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Like most Americans in November 2004, I wanted to shield my eyes from the TV images of a Marine shooting a wounded enemy insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. For me, it was a reminder of events 34 years ago when I served in the infantry in Vietnam.

I was 20, a squad leader of 12 men, and a dedicated Christian who was serving my country just as my brother, father, uncles, and grandfather had in earlier wars. In late November 1970, on a Sunday morning around 9:00 a.m., we were in the jungles of the central highlands of Vietnam. One of our booby traps exploded. I followed three blood trails a short distance and saw movement in some bushes 15 yards ahead in the tall elephant grass.

I was afraid. Whatever was hiding in the bushes could kill me before I killed it. The idea that I should try to take this potentially deadly man prisoner did not seem an option. Instead, I fired almost 60 rounds of ammunition into those bushes, and when the movement still did not stop, I fired a rifle grenade. The explosion was higher and closer than I anticipated, causing a knee wound which finally sent me home, safe and sound. It also killed the teenaged enemy soldier who had lost both legs in the initial blast of our booby trap.

In 1995, when my wife, Barbara, and I revisited Vietnam, we came upon a graveyard for Vietcong soldiers. The graveyard faced the mountainside where I had killed my enemy and wounded myself. I carried his memory home and back again, and I was grateful for the opportunity to visit what was likely his grave.

Taking and handling prisoners in combat is always risky, difficult business. Stories abound among combat troops of suicidal enemies who want to take others with them to their graves and of booby-trapped bodies waiting for the uninitiated ...

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In the Magazine

May 2006

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