Mike Durant, contributor
In the fall of 1968, I was hero. Not really, but very close. It began at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam and lasted for three days. I was getting out of the country and the Army. Until that first day at the Cam Ranh, I had managed for a year to keep all my body parts, and they were all working fine. Whew! I was lucky that I spent the year “in the rear with gear” — especially lucky because I was drafted. Most draftees ended up in the bush — where heroes were made. Now I was ready to leave, no matter that I never came close to being a hero.
That was about to change.
I arrived at the center where they put us through all kinds of “out-processing tests.” I was put in a barrack with others who were headed home. We had to sit around talking, telling lies, smoking (cigarettes) and drinking beer. I had a pocket full of money and was eager to visit the exchange (store or post exchange or PX). Some of us were in our Class A uniforms, others were in fatigues. The guy in the next bunk was in his Class As with all his medals — including a Purple Heart.
“Looks like you had a rough time over here,” I said.
“Not too bad. Just happy to be going home.”
“Yeah. Just outside Pleiku,” he said. “But I really don’t want to talk about it.” He turned over and went to sleep.
I just lie there thinking about how lucky I was to have survived this war without the terror in the jungles and bush.
How different my tour was from the guy in the next bunk. I thought about my send-off from Phu Bai. “When you get to Cam Ranh, make sure you buy a Sansui amplifier,” I was advised by fellow soldiers, “The best deal in Vietnam.”
A PFC stood at the barrack door and barked, “Any of you boys who want to visit the PX, get in the truck outside, and get the lead out.”
I was off to get my Sansui. I joined some others and piled in the back of a deuce and a half truck. The PFC driving the truck was very ornery. I’d be ornery, too, if I had work around guys going home and I still had eight months to go. We slammed to a stop in front of the PX.
“Everyone back here in 30 minutes. I don’t wait,” he growled.
I was back in 15 minutes with my brand new Sansui packed safely in its sturdy cardboard box. Exactly 15 minutes later the PFC gunned it and we were on the way back to our barracks minus the three or four tardy ones.
We roared across the base and screeched to a stop in front of the barracks. The Sansui seemed OK despite the bouncing.
“Get out, get out,” the irritated PFC was screaming. I found myself the last one to get out. There was no one to hand me the 15-pound cardboard shipping box full of Sansui.
“Get the fuck out of my truck,” the guy was screaming at me. So I teetered the Sansui on the tailgate and jumped the six feet to ground. As I went over the tailgate, I tipped the Sansui so I was able to catch it as I hit the ground. I managed to catch it, but I came down on one of my heels. Oh shit! I thought I broke something. Painful! The driver gave me the finger and sped off.
I laid there in the mud in the middle of the road until some guy came by and helped me to the barracks. Another guy carried the Sansui. My ankle and heel were black and blue. I couldn’t walk.
I laid down on the bunk. The heel was throbbing bad. Then:
“OK, you short timers,” a sergeant bellowed. “You have to go the medical station to get checked out. Uncle Sam wants to make sure you’re not damaged goods. Ha Ha Ha, Ho Ho.” He thought that was as funny as hell.
I left the Sansui on my cot. Two guys helped me get to the truck.
At the medical center, we waited in line to see a nurse. This is the guy who signs a form saying you’re in good shape and ready to leave.
When the nurse saw me hobble to his little desk, he began shaking his head, saying, “Soldier, we need X-rays.”
He handed me a couple of crutches and the unsigned form. Go downstairs to X-ray. “Holy shit,” I thought. A signed form was my ticket home. “Holy shit!” I took the crutches, unsigned form, and another form for the X-ray guys, and headed downstairs. I didn’t stop until I and my new crutches were in the truck waiting to take us back to the barracks. I asked to see another guy’s signed form. With a couple of practice signatures, I signed the form myself.
At the barracks I found the Sansui in good condition. I slept despite my throbbing foot.
I was awakened by a master sergeant yelling: “Hey you lucky fucks, get all your shit. Get on the bus. You’re goin’ home.”
I had a full duffel bag, a small carry-on and my beloved Sansui. Everyone quickly cleared the barracks. There I stood on my crutches wondering how in the fuck was I going to get all my stuff on the bus. The master sergeant saw me. He yanked the last guy out the door and told him, “Do you see the wounded man on crutches? Get your ass over there and help that hero get his stuff on the bus.” I’m a hero?
On the bus, the master sergeant kicked the guy sitting in the front seat and told him to clear out. “This hero needs a seat here.” I was starting to like being a hero.
At the air terminal, I got in line with the others, again helped by the master sergeant who ordered a couple of guys to help me. I was at the end of the long line — just me and Sansui. “Good luck, soldier,” the master sergeant told me as he shook my hand. He left. I was on my own.
Each time the line moved I would scoot Sansui along the pavement and struggle with my crutches and bags.
A golf cart with a lieutenant driving came up alongside. “Get in, son” (the guy was younger than me). He told the GIs in front of me to get my stuff in the cart. “Holy shit,” I thought, “The jigs up. They found out about my forged medical release. Crap.”
“You’re gonna get on the plane first, so we can get you a seat where you can stretch out the leg.” The cart sped past the line and out onto the runway. When we got to the plane (a chartered commercial jet), the young officer yelled to one of the stews at the top of the stairs, “We have a hero for you. Can you give him a hand?”
I got up the stairs with the help of a young lady. She led me to a seat and got my duffel, bag and Sansui stowed.
“Where you from, soldier?” “Sacramento.”
“That right? One of the crew is from Sacramento. I’ll go get her.”
The rest of the returning soldiers started to board. About then, a young blonde stew sat down next to me. She turned toward me and screamed, “My god, Mike Durant!” It was Helen Meline, a classmate at the JC I had attended. She leaned over and gave me big hugs and kisses. Guys boarding were filing by.
“I should’ve been shot. See the service these heroes get?” one GI said to another.
Helen was very busy fighting off soldiers and serving them dinner and lunch, but she stopped by to talk and even sat on my lap a couple of times — a hero’s treatment. In Japan, we got a new crew for the final leg of the trip to Fort Lewis, Wash.
At Fort Lewis, we were put in barracks and started to “separate” from the Army. I, with my crutches, was always at the end of the line — until a senior NCO or officer spotted the crutches. Because of my “hero” status, I went to the front of the line for meals, at the paymaster, for plane tickets, etc. I was a hero.
I finally got to SeaTac airport about 9 p.m. There I stood in the United line of about 50 soldiers headed for San Francisco.
“OK, people. Listen up,” a ticket agent announced over a bullhorn. “The flight to San Fran is full. The next flight will be tomorrow morning.”
So while I, Sansui, crutches, duffel and bag stood there, the ticket agent had one more announcement.
“The soldier at the end of the line — the one with the crutches. Where you bound?”
“San Francisco,” I yelled back.
“Come on up here. We have one more seat.”
At San Francisco, I loaded Sansui, duffel and bag on a luggage cart and went looking for a bar. As I fumbled in my pocket for a couple of bucks, I pulled out the forged medical slip, crumpled it and threw it into a trash can.
I found a crowded bar as I waited for my parents to come and fetch me from Sacramento.
First, an older guy gave me his stool and bought me a beer. Then someone else bought me a beer. Then again and again. I was getting blasted. A soldier nearby struck up a conversation. Somebody else bought us both beers.
“Think I’ll sit with you for a while. Heroes like you always get the free drinks. Where’d you get hit?
“Uh … just outside Sansui. But I really don’t want to talk about it.”