He Was The Best of Us All
Thomas Calabrese — The former Marine and Vietnam War Veteran read in the San Diego Union Tribune that the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall would be at the Oceanside Veterans’ Center over the weekend. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to see it.
Luke Harper was used to hot and humid weather, or so he thought. He grew up in Topeka, Kansas and worked part-time on his Uncle Wally’s farm, bailing hay and digging up roots under a scorching Midwestern sun. He was also employed on a road crew, paving country roads during his junior and senior year in high school. The smell of hot asphalt was so pungent that in the beginning Luke had to wear a bandana over his face. It may have helped to cut down on the odor, but the lack of fresh air made it harder for him to breathe and expel the heat from his body. There was one day in July when it was 104 degrees and the temperature around the boiling asphalt tank hovered around 140 Fahrenheit, but Luke kept on working.
When Luke heard his instructors at Staging Battalion on Camp Pendleton warn about the excessive heat and humidity in South Vietnam, he thought that would be the least of his worries. Exiting the plane in Danang, Luke got hit right in the face with a blast of hot air and his reaction was ‘Aw Hell.’ Maybe it was the combination of tropical heat and suffocating humidity, but it sure felt different from home.
One of the many things that he learned when he first joined the Corps and it was re-emphasized many times during boot camp and advanced infantry training, is that nobody really cared about his feelings. Whether it was too hot, too cold, bad chow or not enough sleep, Luke found out it was a waste of time to whine or complain. What good would it do?
Luke looked around and saw hundreds of military personnel. He thought to himself, we’re all dealing with the same weather so he took a deep breath, inhaled as much hot air as his lungs could hold, then said to himself, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
When Luke arrived at his unit, Sergeant Andy Kelnick immediately assigned him to mess duty. His first five days in country consisted of scrubbing pots, peeling potatoes and dumping trash. His work schedule started before sunrise and ended after sunset. Luke would then drag himself back to his cot and pass out from exhaustion.
When new replacements arrived, one of them was assigned to take Luke’s place. The young Marine had only one full day to rest before he was assigned to a working party filling sandbags for an observation post about ten ‘clicks’ (a click is one thousand meters) away from the rear area. He rode in a six-by (six-wheeled motor vehicle) with five other Marines, who were also new in country. They filled 500 sandbags and were heading back to their area when a sniper’s round hit the Marine sitting next to Luke as they drove through the village. He was killed instantly.
This was a harsh reminder to the Kansas native that despite the hard and dirty manual labor he was doing since his arrival, he should never forget that this was still a war zone. The Marine who was killed wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was just sitting there. Luke tried not to dwell on one somber thought, why wasn’t he chosen to die on this day.
When they got back to their area, the dead Marine was taken off. Corporal Tinsley called out, “If you guys hurry, you still might be able to get some chow.”
The Marines rushed off to the mess hall. Luke heard the driver grumbled, “I better clean up the blood before it draws flies.”
That’s how it was in the ‘Nam, a guy would get killed and the only thing anybody knew about him was his last name, if that much. When the Marines entered the mess hall, constructed of plywood and sheet metal, a booming voice filled the structure, “Chow’s over…get the hell out!”
PFC Willie Emerson meekly responded, “We’ve been on a working party, can’t we get something to eat.”
Staff Sergeant Nick Helgren stormed out of the kitchen, ready to rip someone a new one and growled, “You’ve been on a working party…why in the hell should that matter to me? You got your job and I got mine. Get out!”
Just as the Marines turned to leave, a handsome man in his mid-twenties, whose camouflaged utilities looked like they were tailored to fit his lean physique, stepped through the doorway. Luke’s first impression was that the Marine looked like he stepped out of a recruiting poster.
“I know that sweet voice anywhere,” The Marine smiled.
Staff Sergeant Nick Helgren’s scowl to a broad smile, “Sergeant Chris Troy! When the hell did you get back?”
“About three hours ago, any chance I can get something to eat?” Sergeant Troy asked.
“Absolutely! What do you want?”
“What’d you have?” Sergeant Troy inquired.
Staff Sergeant Helgren smiled, “I got a nice big steak that I’ve been saving for a special occasion. He called out, “Corporal Voss, fire up the grill!”
