Above and Beyond

Story and photo credit: Marc Levy. Image: “Delta 1-7 First Cav third platoon near a million shipper. Tay Ninh 1970.”

[CW: This story is partly set in the 1970s and contains language that some readers may find offensive.]

Monsoon. I remember the darkness and flash of light when the Claymores exploded. Both hands clamped to my ears until the screams quieted down. At dawn, we marched up the slippery ridge to scout the trail, hadn’t gotten fifty yards when the Cong who’d survived the blast opened fire. The men up front shot back. Someone called for a frag. I handed one to the grunt ahead of me, who passed it up the line, until the pointman pulled the pin, chucked it. BOOM. And they were dead.

“Medic!” shouts Lewitt.

I crawl to where Bill lies flat on his back, alive but unblinking. “It’s Doc,” I say. “Where you hit?”

But he does not answer. I can see no injuries to his chest, arms, legs, groin, belly. Then I see the dark blood dripping from the deep gash at the back of his head. I crawl closer, press a thick white bandage to the raw wound. Two grunts help me drag him down the muddy hill. I cannot bring myself to give him mouth-to-mouth. I don’t know why. Or maybe I do. Jenkins the head medic puts a curved pharyngeal tube down Bill’s throat and breathes into it. We later learn it didn’t help.

I turn my attention to Briggs, the soul brother from Detroit. Bill shot him as he fell, reflexively pulling the trigger.

“Give me a morphine, Doc,” he moans. “Somebody, give me a fucking joint.”

I press white gauze to the hole in his leg where blood pours out. Next, I pull a morphine syrette from my aid bag, jab him, squeeze the small metal tube. Slowly empty it into his arm. I light the joint. Briggs, still trembling, puffs on it vigorously. Someone throws yellow smoke for the medevac. When they arrive, they kick out two litters. Cruz and the new guy Jessie carry Briggs to the chopper. Before Rollins and I lift Bill, I drop to one knee, cup my hand to his ear.

“This is Doc. Everyone loves you.”

The bird lifts off. Rollins, a proud Southerner, puts a hand on my shoulder. His comforting words are lost in the whirlwind of red dust and yellow smoke, which hide my tears. A day later we learn Bill is dead.

“Goddamn,” says Jessie. “Goddamn.”

I pay no mind to the friendly new guy. FNG’s will call them. My best friend is gone.

From the jungle, sitting on my pack, I compose a letter to Bill’s wife. How sorry we are. How we respected Bill. Cared for him. The platoon signs the letter. I hope she receives it before the Army’s heartless telegram arrives. I am twenty years old. I know nothing of marital love. She writes back, the sheer power of her pleading to know what happened overwhelms me. I bury her living letter in my ruck. Over time it disintegrates.


Thirty years on I visited our lieutenant. For two solid hours we recalled Vietnam.

When the lone enemy will not surrender, the lieutenant blows her away. Fragments of the girl’s skull strike his arm. I dress the wound but miss the bone flecks beneath his jaw, which, I did not know, became infected, and nearly killed him.

Immediately, I look to see the damage, put my arm around the man we once called Six.

“Christ. I’m sorry, sir. Are you all right?”     

“Don’t worry, Doc,” he said, turning his gaze toward emptiness. “Don’t worry.”

After a time he spoke of Bill. “There was talk it was friendly fire.”

 “I don’t believe it,” I said. Are you sure?”


 What to do? I must locate the next-of-kin.


The mayor’s office of Danville, Iowa sent a single page torn from a phone directory. One name is underlined. I would be the bearer of good and bad news. Bill’s brother Dale answered. We spoke in hushed tones. I learned that Bill’s death was a mystery. The army, said Dale, stone-walled the family for twenty years. Their mother went to her grave a bitter woman.

“He was killed in an ambush,” I lied. “I’m so sorry.”

