Thurman P. Woodfork

FRIENDSHIPS AND DEPARTURES

IWVPA Double Tap Award for War Poetry: March 19, 2007
Awarded: March 19, 2007
I’m standing alone in the aromatic darkness of Trang-Sup, gazing off to where Nui Ba Den looms dimly against the starry sky. The muted noises of the camp go on behind me. And, as always, the almost subliminal rumbling of continual bombardments underlies the background of camp sounds. Some guys in the little club, backed by a pretty good guitar player, are singing their own version of the Ballad of the Green Berets. Barry Sadler never thought up those words.

Something rustles faintly off to one side near the sandbags. I suddenly remember that I’m standing alone in the dark, and that I hate snakes, although I don’t think (hopefully) that a snake would be making any noise. I decide it’s probably a foraging rat and briefly wonder where Tu Do is. Tu Do is one of the camp mascots, a medium size, nondescript black and white mutt that dearly loves to chase and kill rats. You only have to point one out to her and she’s off after it like a shot.

Why am I out here by myself, communing with the spirit of the Black Virgin that dwells inside Nui Ba Den? It’s because my friend Larry shipped out today. There’s not even the satisfaction of knowing that he’s returning safely home, since he didn’t go home. He just moved on to another A Team camp. Somebody noted that the last three camps Larry had been on were overrun shortly after he departed. Now, there’s a pleasant thought to contemplate.

[Fortunately, Trang-Sup broke that string of bad luck; its walls remained intact and unbreached during its American occupation. Finally, the Air Force detachment was deactivated in the spring of ‘68, and then the Special Forces A Team left sometime later. Det. 7 and A-301 ceased to exist. I had been gone for nearly a year when the American presence on Trang-Sup began to end. I had gone to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Gone, but not forgotten. I had the signal honor of being in charge of the crew that was sent to retrieve the Air Force electronic equipment from Trang-Sup after Detachment 7 was deactivated. Obviously, I had not moved far enough away. When my old hooch mate introduced me to the Air Force Commander, the CO said, “Ah, the notorious Sergeant Woodfork!” as he was shaking my hand. I decided not to ask what he meant.]

“Don’t form close attachments,” they said; it’s too painful should a friend be killed. True enough, perhaps, but Larry is very much alive, just gone somewhere else in Vietnam. Anyway, does anybody ever really fully observe that supposed taboo? In later years, after listening to ‘Nam vets talk about their friends and experiences, I definitely doubt it.

I doubt it even while I’m still in Vietnam. There’s the indelible memory of some of the Special Forces guys on Trang-Sup weeping in anger and frustration while they listen to the radio as another A Team camp fights to keep from being overrun. Most of them had served with the people in that camp at one time or another. These seasoned troops were not shedding tears for casual acquaintances. They identified closely with those men.

As for me, I would have thought that I had long ago become inured to the departure, if not the death, of friends. After all, I had spent years on remote radar sites, where people came and went almost constantly. Most Air Force people don’t go PCS in units; we move about singly, particularly among small radar squadrons like the ones I was always part of. I certainly should have been used to losing friends to redeployment.

I stand there gazing into the humid night, wondering if there’s really something extra special about friendships formed in a war zone. In spite of the caveats against it, do we become closer, form a special bond, because of the circumstances of our shared existence in constant danger? That danger is always there, regardless of where we happen to be, or what we are doing. I wonder…does it hurt as much, does the pain last as long, if a friend is killed away from your sight and hearing?

Hell, I’m no philosopher; I don’t know. So I give it up, leaving Nui Ba Den to the perennially surrounded Americans in the radio relay station on its summit and the VC infesting its slopes. I go in to join the singing in the club: “Jesus was a lifeguard at the Third Army pool, Jesus was a lifeguard at the Third Army pool, Jesus was a lifeguard at the Third Army pool – Jesus saves, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.”

Thurman P. Woodfork: Friendships and Departures
Nui Ba Den – “The Black Virgin” Mountain, Tay Ninh Province seen from Det 7, 619 TCS – ‘Penthouse’ 1966-1967. Photograph ©Copyright 2001 by Thurman P. Woodfork