War up Close -- The Kid and the Old Man

by Norman L. Russell

Excerpt of his book, "Suicide Charlie, A Vietnam War Story"


Inside a clump of bushes, a man and a boy tremble, waiting for us to pass, knowing that the slightest movement or sound could betray them. . . . Beside them sits a 60mm mortar and several high-explosive rounds. [Ed. This 60mm mortar was a small weapon, handheld balanced on a knee, that packed an impressive wallop of high explosive.]

Pincush and I are pulling rear security. After humping nearly twenty clicks, we are both beat, and I walk past the bushes without noticing the people hiding inside.. . .

"Someone's in there," he says. . . we open fire. Here on the border, nobody is an innocent. . .

The man and the boy crawl from the bushes.

As they stagger out, dazed and bleeding, I take cover. . . . The man holds up his arms in surrender but the boy falls in the dirt, too weak to stand. Moaning, he crawls toward me.

"Shoot him! Shoot him! He's got a grenade," shout the men of my company. . . .

I motion for the boy to stand, or at least to put up his hands, and he struggles to rise. When he did, he raised his head up and looked into my eyes with a plea of such desperation that my heart broke. All his sadness, all his terror, and his uncomprehending agony passed into me -- his legacy to the brutality of war. Our eyes lock together, I feel a spark between us as if our souls are embracing. Urgently, I signal him to get up, but he collapses again as the bloodcry intensifies.

"Don't shoot. He's wounded," I shout back, but nobody want to hear me. They are angry, frightened, impatient with hate.

I know I should run up to the boy and help him, but I don't dare, unwilling to risk my own life to save his. His eyes are pleading, begging me to rescue him, but still I hesitate.

The noose of men draws tighter around the boy, their weapons locked and loaded. A medic runs up, drops into the dirt beside him, and rolls him over to treat his wounds.

"The boy has no grenade."

I was riveted by fear, shame, paralyzed by my inadequacy to redeem the situation. For all I could tell, the boy might have been a teenager, but looked eight or nine. He survived the wrath of my comrades only because one of our medics ran to his assistance. Doc, as we called him, was a black man and the bravest man in our company. He was a conscientious objector who frequently walked point even though he didn't carry a weapon. To call him 'fearless' would belittle his character. I'm sure that he experienced fear just as great as the rest of us. But he had a purpose in this War -- one that I did not share. He didn't care which side of the wire you were on: If you'd been hit, he would dress your wounds.

Doc pulled that boy back together and cinched him tight to a stretcher to be medi-vacced out. I was dimly aware that something terrible had happened. I had made eye contact with the enemy, and now, they, he, had become real. The only reassuring aspect to the situation was that, thanks to Doc, it looked as if the boy was going to live. . . .

. . . [after that] sweep was never the same for me. I had always thought of the enemy as a man like myself, not as a child. Watching that boy twist in pain there on the ground had left me very angry, but it was not an anger that was easily defined. I was furious at the enemy for putting a child in a position where he could get so terribly wounded, and I was equally upset with the men in my own unit wanted to shoot him when he was down. . . . there was no clear villain on whom to pin my rage. . . .

I thought about the boy a lot as the days and weeks passed. . . . I thought about how he had pleaded with his eyes, how our souls had met and touched, how that spark of awareness had passed between us. I thought about it all quite often, and sometimes -- when the days were dark and the nights darker, when Vietnam seemed interminable, a year that stretched into decades, a series of lifetimes passing, on atop another, all in the space of days and weeks -- I thought about how little it mattered that I could not help him when he needed me most. Not because of Doc, a good man with the courage to do the right thing. No, not because of him. It was something else, the words of a guy from my company who came in from Tay Ninh a couple days later. Concerned, I asked him how the boy was doing.

"What boy?" he asked. Then, remembering: "Oh, him. Never made it. They threw him off the chopper to make the old guy talk."


"Suicide Charlie, A Vietnam War Story," Norman L. Russell, Praeger, Westport CT, 1993, ISBN 0-275-94521-9 excerpted from pages 80 through 88.

Norman Russell was a mortarman in C Company, 4/9, 25th Infantry Division, late 1968 to late 1969.

Published under the provision of U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.


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Published March 11, 2002
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