Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Brothers Bound

Excerpted from Brothers Bound by Bruce K. Berger (Buy It Now)


Late the afternoon of September 2, just ten days after Hues and I toasted Jeanie and our future wedding and baby, I received a phone call from Graves Registration. Fighting was intense around several firebases, and GR needed help evacuating some dead and wounded soldiers from firebase Bastogne. I agreed to join them after Sgt. Moretti approved the request. When I walked out of the Admin Center to meet a jeep driver for the ride to GR, Captain Randall appeared and walked toward me.

“Where you headed, Private?” he stopped and asked.

“GR, sir. They asked for help with evacuations from firebase Bastogne. They’re backed up with the rains and heavy fighting. A jeep is coming to pick me up.”

He stepped close to me. He was, as Tiny described him, an in- your-face type of officer whose bark was probably a lot worse than his bite. “Did I give you permission to leave work here and help GR?” he challenged me.

“No, sir. But Sergeant Moretti knows and approved it.”

“Do I look like Sergeant Moretti to you?”

“No, sir.”

“And who makes decisions about requests from GR? Especially when we’re under a shit-heavy workload like we are right now?”

“You do, sir.”

“Yes. I make those decisions. Not you. Not Sergeant Moretti. From now on, you clear every request for assistance with me. Do. You. Under. Stand?” He was close enough I could smell whiskey on his breath. I really wanted to punch him out. Really.

“Yes, sir. You make the decisions,” I forced myself to say while I squeezed my fists tightly.

“And don’t you forget it. Now, get out of here. And when you return later tonight, get back on those letters. Forget sleep tonight. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir! No fucking sleep!”

He stared at me for a moment then walked away.

Great send-off, I thought. Helluva leader. Brothers dying, and he’s spewing his rank.

The jeep ride and liftoff in the medical evacuation helicopter provided a break in a long day of hot, muggy, and windy rains that felt like a heavy warm shower. Hues was in the chopper, along with the pilot, Warrant Officer 1st Class Bill Perkins; Warrant Officer 2nd Class Harold Meadows; the crew chief, Vince Thompson; and the medic, Karl Davis.

“Two other medevacs been to the firebase earlier,” Hues shouted in my ear. “They picked up four dead and four wounded. Heavy fighting at Bastogne and two other firebases. And the damn weather and visibility, they ain’t cooperating.”

As our helicopter neared the firebase, Perkins gathered information from his radio about our destination then shared it. “Here’s the situation,” he shouted above the engine and blade noise. “We have three deceased to evacuate—god rest their souls. They’re near the normal landing zone. We also have three seriously injured to take to the hospital. One has a bad chest wound. A second lost most of his left hand and has a shoulder wound. And the third man . . . wait one . . . the third man just died. So, we’ll gather four bodies and two injured.”

Perkins paused briefly and quickly looked around at us. “That’s more than a load for the chopper, so we have to work fast and efficient. Fighting is heavy. The rain is picking up again, and dusk is closing way too fast. Artillery on the firebase knows we’re coming. A couple gunships are with us. They’re our primary defense. Our secondary defense is our speed of execution. We land, load, and get back in the air as quick as we can. Got it? Let’s do it.”

As the chopper drew closer, we saw flashes of gunfire and artillery and a few puffs of smoke slapped by wind on the west side of the big firebase. From above the jungled area resembled a dark green sea around the cleared, muddy firebase located in the Ashau Valley. A soldier waved us in, and we saw the four bagged bodies. The two injured men were on gurneys nearby, a medic kneeling with them.

Davis shouted at Hues and me. “The two wounded first. I’ll work on them. Then the four bodies. We’re gonna be way overloaded in here.”

Hues and I nodded, then glanced at each other, feeling the tension grow by the second as the chopper neared the pickup point where sounds of the fighting rapidly intensified.

An artillery round exploded sixty or seventy yards from our landing zone. We saw the gunships race off, firing as they attacked the apparent artillery site. Then the gunships rose, circled, and raced in firing again.

Davis, Hues, and I jumped out the side door of the medevac just as it touched the ground. More artillery hit nearby, a bit farther off target this time, though it sounded even louder and closer. We sprinted in the mud as best we could and slid to a stop near the two injured soldiers.

When we reached the men—loaded with drugs and looking dead—our world slowed down even as the actual pace picked up. We felt the rain fall hot on our skin like soft water bullets, pelting us and blurring our vision. We heard the distinct crackling sound of rifles and the thumps of mortars and artillery beyond the thumping chorus of our chopper nearby.

Davis took a quick check of the man shot in the chest, peeling back the cloth wrapping his body. He pointed to Hues and me. “He’s first!” he shouted.

Hues and I carefully lifted the gurney. We fast-walked as much as we could in the slimy mud to the open chopper just yards away. We were very aware of some bullets pinging past and then the thunder of outgoing artillery fire not far away. We lifted the gurney inside the chopper, where the crew chief helped settle it. Davis climbed aboard.

