“I’m not goin’ in there. YOU go in there!” barked Specialist E5 Arnie Pella.
“Arnie, I’m the squad leader this trip and I said for you to go. Everyone except you has had to walk point.”
“Still, I’m not goin’. I have this feelin’ about it, man. It’s like this overbearing sense of doom. You can’t make a guy volunteer to die!”
“Well, in the first place, since I’m sending you in there you aren’t volunteering. You’re following the orders of a superior. Besides, there’s no guarantee you’ll die.”
“Superior? You’re an E5 like me. You ain’t my superior.” said Arnie. He raised his chin and looked smug.
“I was promoted to rank three months before you were. But that aside, I was assigned as squad leader for this trip and that makes me in charge. Now grab your gear and let’s get going. We screw around much longer and we’ll be out after dark.” I said, suppressing the urge to slug his smug face.
“Get moving, Rat.” said Corporal Mike Kelly. He was just an E4 in rank, but he stood six feet three inches and tipped the scales at 290 muscular pounds. “It’s your turn and if you don’t get your butt in gear, you won’t need to worry about Charlie taking you out, I’ll turn you into a wet spot on the ground.”
Arnie looked up at Kelly and then at the other five heads nodding the affirmative and his shoulders slumped. He sighed loudly and made a production out of picking up his ruck and hanging it across his back. Kelly thrust Pella’s M-16 into his hands and pointed at the barely discernable trail we’d been following. We were on local patrol, scouting the area around the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, to make sure we didn’t have any unwanted neighbors. The TOC was where command was set up to direct a segment of the division’s assets. Various patrols, both short and long range, would report their findings there and it also held artillery used to support combat operations. Our patrol took us around the hill atop which sat the TOC, a circle with a two klick radius. The patrol could take between six and ten hours, depending on terrain, the density of foliage, or a jackass who didn’t want to take his turn walking point. Most people didn’t like walking point. If we ran into the enemy, they were the first to get shot at. While not many, a few of our guys liked walking point, feeling better about trusting the guy looking out for the rest of the patrol because he was that guy. And some just liked it because they were nuts.
Arnie disappeared up the trail and we followed behind. If the point man saw something, he would duck down and wait for the squad to catch up and use hand signals to show where they thought a problem might be. Sometimes though, the point man would come back to the patrol, like if they spotted some heavy duty opposition. Five minutes up the trail, Pella came jogging back. The squad immediately hunched down. I looked at Arnie and shrugged a ‘what?’
“I couldn’t hear you guys, I thought I’d lost you.” whispered Arnie.
“You aren’t supposed to hear us you dumbass.” hissed Spec 4 Tom Hiller. “If you can hear us, Charlie can hear us. We’re supposed to be quietly scoping the area, not having a damn parade.”
I pointed up the trail. “Git!” I stage whispered. Arnie looked defeated and moved off again. Another five minutes passed and Arnie was back again.
“I might’ve heard something.” he said.
“Might have? You didn’t check it out” I asked, getting exasperated. Kelly came up behind me and punched Pella in the eye hard enough that Arnie fell over backward.
“Our point man is injured.” said Kelly. “I’ll take his spot.” He gave a disgusted look at Arnie and moved out up the trail. Arnie got a wry smile on his face like he’d won a victory.
“You bring up the rear.” I told him. I knew Mike would set a good pace so we followed along quickly. It didn’t take long to hear Arnie quietly calling out for us to slow down, he was having trouble keeping up. No matter what, this guy was a major pain in the butt. I passed it back for him to shut the hell up before he got us all shot up and kept up the pace. Since I didn’t catch up with Kelly, I knew this was the wise choice.
We moved along for another hour and I came up on Mike, hunkered down and peering at his surroundings. “We’ve gone full circle.” he said. Do we want to cut back uphill?”
“Yeah, we’ve done our part for God and country. Let’s take five and have a drink before we climb.” The hill that the TOC sat on had steep inclines on all sides, one of the reasons for choosing it. While it made ascending it a problem for patrols, it did the same to the VC. We sat in the shade of the jungle, sweating in the ferocious heat that never seemed to go away. We counted noses getting ready to climb up to the TOC and realized that Arnie was missing.
There was nothing to do for it but go find him, so we collected up our gear and retraced our steps back along what had been a barely discernable trail but now was a virtual cowpath with us transiting it twice. We humped along holding a fairly quick pace, but when we got back to the place where Kelly had popped Arnie, we hadn’t run into him. While the squad was pretty disgusted with Arnie, we didn’t like the idea of one of our guys stuck alone in the bush. Corporal Dave Stenburgen, our radio grunt, called the TOC to report the missing man. Figuring that’s he somehow lost the trail, we assumed he was wandering somewhere in the thick brush. Our hope was they’d use a Huey to search for him since he should be fairly close to the TOC.
We got a negative on the helicopter because, they explained, Pella had shown up at the TOC a half hour ago. He said he’d been separated from the squad and so he took an uphill direction which he knew would lead him to the TOC. Considering the time elements, it didn’t take a wizard to figure out that Pella had fallen behind in the first ten minutes and cut up to the TOC to ditch the patrol.
When we came huffing into the TOC forty five minutes later we were sweat soaked and tired, but we were also pretty ticked off. We’d worried about the goldbrick and spent a lot of energy looking for him only to discover that he’d decided to cut his patrol short while the doing of it extended our patrol by two hours.
No one said a word about it, but our CO didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. While there was no real way to prove dereliction of duty against Arnie, the CO transferred him to a different squad. To Arnie’s horror, he’d been transferred to a rifle squad where he’d spend the majority of his time in the bush, actively hunting Charlie to engage him. A transfer like that was a typical response to a situation like the one Arnie Pella created. To keep the soldier with the men he’d ditched out on would be to risk him. Any one of us could imagine pounding him into the dirt with a smile.
It takes all kinds of people to make an army. Not all of them stellar examples of dedication to his unit brothers.