Bad Ju Ju

Bad Ju Ju

R Gregg Miller

1969 Quang Tri Province, Republic of South Vietnam

Humping a rucksack, steel helmet, flak vest, canteen, assault rifle, mags and frags; pulling your boot from the muck just to take the next step.  Resigned to repeating the process until ordered to stop. That is what makes an infantryman a grunt. The Marines of Second Platoon are grunts.
Their Platoon Leader, First Lieutenant Jacob Stoller, knows even grunts are human. Humping the weight of war in Vietnam’s sun is taking its toll, and fatigue is a force multiplier for the enemy. Expanding his chest to draw a breath from the thick atmosphere, a rivulet of sweat trickles down his back. Another seeps from under his helmet into the corner of his eye. A quick swipe with the back of his hand to clear his vision, and he is again surveying the landscape, paying particular attention to the tree line about two hundred fifty meters to their front.

A few profane words, uttered in a low voice, are the only adjunct to the sound of mud clinging to boots. It’s more than noise discipline; talking takes energy. The metallic scent of danger overtakes the odor of rotting vegetation and human excrement. Corporal Taylor, a culturally-mixed Louisiana native on his second tour, sums it up in three syllables. Through a constricted larynx he issues his signature phrase, “Bad Ju Ju.”

Infantry sweeping open ground without support is dangerous under any circumstances. In reduced numbers, it is an invitation to the enemy. Attrition has Second Platoon looking more like a reinforced squad. No part of today’s operation is the platoon leader’s decision. Lieutenant Stoller and his men are just a symbol marked with grease pencil on a plastic overlay, a pawn in a chess match at battalion headquarters.

Even as a butter bar just in from the world, Stoller had the good sense to listen to his combat vets. Following their advice has kept him alive and casualties in his unit to a minimum. But four years in college studying chemistry and physics weren’t erased by OCS. His scientifically-trained brain has distilled some wisdom from the lethal concoction of war. Stoller’s First Law states: Tactical considerations are inversely proportional to the rank of the individual giving the orders.

One of Stoller’s early mentors was a gruff Korean War vet who railed against close order drill. It was an unusual sentiment coming from senior non-com, especially a Frozen Chosin survivor. The sergeant was uncompromising in his discipline regarding weapon readiness, and equally strident in criticizing predictable parade ground precision while maneuvering on the battlefield. One thing is certain he said, the enemy knows the marine approaching the man humping the rucksack with an antenna, is a priority target. Still, when the “prick-25” (PRC-25) squawks, the radioman passes the word that battalion wants Six Actual on the horn. The LT doesn’t have a choice.

Grabbing the handset or the radio is like opening the doors of hell. The thump of mortars leaving their tubes and the clanking bark of AK-47’s shatters the uneasy quiet. The fetid humid air is filled with the death dealing, whip cracking, whistling buzz of supersonic rifle projectiles. The flight time of the enemy’s mortar rounds is all the time that remains in this courageous platoon leader’s life.

* * *

In base camp the following day, Captain Miller is rubbing his temples preparing to write letters to the next of kin. Staff Sergeant Winthrop approaches, envelope in hand. “Begging your pardon, sir. I was gonna shit-can was among Lieutenant Stoller’s personal effects, sir. It’s an unfinished letter to his kid brother.”

I can’t go into details now. The censors would cut it out even if I did. Just accept what I’m telling you. Please, don’t come here! There are other ways to serve.

As Captain Miller reaches for the letter his eyes narrow on his subordinate. The stare truncates any further explanation from the stiff-creased Staff Sergeant. It doesn't take the Captain long to absorb the few handwritten lines. Through clenched teeth, he says. “We do have to exercise some discretion regarding what we forward to the next of kin. But as far as I’m concerned... not even division has the right to censor a Marine who died in combat.”

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