After the silence, “Bill read paperbacks,” I said. “He kept one in his helmet band – shared them with me. He talked about growing up on a farm. The house he and Liz bought. He showed me her photograph. Once, when I ran out of water in dry season, Bill gave me a full canteen. He was like that.”

“The day we were overrun…” But I could not speak of what we did to survive. I could not. Instead, I told Dale what Bill confided to me. In Saigon, he composed intelligence reports. When he refused to limit American casualties, boost enemy losses, they made him a grunt. Sent him to us.

“He was a good man” I said. “Everyone liked him.”

At that, Dale and I wept. After a time, Liz re-married, he said, and gave me her address. She and I exchanged heartfelt letters. That seemed like a fitting end to the story.


Years passed. Not long ago I received a call from a woman who read online that I’d spoken with Dale. Her father was present when Bill was shot. He’s been haunted by that day ever since.

“My dad would love to speak to the family,” she said.

“Have him call me.”

I wondered who could it be? 

That evening, “Is that you, Doc? This is Don Rollins.”

In my mind, I see him: tall, thin, agile, boonie hat cocked to one side. But the voice I hear is not that of the young Southerner I knew, but of a weary old man. We talk of small matters, then, bit by bit, Vietnam’s relentless heat and cruel red dust, the monsoon rains, pulled us back in time.

“Kind of quiet,” said Don, recalling the lieutenant. “But slick with a rifle. Good with a map. Never got lost.”

“The new guy. Jessie. Kind of a dud,” I said. Don’t you think?”

I see him standing in canopy dappled sunlight, his helmet slightly askew, a look of befuddlement upon his face. Ungainly, noisy, he is ill-suited for combat. Look at him. A human scarecrow afraid of itself, Private Jessie Alwin Collins will get us all killed.

Don paused, as if to mull things over. “Weren’t he that nervous fella, liked to listen to train sounds on cassettes?”

“I never understood him,” I said.

I imagine Don smiled to himself. He seemed to chuckle. We talked about Bill.

“Going down that ridge,” he said. “Larry Roy, Briggs, Bill, that fuckin’ new guy Jessie, me right behind. Them VC popped up. We shot back.” He hesitated. “That’s when it happened.”

“What?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I could hear him breathing.


“Jessie was behind Bill. He panicked. Didn’t aim. Just fired away. He’s the one shot Bill in the head. I seen it, Doc. I seen the colored fella hit when Bill went down.” Don’s voice lowered to a whisper. “I seen it, and never said a goddamn thing.”

He began sobbing, but all I could think of was why? Why didn’t he speak up? Confront the FNG. Tell the lieutenant. What held him back? History repeats itself. I could not bring myself to ask. Instead, I blurted out that days after Don went home, Rollins staggered into the aid station, where I now worked. When the doctor lifted the blood soaked bandage a red stream jetted from the small wound made by a single M16 bullet. The X-ray revealed the bones of his shoulder splintered in a thousand pieces.

“What happened?” I asked Rollins.

“Jessie,” he mumbled.                                                                                                                       

He’d been shot by Jessie. Don went quiet.                                                                                 

“Any problems since the war?” I asked.                                                                                  

“Just a bad temper at work,” he said. “I told them new bosses ‘Don’t you get in my face, now. I mean it. Don’t you get in my face.’ And before I did something stupid, Doc, I walked out.”

His quick anger did not surprise me. I knew this sudden shift to rage only too well.

“What about you, Doc? You got them kinda problems?”

Therapy, meds, three broken marriages.

“Something like that,” I said. “How’s your health?”                                                                   

“Last year a young nurse says to me, ‘Sir, did you know you been walking around with this much metal inside you?’ And she got my shrapnel in her hand and shook it. Made them pieces jingle. Said I should make a VA disability claim. I said, ‘Darling, I’ll think about it.’”

For the longest time Don loved to hunt and fish, but now, with his game leg….                 

“You know, she’s healing, Doc. I’m getting there. Well, good talking. You take care now.”      