Corporal Voss, who was covered with grease, peered around the corner, “C’mon Staff Sergeant, cut me some slack, I just spent two hours cleaning it.”
“Stop your whining, look who just got back in town.”
Corporal Voss responded excitedly, “Hey Chris!”
Sergeant Troy said, “Hey Scott, good to see you. I told Nick to not go to any trouble. Got any leftovers?”
“Not for you, I’ll have the grill ready to go in five minutes.” Corporal Voss promised.
Staff Sergeant Helgren saw the Marines still standing there, looking stupid and hungry. His mood was a lot more pleasant now, “You guys still here? Somebody get these Marines something to eat.”
Luke and the other Marines sat at a corner table and quietly ate leftovers from evening chow. Staff Sergeant Helgren, Sergeant Troy and Corporal Voss were at the other end of the mess hall, laughing and socializing. Sergeant Troy was the only one eating.
Staff Sergeant Helgren said, “Save room for dessert.”
One of the Marines sitting next to Luke asked, “Who is that guy?”
Luke responded, “I don’t know…must be somebody important.”
Staff Sergeant Helgren returned from the galley with a big bowl of ice cream, bananas and strawberries, topped off with whipped cream and hot fudge, “My signature banana split,” and set in front of Sergeant Troy. “As much as I wish you’d stayed back in the ‘world’ (United States), I’m sure glad to see you.”
The next day, Sergeant Troy was walking across the compound with Colonel Ted Ashby, Battalion Commander and Executive Officer, Major Jason McPherson. The trio were casually conversing when Luke noticed them. He watched until they walked into Battalion Headquarters.
Luke’s curiosity got the best of him so he asked a Marine that was passing by, “What’s with this Sergeant Chris Troy?”
The Marine responded, “How long you been in country?”
“A couple weeks,” Luke answered.
The Marine laughed and went about his way, “If you don’t get yourself killed too quickly, you’ll find out about the legend.”
It was already stifling hot and it wasn’t even 0700 hours yet. Dust from trucks and jeeps driving back and forth in front of the hooch churned up a brown haze that encompassed the camp. Everything inside the screen covered structure, including the Marines, had a thin film of dust on it.
The standard operating procedures for grunts (infantryman) is to go to morning chow then go back to the hooch and wait to be told what to do. Luke was lying in his cot and daydreaming when Sergeant Troy entered, “Don’t get up…we’re going out to the bush tomorrow. Squad leaders, make sure your new guys are squared away. Meet me at my hooch at 1300 hours.”
PFC Doug Kendrick was a former college player, a big, muscular defensive tackle whose ego exceeded his size. When he flunked out of school, he got drafted and ended up in the Marines. Kendrick craved the attention that his embellished stories brought him from his smaller and impressionable comrades. He would go outside and lift ammo boxes over his head or throw sandbags, then dare anybody to beat him.
Because of his size, Kendrick was assigned to carry the M-79 grenade launcher, often called the ‘blooper’ because it made a ‘bloop’ sound when fired. The high explosive, shotgun and flare rounds could get heavy, especially when there were 60 or 70 of them in a canvas bags hanging around a Marine’s neck.
The platoon boarded two CH-46 helicopters and headed to Hai Van Pass. It was a routine scouting patrol and the Marines were scheduled to be in the bush for six days then hump down from Hill 1192 to Namo Bridge located on Highway One.
Kendrick was big, strong and a loudmouth, but he was definitely not cut out for the bush. He complained about everything and didn’t hesitate to voice his opinions about strategy and procedures. “Why the hell are we doing this? The choppers can just fly over and see everything.”
Over the next few days, Kendrick ate and drank too much and was regularly borrowing c-rations and water from the other Marines. He fell asleep on guard duty, which endangered the platoon. It was the fifth day and the Marines would be heading down the mountain tomorrow. Kendrick was so excited that he could barely contain himself, “Hot chow and a shower can’t come quick enough for me!”
While heading down the steep incline, Kendrick tripped over an exposed tree root and tumbled down the embankment. He screamed out, “Somebody help me!”
