Red Light


Erick W. Miller

When I’d finally established myself as an efficient pointman, I used my meager influence to benefit the whole platoon. My platoon Sergeant was accustomed to shooting an azimuth to our objective and having us proceed in a straight line to it. Not being birds, we really couldn’t go in a straight line. We always had to navigate the dead space on the map.

Troops who operated in the mountains knew this all too well. We were often descending the steepest slopes of mountains, crossing rivers in bad places, climbing hills again where snakes had trouble negotiating. Or, we would cross a sea of elephant grass being slashed to ribbons while any enemy on the nearby high ground could track our every move. I got the attention of our resident genius and explained the ‘mystery’ of the contour lines. I enlisted the help of ‘genius’ number two, our 2nd Lt. who was too lazy to take command of his platoon, and we convinced the SSG that I wasn’t trying to trick him and the contour lines did indeed mean what I said. A little light turned on in his head. It was small and dim, but it was an improvement just the same. I think that he understood that if he showed me our objective on the map, I could get us their faster and with less grief, even if we didn’t “go directly to jail, do not pass go”. I was pretty nervous about some of our leaders after about six weeks in country. We had an excellent Captain, Feliciano, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once holding hands and wiping (noses). There were two other platoons to split his time with. My squad leader, SSG Joel Kriss, was extremely competent. He graduated top of his class at NCO school. I think that his bonafide intelligence made the other two men nervous. Something to do with ‘time in pay grade’ kept him from taking over.

The marching problem was now solved, but we had another problem even more serious. One day, my platoon was set up inside the jungle about thirty meters from a landing zone. I needed to see the the second Louie for something and was told that he was on the LZ plotting ‘harrassment and interdiction’ and ‘protective’ artillery fire. My M-16 was a constant companion. I slept with it gripped between my knees in a fetal position. I never had any illusions about whether or not I was in a combat zone. When I got to the LZ, I found the Lieutenant in the open, alone, without his weapon. I was so shocked that I chastized him about being exposed and unarmed. His response was to quip, “I have my P-38” referring to his army can opener alluding to the WWII fighter aircraft. This was when the ‘Red Light’ in my head started blinking. An officer this careless could get us killed. I returned to my guard position nearest the LZ and the Lieutenant returned to the CP in the center of the perimeter. I was carrying on a whispered conversation with my friend and slackman Travis. Our faces were no more than two feet apart when the first round of protective artillery fire roared and slammed in. A piece of schrapnel whining like a jet passed between our astonished faces. Of course we hit the dirt. The Louie called for his first round a smidgeon too close and failed to give the rest of us a ‘heads up’. My red light is really flashing now. I’m wondering who the enemy is. We were stuck with that idiot long enough to get one of my friends lives wasted. After that, they put him out to pasture. I used to pretend that they had him shot. It made me feel better.

Original version copyright 17 Nov 1997
Edited version copyright 26 Jan 2003
Erick W. Miller