We raced back to the other wounded soldier. We carefully lifted him on his gurney. Then we resumed our muddy race with the injured man to the chopper, where Davis and the crew chief helped lift him aboard.

As he was lifted, the wounded soldier with the blasted left hand and shoulder cried out, even though heavily medicated. He opened his eyes and begged me to put him out of his pain. “How the hell can my damn hand hurt so bad when it’s no longer here?” his voice and eyes implored me.

“Move, move,” Perkins yelled, waving us toward the four men now dressed in black body bags as Davis climbed back in the chopper to work with the wounded soldiers.

One body at a time, we moved quickly in the slippery mud and now driving rain that was mixed with the steady muffled sounds of artillery and rifle shots. Hues and I lifted the bodies onto gurneys and carried them to the medevac.

When we lifted the gurneys, Hues mumbled his prayer of thankfulness for each brother. I couldn’t hear his hurried words above the noise, but I knew what Hues was saying because he’d told me. It was part of the ritual of his work.

I was struck with a sudden haunting sensation that each body we were moving contained a piece of my body. I was lifting and loading my heart, then my mind, my arms and legs, and the shadow of my soul, which weighed far more than other shadows encountered in life.

Each piece of their bodies, my body, was part of a bigger version of life. This was the last chapter of their lives in a book I didn’t fully understand. And I wouldn’t until maybe I finished my chapter by dying and being loaded on a chopper in the middle of the war amid combat sounds and heavy rains washing over us like angry waves. The sounds of life or the chorus of death? How could anyone ever know for sure?

“Last one!” Hues yelled. “Getting hot here!”

The sounds of the present moment returned fully. Artillery muffled in the distance. Gunships looping and pouring steady fire into the green sea of jungle. The distant scream of a soldier. Then another. The medic waving, screaming, beseeching us to hurry. Our chopper thumping its own drum-like music with its blades.

We lifted the fourth body, stared at the black bag and each other, then walked and slid as fast as we could through the mud to the chopper. We lifted the gurney, the medic helping, then pulled ourselves up into the medevac, where we adjusted the last gurney in the overloaded craft as it lifted off.

“We’re out of here,” the pilot said. “Hang on. Gonna be a hot ride for a minute or two.”

The medevac rose slowly, then lifted and banked a bit toward the northwest, which the pilot must have felt was the quickest, safest air pathway above the battle below and the artillery position in the southeast. At several hundred feet the chopper travelled further to the northwest. I was taking a picture of it in my mind so I could remember it when I wrote KIA letters for the four dead soldiers on board. I wouldn’t directly write about it in my letters, of course. But maybe it could somehow improve the tone or sensitivity of my words. Or maybe it was all meaningless.

Maybe a half mile from the landing zone a sudden burst of gunfire raked the overloaded chopper. Machine gun rounds or AK-47 shells tore through the chopper, which immediately began shaking then bucking up and down, ultimately sliding to the right and losing altitude. The pilot was dead, shot in the head and chest. I saw him slump down.

Pilot Meadows took control to the extent he could as he’d been shot in his right shoulder. He nursed the damaged chopper another quarter mile or so, fighting to keep it in the air though it continued sliding earthward. He was trying to fly the chopper over a small hill and out of range and view of the weapons outside the firebase. But all of us and the chopper were tilting and sliding ever faster toward the dense, darkening jungle below.

A new round of gunfire tore through the chopper, hitting radios, rupturing fuel lines, spreading debris, killing one of the injured soldiers, and riddling the deceased. The medic was hit in his head, which snapped back and then forward, chin on chest, mouth open, dead, staring at me. One of the wounded screamed until more bullets tore through the stacked bodies. Hues and I hugged the chopper floor, trying to hold on to the framework and the gurneys with the wounded, now likely dead.

The pilot was hit in another burst of fire, struggling to say “May . . . day . . . May . . .” The chopper began spinning slowly but sinking faster, sliding now to the north and out of sight of the firebase. The injured pilot leveled it just a bit before he passed out or died.

The injured crew chief grabbed the controls but lost them almost instantly when the chopper spun into some treetops and began a twisting, slashing descent to the jungle floor—tearing into trees, slowly coming apart as several bodies spilled out, then crashing on its side, nearly split in half when it finally stopped moving. My last conscious thoughts were the realization that the tip of my left ear had been brushed by a streaking bullet and my head was smashing hard against the chopper frame.

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About the Author

Bruce K. Berger served in Vietnam in 1970 with the Casualty Branch of the 101 st Airborne Division. In 2021, his poetry book, Fragments: The Long Coming Home from Vietnam, received the Gold Medal for Best Book of War Poetry by the Military Writers’ Society of America. In 2023 Book Authority ranked Fragments #6 on its list of the 100 Best Vietnam War Books. Today he’s professor emeritus, University of Alabama, where he taught communications for 17 years. Before teaching, he spent 20 years as a communicator for two global corporations and worked on diverse projects in more than 30 countries.