Sergeant Troy quickly appeared with a machete in his hand and chopped his way through the thick underbrush until he reached Kendrick, “Keep your mouth shut,” and began cutting away vines. Kendrick was impatient and panic-stricken, “Hurry the hell up,” and struggled to free himself. When he refused to comply with the order to stay quiet and remain still, Sergeant Troy slapped him across the face, “Get control of yourself…this ain’t a game anymore.”
Kendrick didn’t say another word all the way down the trail. The platoon came out of the thick foliage into open ground and quickly came under heavy fire from a Viet Cong patrol. Bullets whizzed overhead and Luke dived for cover like almost everybody else. The only one who didn’t have his face in the dirt was Sergeant Troy. He ran into a hail of bullets, blasting away with his 12 gauge shotgun. Two minutes later he returned in deathly silence and ordered, “Move out.”
Nobody asked what happened, but the platoon had a good idea why the shooting had ceased. Sergeant Troy had eliminated the enemy.
Marines were relaxing at the club, drinking way too much and enjoying themselves. Sergeant Troy was sitting at a table with several other non-commissioned officers. Kendrick walked over and stood next to the table, “Sergeant Troy, I’d like to talk to you in private.”
Sergeant Troy responded, “Anything you have to say, you can say in front of my associates.”
“Go ahead, we can keep a secret,” Sergeant Cruz laughed, “You want us to cross our hearts and hope to die.”
Kendrick hesitated, “I don’t want to go to the brig.”
“You’ve just been given permission to speak freely.” Sergeant Troy said. “Say what’s on your mind.”
“Are you saying that if I tell you something then I’m not going to get into trouble?” Kendrick asked.
Staff Sergeant Hanley interjected, “That’s exactly what he’s saying, stupid. I need to get back to my drinking so either spit it out or get to steppin’.”
Kendrick responded, “You slapped me, I don’t like to be slapped. Don’t do it again.”
The Marines at the table started snickering.
Sergeant Troy put his hand up, “Don’t laugh at PFC Kendrick. I told him he could speak freely and now I’ll do the same. Any Marine with a half a brain knows you don’t yell out while you’re in the bush. It gives away our position. My job is to protect my Marines and your job is to do what I tell you. When I told you to shut-up, you should have done it. You don’t want to be slapped, you got it. Next time I’ll smash my rifle butt in your face. Would you like that better?”
Kendrick became outraged, “If you didn’t outrank me, I’d break you in half like a dried twig!”
By now everybody was focused on the escalating confrontation. Sergeant Cruz leaned over and whispered to Staff Sergeant Hanley, “Is this guy really this crazy?”
“We’re about to find out,” Staff Sergeant Hanley replied.
Sergeant Troy stood up and made an announcement, “This just one Marine against another. PFC Kendrick is not to suffer any punishment if he breaks me in two …is that understood? Rules of engagement are now clear…let’s do this.”
Kendrick had gone too far to back down now. Even though he was five inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than his opponent, he didn’t seem quite as confident as he did a minute earlier. Kendrick threw a right cross that Sergeant Troy easily blocked. The bigger man threw several more punches that Troy easily avoided, then he stepped forward and hit the bigger man several times in the ribcage and kidneys. Kendrick screamed out in pain and Troy slapped his open palms over Kendrick’s ears, did a leg sweep and the bigger man fell to the ground, moaning in anguish.
Sergeant Cruz looked at his watch, “What did that take…a minute…what’s the matter, you slowing down?”
Staff Sergeant Hanley called out, “Take this idiot to sickbay.”
Luke had seen fistfights before, but he had never seen anybody handle themselves like Sergeant Troy. Thirty minutes later, Sergeant Troy set a beer in front of Luke as he walked passed him.
Kendrick was given permanent mess duty, but didn’t last two months. He broke his foot and was medevac’d to Japan. Most of the Marines thought he broke it on purpose to get out of country.
Luke’s role model was Sergeant Troy and he eventually found out why the Marine was sometimes called the ‘Legend.’ This was Troy’s third tour. He had earned the Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Bronze Stars in his previous two tours. He had also received four Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat.
One of Troy’s most daring adventures was leading a group of Marines into North Vietnam to rescue a downed Marine Corps pilot. He spoke Vietnamese fluently and despite being larger than most tunnel rats, he had no fear of going underground to confront the enemy with nothing more than a knife and pistol.
