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Charlie didn’t see Uncle sitting behind the small boulder, but it didn’t matter much. Uncle had been sent out on his simple sweep without a com set. He had no way to signal his company that an ambush was on. They were on the other side of the hill and would never see VC coming.
The only way Uncle could let the company know, help his friends, was to fire his gun, thus alerting Charlie that he was, in fact, there. Vulnerable. He would be killed in seconds. Uncle made his choice. He raised his gun and fired round after round into the trees.
“I saved them and lived. By the time my amo was finished, the entire company came running past me, hundreds, shooting. I was given the Bronze Medal of Honor, two of them actually, one for each ‘act of valor.’ But they took them away.”
Uncle didn’t respond well to civilian life. Drugs and sex were only masks to hold up and see through. Temporary. He would walk, “in these woods, in fact,” and sometimes the ground would open—holes with voices inside. The bomb that had gone off, the time he saved a man from a tank on fire, had left fragments patterned and deeply embedded all over his back. The VA sent him oversized bottles of Vicodin and other pain meds, but the voices in the ground kept whispering. Maybe the bomb had done something to his head, too; done something more permanent to his hearing.
He went west, to find the others of his unit. His mates, toke buddies—gone. Uncle was suffering. In his mind he was far from his family, far from the roads that ran over the old river with its ferryboat in the summer and ice cream vendors along the shore. He couldn’t enjoy the fresh apples in season—the bundles left out by the road, self-service. The colors they took on, green, pink, red. The different crisp tastes each had. It was nothing—gone. There were only the dreams and the holes with voices calling him in. Victor Charlie were in there.
Uncle knew he was cracking up. He thought about those men who did not make it. He though about those “acts of valor.” The 13⁄8 inches of ribbon, red with a thin strip of blue, the bright star hanging in a point at the end. He checked himself into the big VA psychiatric clinic. A train took him there, Virginia, outside of DC. He rested in this clinic and Victor Charlie slowly stopped whispering to him.
A man stopped by. A man with a pert hat and starched uniform. He handed Uncle a piece of paper. The army was calling him back. Back to active duty. Back to Vietnam.
“Uncle that flag, it’s red.” They both stopped and looked at the tree with a red flag nailed to its trunk. “Are we lost?”
He looked around and Jelly stood smelling the stark forest. She looked toward the sun, small and defused by cloud cover and old-growth trees. The light was starting to dim, the air chill. She pulled the scarf closer around her neck. Jelly was starting to think this was not the best of ideas. To have gone out onto this trail, so far away, with no one but Uncle.
“This path will get us back to the car; it’s just a different way than how we came. Don’t worry, I know where I’m going. I know these woods very well.
Uncle wasn’t going back there. He was never going back to Vietnam. So he constructed a plan. He told them things, the nurses, the other patients. He made things difficult for the doctors. He was difficult. Unsettling. Scary. When the man with the pert hat came back the next time, his eyes were tight. He did not like the way Uncle was acting.
“I’m not going back there, man. I’m never going back there.”
The man had come to make a deal. They had looked at Uncle’s record. The FBI surveillance. The draft evasion. The Chinese food. This was not the record of a hero, a Bronze-Medal-of-Valor holder.
“Two Bronze,” Uncle reminded the company man.
The man with his pert hat and starched uniform offered Uncle a deal. Discharge in exchange for the medals. Going home. Never to be sent to war again. The deal was made, the documents set. Uncle made a quick recovery.
Uncle had stopped talking. Jelly looked up; the road was in the near distance. He had led them back, going the wrong way. Jelly wished she had a flag to tap, to signal the conclusion.
Once in the car, Uncle reached over and easily placed his left hand too high up on her thigh.
He continued, “They did try at one point to make it a dishonorable discharge but failed. Even with the medals revoked, someone higher up wouldn’t do that to a hero.” •