little girl’s house, I see why the child is fuming. Her mother is on her knees crying. An American soldier stands over and weaves in drunkenness. The man has the crying woman’s hair in his left fist, and he slaps her with his right hand making a loud smack. He’s so drunk he hangs on to the woman’s hair for support. His uniform is in rags, and he’s grown a very non-regulation beard. The woman looks like an older version of her daughter who sits in anger on the back step. The man, who I assume is a deserter, reaches for his beer and pours it over the woman’s head.
I stand there stunned as she cries and begs. I grab for the barrel of the rifle but freeze when I notice the man has a 45 automatic on his hip. It occurs to me that I may be about to kill or be killed by another American.
I decide it's best to run back to the convoy for reinforcements. I arrive at the village square and find everyone in the party is angry with me for wandering off. I try to tell the officer in charge about the deserter who is beating a village woman. The officer is enraged and gives me a direct order to get in the truck. I foolishly make an argument, and he threatens me with a Captain’s Mass.
I get on the truck and slouch in a sick empty pile of defeated guilt. I’m embarrassed at the stinging tears in my eyes. I regret not helping the woman. I'm ashamed and don’t want to look up. I hear a voice saying, “Don’t worry about it bud, there’s nothing we could have done anyway.” I look up and the voice belongs to one of the Marine guards. “Look at em boys out yonder,” he says in a Southern drawl, gesturing at the village huts.
I see dozens of GI’s coming out on the porches now that we are leaving. Some men wear various uniforms, civilian clothes and others dress in traditional Vietnamese pajamas.
“My Ca is full of deserters,” he says shaking his head offering me a cigarette. “You wanna come in this vil and have a big ole fire fight, maybe kill a bunch of Americans?”
I think about how I had almost turned the desert’s gun on him. “Makes a better story back in The World if we show your pictures of us a fixen their teeth,” the Marine allows as he flips his Zippo and offers me a light. I notice my hand is shaking as I take a long drag.
The men on the porches taunt us. They pass joints, raise their beers, and laugh at the fools who are still in the war.
My Ca VillageNaval Air FaciltiyCam Rahn BayMIAsVietnam deserters