When First Squad Leader Corporal Jerry Haskell’s tour of duty expired and he left for the world, Sergeant Troy told Luke, “You’ve got first squad.”
Luke meekly protested, “There’s guys who’ve been here longer than me, they’re more qualified.”
“That’s not your call, if you think you’re not up to the job… then get up to it.” Sergeant Troy’s tone of voice made it clear that declining the offer was not an option.
Luke elevated his game, his reasoning was simple; first, he wasn’t going to disappoint Sergeant Troy and second, and more important, lives depended on him doing his job.
The platoon had set up their defensive perimeter for the night and Luke and Sergeant Troy were going over the following day’s patrol schedule. Luke fidgeted and Sergeant Troy asked, “Something on your mind?”
“I was wondering…never mind?”
Sergeant Troy guessed what it was, “You want to know how I could be in country as long as I have been and still only be an E-5.”
Luke was amazed, “That’s exactly what I was wondering.”
“It’s not that complicated, this rank fits my comfort zone. I’ve got just enough responsibility without all the bureaucracy. Since I like being in the bush, command doesn’t push the issue. I like things simple and I know my limitations,” Sergeant Troy explained.
Before the conversation could continue, they heard a Vietnamese boy yelling. When Luke and Sergeant Troy walked down the trail, they saw PFC Hinkle holding a canvas bag filled with cans of coke and the boy jumping to get it back.
Sergeant Troy ordered, “Give it back.”
“He’ probably a VC, he sells us soft drinks, then tonight he’ll come back with his buddies and ambush us,” PFC Hinkle said.
“I won’t tell you again, pay him or give him back the sodas,” Sergeant Troy’s voice was stern and unbending
PFC Hinkle complied.
Sergeant Troy walked the young boy down the trail while speaking to him in Vietnamese. He handed the boy some military currency and took two cans from him. When he returned, Troy handed one of them to Luke with the advice, “We’ve got enough enemies in this country…we don’t need to make more.”
When it came time to take R&R, Troy invited Luke to join him in Bangkok, Thailand. Rest and Recreation destinations like Bangkok, Taipei and Singapore were wide open places that catered to the American military looking to cut loose after being in Vietnam. Bangkok was the wildest of them all.
Luke commented as they rode in from the airport, “Sure got a lot of bars.”
“And they are all full with drunken Americans,” Sergeant Troy said.
“Where we going?”
“To a friend of mine,” Sergeant Troy answered.
They arrived at an upscale bar and restaurant called Steve’s Place. It was owned and operated by a CIA operative named Steve Almeda. He eagerly greeted Sergeant Troy when he entered the establishment, “Good to see you!”
Chris Troy responded, “You too, how’s business?”
“War is always good for my businesses in one way or another. I’ve got a few things to take care. Why don’t you rest up and we’ll have dinner at 1900 hours. I told Mimi that you were coming in.”
Chris Troy introduced the young Marine, “This is my friend Luke Harper.”
“Any friend of Chris is welcome here.”
Chris Troy exited through the backdoor followed by Luke. They walked down a stone path with a floral canopy to the front of a large house constructed of concrete and multi-colored tile. Three young Thai women greeted Chris and Luke and they were shown to the guest quarters.
Luke was amazed when he saw where he would be staying, “This is bigger than the entire hooch that I share with 20 other Marines.”
Troy pointed to a large sunken tub at the corner of the room, “That is filled with special herbs and minerals. Relax in it for a while. I’m right across the hall, I’ll come and get you when it’s time for chow.”
Luke was thoroughly enjoying the benefits of the healing water when he heard a knock at the door. Before he could answer, a young woman stepped in, “Chris thought you might enjoy a massage.”
Luke was confused, “I’ve never had a massage before.”
Mai smiled, “It is very simple, all you have to do is lie there and do nothing.”
The Thai woman was an expert and knew exactly just which pressure points to manipulate. After fifteen minutes, Luke’s muscles did a collective sigh of relief as knots of tension unraveled.
Steve Almeda had his staff prepare a dinner that included American food and Thai delicacies. Luke did his best to stay awake, but once he sat down and began eating, the combination of his totally relaxed state and a full stomach sent him into a deep sleep.