How could I be so stupid? I could have kicked myself. If Don had reported Jessie, then Rollins would not have been shot. Christ. I had caused Don more harm than good.

For a week I thought of nothing else. Where is he? Where is that friendly no good, new guy, son-of-a-bitch hiding? I figured the best place to look for Jessie had to do with trains. Him and his goddamn cassettes. On a hunch, the American Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Yes, they replied. He’s a member. We’ll forward your email.


I have made up my mind to be calm, matter of fact, amicable. I will allow Jessie to dig his own grave. At exactly the right moment I will spring the ambush. He will howl in agony. After a time I will bury him. I will do that.

He expected my call.

“Hi Doc! How are you!”

I am surprised at the ease with which we talk. He hasn’t changed. Still frivolous, carefree, cheerful.

“What you been up to?” I ask.

“Well, Doc,” and off he goes. Forty plus years with the railroad. Brakeman to engineer, he loves it all. Trains, he says, are his life. He photographs them whenever he can.

“I saw your railroad flicks online,” I say. “They’re excellent.”

“And I travelled a lot, too, Doc. Every state in the union.”

Married forty-seven years, retired in 2012. Church goers, he and Janet have kids and grandkids.

“I’ve had a good life, Doc. The Lord protects me. I am grateful and blessed.”

When Jessie said he made squad leader I nearly choke on my spit. Are you kidding me? Here is a man who could not lace his boots without causing bodily harm. Who could not march ten feet without falling down. He was careless. Sloppy. Loud. Never looked for hints of an ambush. The man was cursed, hexed, bad voodoo. The bringer of all bad things. And his voice, his happy-go-lucky, ain’t life grand, la-de-da voice angers me still. “You dumb bastard,” I want to shout. “You train wreck, shitbird FNG, will you kindly, please, shut the fuck up.”

I tell myself there are better things in this world to be said. And I will say them. Soon.

“Squad leader? Impressive,” I lie.

And he keeps talking.

“Remember Leon, Doc?”

“Of course.”

Leon lay sprawled in a bamboo thicket, the fighting too fierce to recover him. The following day, there is not much left to recover. Cruz lucked out. Shot in the hand, “a million dollar wound” we called it.

Jessie speaks of the tinned food we carried in our rucks.

“Fruit cocktail!” he cries. “And beans and franks!”

When Bill’s name comes up, matter of factly, I ask, “What happened that day?”

“Oh, there was an ambush,” says Jessie. “Bill was shot. I wrote to his wife. I sent her photographs.”

Secretly stunned, “Right, right,” I say.

Five years ago, Elizabeth sent me those same photos.

“Do you have any more?”

In the lingo of our time, “Beaucoup,” says Jessie. “I’ll send you copies.”                           

Every photograph is a story, and I have hundreds. Aloud, in the eye of my mind, I recall the day our platoon lost four men. Four times, my replacement botched the medevac. Four times, he wrongly hooked the D ring to the foot of the canvas litter. Four times, the wounded men were hoisted upside down. None survived.

“Naw. That never happened, Doc. I led that patrol. Holy cow! That never happened!”

I knew those grunts. I loved them. Not yet. Not yet.                                                               

Lightheartedly, Jessie describes the day two platoons walked into each other, both sides firing wildly, machine gun tracers whizzing past his head.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” he cried. He jokes about the two men shot in the ass.

“Ouch!” he says joyfully. “Ouch! I bet that hurt!”

I can’t believe it. “Suppose it was you,” I nearly growl. 

In my eighth month I visited Japan, where I whored and drank and gambled and could not wait to leave.

“What about you, Jessie. Where’d you take R&R?”

 “Australia!” he proclaims.

He sought out parks, museums, movies. Took pictures of steam locomotives.

“I had a swell time, Doc. Everyone so nice and friendly.”

“Lucky you,” I say.

Maybe. Maybe not.

We’ve been talking at least an hour. I feel obliged to tell one last story.

