It is May 2020, and I am "locked-down" in my condo watching television about the Pandemic War.
Hard to believe that America has been attacked by a hidden enemy that has killed more Americans in 100 days than killed in the Vietnam War over a decade.
Major hotspots include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and more. Again, it's hard to accept what is happening. Hundreds dying every day. The entire economy of the United States shut down overnight. Lives and livelihoods lost.
And still, the body count rises.
Fifty years ago, this month, I was dealing with body counts in a different war.
On patrol southwest of Danang, the scenery is surreal. All your senses are in overdrive. I can still feel the hot, humid air, the stench from knee-deep rice paddies we labored to cross to reach local villages. We were loaded down with heavy rucksacks, ammo, Claymore mines, weapons and more ammo.
The smell of smoke from the village cooking fires penetrated your nostrils. Dogs barking, no men present. I gave the heartless order to kill the dogs. They were mangy mutts making enough noise to alert the enemy.
One never knows what will happen. In a split second, your life is changed forever. One of my soldiers entered the doorway of a grass hut. One man with an AK-47 dashed out the backside as I was standing to the side of the front entrance. I was less than 20 yards away and yelled. I emptied my M-16 accurately.
My first reaction, beyond the race of adrenalin, was that it was such a waste. He was such a young man in filthy, black clothes and so skinny but very dangerous. I shook my head in frustration and moved my platoon along.
At every step, I assessed chances for an ambush trying to anticipate all possibilities. I was caught once in an ambush, months later, when I lost one soldier and another badly wounded.
We reached the edge of one large rice paddy and entered a thick, tropical forest with banana-like leaves. My platoon of 23 men set up a night defensive perimeter and used the thick grass and leaves to quietly bed down for the night. It was strict, noise-discipline.
Darkness fell. It was just the sound of bugs and crackling of trees and leaves against a soft wind. The ground was wet and musty. I cursed that I did not get all my leeches off me before darkness.
Restless, I woke up just before dawn with a beetle on my face. To my shock, I found one of my guards had fallen asleep. To this day I kick myself for not punching his lights out. But as an officer, I focused on control and discipline. He was also our medic.
We were lucky.
Even so, we soon had sightings of the enemy on the run. Gunshots rang out and the rush of "contact" made you jump into action. Each time it was over in 10 minutes, but then you felt overwhelming exhaustion.
At one point, the heat was so suffocating that I remember pouring valuable, clean water over my head to cool me down. I sat down, took off my heavy helmet, and tried to breathe. I could smell the blistering heat rising from the straw and dead leaves. My eyes went wide open as my heart raced.
A few minutes later, I collected myself and motioned to move out. Can't stay in any one place long after contact is made. The enemy knows where you are.
Hours later, we approached a river cautiously and caught one enemy taking a bath. Given we lost several teammates in the past few weeks to booby-traps, what we call IED's today, the resentment was pure anger. They demanded to let them handle it. I knew what that meant.
The massacre at My Lai fresh on my mind, I refused and called for a Huey to evacuate the captured enemy. Several in the platoon were upset.
By mid-afternoon, we had to reconnect with the rest of Bravo Company. Since we were still in the booby-trapped area, we deliberately marched in single file. We approached a long line of thick bushes to our front that was quite tall. Searching for a space to break through it, my squad leader found a slight opening, and as he stepped forward, "BOOM!"
The projectile nearly took his head off. It was an awful scene.
Another unseen enemy took a life quickly and the whop-whop of a Medivac Huey came and went efficiently. Emotions ran high. Scared. Angry. Frustrated. Revengeful.
As we entered the Company's giant circular perimeter with three other platoons, relief sensed that this one day was nearly over, only 300 to go.
Unfortunately, it would be more than over for some. A massive bomb went off inside the perimeter and killed my machine gunner, James Gibson. I was standing too close to him and felt the explosion blow me to the ground, face down, like a rag doll. I felt rocks pelting my back, my ears ringing and a sense of being in a dream.
Dazed but conscious, I heard someone yelling, "Lieutenant! L-T"! Slowly I sat up. I searched my body to see if anything was missing. All good. My head was buzzing. I started yelling, "booby trap!" Freeze!
Gibson was cut in half. The reflexive last gasps from his body became a frozen image in my brain. Over a half-dozen others were severely injured.
I discovered my "Red Badge of Courage," blood ran from a slight wound on my arm and dirt covered my tattered fatigues. I lost my sense for time and I remember being half-conscious. It seemed immediately Huey's were waiting for us to return to Hawk Hill, a large firebase.
I still love the sound of a Huey ... "whop, whop, whop!"
After minor surgery, I returned to the killing fields two weeks later to lead my platoon.
Once you smell death in the air, you never forget it.
Every Memorial Day, I remember it.
This year in 2020, the smell of death is everywhere for me. All those loved ones who were ambushed by a secret enemy called the Wuhan Coronavirus, especially for those 70 veterans cut down in a Holyoke, Massachusetts, soldier's home.
For many, on this day, the memory will be frozen forever.
Pray for them.
John Shoemaker can be reached at email@example.com