He dreamt of floating on a cloud and when he awakened, he looked at his wristwatch. It was 0920 hours. It had been months since he had slept passed sunrise. This was the softest bed that he had ever been in and hesitated to leave it. It had the scent of jasmine and vanilla, a welcome change to the odors of the Vietnam War. Luke found Chris and Steve sitting in the flower garden.
Steve smiled, “Sleep well?”
“Too well…the last thing I remember was sitting down to dinner. Did I…
Chris nodded, “You didn’t even make it through the first course.”
“I’m sorry,” Luke said.
“What for? You came here to relax. If anything, it’s a compliment to Mai’s skills.” Steve handed Luke a business card, “If you get into any trouble while you’re in Bangkok, show them this card, they’ll either call me or handle it. Don’t lose it.”
Luke asked, “What kind of trouble?”
“You’re going to hit the bars, aren’t you?” Steve inquired.
Luke turned to Chris, “Is that what we’re going to do?”
“Not me, been there …done that. I got it out of my system on my first two R&R’s. It’s your turn now,” Chris said.
Two days of bar-hopping was all that Luke could handle. When a fight in one of the clubs turned into an all-out brawl, the military police and Thai law enforcement quickly arrived to break it up and arrest the participants. Luke showed Steve’s business card to a M.P. who responded, “No problem…have a nice night.”
When Luke arrived back at the house early, Chris asked, “Done already?”
“I’m not cut out for this kind of heavy drinking,” Luke sighed, “I must be a lightweight, cause after a few beers and I’m ready to call it a night.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Chris answered, “.I’ll see you in the morning.”
When daylight came, Chris knocked on the door, “Get ready.”
Luke quickly got dressed and met Chris outside. They took a long walk to a Buddhist Temple up in the hills. Chris was greeted by several of the monks as he sat down in the garden, “It’s a little quieter here, but this might not be your style either.”
“So far…so good.” Luke smiled.
When their R&R was over, Luke and Chris boarded their flight for the return trip to Danang. Chris asked, “Did you have a good time?”
“How about the best time of my life,” Luke smiled.
It was back to the business of war and the platoon was about five clicks outside Chu Lai. The enemy was gearing up for a major offensive and Sergeant Troy was ordered to return to base after he radioed in to report several columns of enemy soldiers moving west. He turned to Luke, “Take the platoon in… I’ll catch up.”
“What do you mean catch up, where you going?” Luke asked.
“There’s an orphanage not far from here. I just want to make sure that Victor Charlie (Viet Cong) doesn’t stop there.”
“I’ll go with you,” Luke offered.
Sergeant Troy put his hand on his comrade’s shoulder, “Appreciate the offer, but this is on me. Your mission is to get our Marines back. That’s an order. You haven’t let me down yet, don’t start now.”
Sergeant Troy took the M-60 and as much ammo as he could carry and followed the enemy.
Luke watched him disappear into the brush and then called out, “Let’s move!”
The Marines headed in the opposite direction.
Just then, Luke felt something on his shoulder and turned around, A Vietnamese woman was standing next to him. She asked, “Are you alright? You’ve had your hand on the wall with your eyes closed for the last 15 minutes. I wasn’t going to disturbed you until I heard you crying.”
“Really, I’ve had flashbacks before, but nothing like this. It was like I was back in ‘Nam all over again.”
The Vietnamese woman looked at the name on the wall where Luke had placed his hand. I am also here to pay my respects to Sergeant Troy.”
“Really…why?” Luke asked.
I was a young girl at an orphanage. The nuns told us to pray when the enemy started to break down the door. We all thought we were going to be killed. All of sudden, Sergeant Troy arrived and began shooting the NVA soldiers. Despite being greatly outnumbered, he kept fighting like our own protective angel. Even after he was seriously wounded, he did not stop until the enemy retreated. The nuns tried to save him, but he had lost too much blood by then. I know that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him. Did you know Sergeant Troy well?”
Luke choked back his tears, “I had the privilege and honor to serve in his unit. I don’t think anybody ever really knew him. He never liked to talk about himself. I might have forgotten some details over the years, but as I recall, he was the best of us all.”
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual person