I\'ll always remember Instant. That was the nickname the men had tacked onto the muscled giant that wielded the M60 in my unit. "Instant" was short for "Instant Death." And I\'ll always remember the first time I saw Instant in action.
I was a new Lieutenant assigned to Vietnam. Back then, the Army didn\'t try to develop any "team spirit" within the corps; men were rotated frequently before any friendships developed. Consequently, my men were a group of strangers united only by the need to survive. They were eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds with the eyes of old men. My first real assignment was to check a tiny hamlet, Dien Hoa. Army Intelligence believed the Viet Cong were operating from Dien Hoa. Our job was to determine if that was correct.
We rode in an olive-drab chopper. The whooping blades of the helicopter give us a little relief from the relentless heat of \'Nam; the blades cut the thick, humid air and pushed a breeze downward over the passenger compartment.
Soon, we circled the landing zone. The LZ looked cold. There\'s only one way to find
out if it is really cold, I thought as I double checked my M16. If no one zapped us when we entered, it was cold. If they did, it wasn\'t.
"Lock and load," I yelled.
The helicopter circled low and slowed down until it almost hovered four feet from the ground. The door gunner mashed the spade grips on his .30 caliber M60 machine gun. The gun spewed bullets over the field below us.
It was time to jump off the skids while we skimmed above the surface of the
lush, green valley. My stomach felt like it was turning wrong-side-out.
We dropped into the grass, stumbling under heavy packs and the weight of ammo and weapons. I wondered about snakes and hoped the groan I mad when I hit the ground was drowned by the noise of the helicopters. Though the helicopter gunner continued firing into the heavy growth to the north of them, there was no return fire. We were safe for the moment.
"OK," I yelled signaling with my hands the way you\'re not supposed to. Hand signals are a good way to mark yourself as the leader. It\'s just the thing enemy snipers watch for. But few of my twenty-seven men could hear me over the roar and firing of the helicopters. I had no choice. "Move out. On the double," I ordered. The choppers lifted. We were on our own.
The soldiers started with the usual complaining but then grew strangely quiet. They knew we had to move quickly to leave the dangerously-exposed LZ. The helicopters were lost in the distance; the only sounds were the usual clanking of equipment and water sloshing in canteens.
It took nearly an hour to walk through the grassland and occasional wooded section of the valley to the heavy jungle area at the foot of the hills. Our speed slowed while we went up the slight incline and wove through the ever thickening vegetation. At the ridge which overlooked Dien Hoa, we halted while I inspected the village below them with my binoculars.
I searched for a warning sign, some hint of danger. Old men, women, and children, with a few water buffalo, milled around; everything appeared normal. But I knew that just because an area "looked" business-as-usual it meant nothing in Vietnam.
"Call headquarters," I told my radio man as I lowered my binoculars. Moments later, he had reached headquarters with his radio. I took the phone piece and let my commander know what the situation was. As expected, we were ordered to continue toward the village. I gave the radio phone-piece to the radioman, put my helmet back onto my head, and stood.
"Sergeant," I said.
"Yes, Sir," Sergeant Nelson answered. The burley, middle-aged trooper squinted at me. His face was wrinkles, sunburn, and peeling skin.
"We got bunched up on our way up," I said. "Be sure they keep spaced
Sergeant Nelson nodded. I didn\'t have to tell him that it would be essential to keep spaced in case of an ambush. I hoped the new guys would take his orders seriously.
As the Sergeant crept down the line inspecting and