“It changed me,” I say. “I didn’t know it at the time.”

“What’s that, Doc? What changed you?”

“The first Viet Cong I killed.”

My voice goes cold, flat. That day, as three of us approached a wide stream, I saw him, unarmed, bathing. Spotting me, he inhaled three times, upended himself, disappeared. I pulled the pin from a frag, tossed it where I guessed he’d come up for air. Seconds later, the round metal bomb erupted in a churning, boiling stew of blood and water. Hundreds of fish, killed by the shock wave, floated up to the swirling surface. Among their swollen bodies, his dead hands, his head of bobbing hair. I crossed that river, elated.

Jessie cannot stop laughing. “Who changed, Doc? You or him?”


“Don Rollins,” I said. “Ring any bells?”   

The man does not flinch or groan or hesitate. “No,” he says, almost child-like. “Who was he?”

What to say and how to say it? Or say nothing at all?

“It’s getting late. I’m fading, Jessie. Send me those flicks, will you?”

“Absolutely, Doc. We’ll talk soon.”

I felt like a fool complimenting him. For asking a favor. Yet I want those photographs of anxious young men trudging through paddies, marching through jungle, wading through streams. Want to see and hear plunging gunships unleash white-tailed rockets, obliterate the Viet Cong. Want to hear once more the thick metal treads of clattering tanks crushing all in their path. I want to see and feel and taste Vietnam through the eyes of a man who does and does not know it.

More than once, while we talked, I felt guilt for withholding from Jessie what I knew.Yet I also felt sorry for him. What to make of this garrulous, bright, successful fellow, his half-century of denial sharp as obsidian? What to make of myself, for seeking him out?Deceiving him.

Was Jessie innocent? A murderer? Here is what I know: he took the life of my best friend. On the night the enemy overwhelmed us, I froze, fear stricken, shaking so hard I could not see my hands before my face. Bill shouted angry words, grabbed my weapon and frags, pushed me aside, leapt from the foxhole into the heart of it. From where I knelt I watched him firing as he ran. Saw him stoop low, chuck grenades over the berm, killing two sappers. A gunship unleashed its rockets and minigun. The levelled cannons fired straight into the woodline. Enormous white flares illuminated the pitch black sky. Suddenly, it seemed, all went quiet. I’d been hit by shrapnel. Without a word, Bill patched me up. Before I had the courage to ask his forgiveness, he was shot.

I imagine myself rousting Jessie from a comfortable dream. Loud and clear I begin shouting: “The farm boy is dead! And you, Mr Bad Luck, two-bit, beaucoup FNG, killed him! You, squad-leader-my-ass, shot him point blank back of the head.” Dumbfounded, penitent, fearful, Jessie will beg for mercy. Yet my anger and grief seek reprisal.

“I have a present for you,” I will say, and cock the hammer of my forty-five. “A good-bye present.”

But what good is my burning rage? Hasn’t the war ruined enough lives,…mine? Turned enough families inside out. Haven’t we all suffered enough? Why not listen to the man who begs for mercy? Why not listen to my own pleading heart? For my sake. His. Those whose lives we took. I will do that.

Marc Levy

My writing has appeared in New Millennium Writings, Chiron Review, Stone Canoe, CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts, CounterPunch, Queen's Quarterly, The Westchester Review and elsewhere. My war photography has appeared in Rattapallax, Fiction International and in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. I won the 2016 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families Writing Award. I was an infantry medic with Delta 1/7 First Cavalry in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. My website is Medic in the Green Time.

My writing has appeared in New Millennium Writings, Chiron Review, Stone Canoe, CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts, CounterPunch, Queen's Quarterly, The Westchester Review and elsewhere. My war photography has appeared in Rattapallax, Fiction International and in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. I won the 2016 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families Writing Award. I was an infantry medic with Delta 1/7 First Cavalry in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. My website is Medic in the Green Time.

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