by Hank Webb
Growing up in a small Massachusetts town, I played guitar, went camping, and planned to be a lawyer. After joining ROTC in college, I went to boot camp in 1968, and was deployed to Vietnam.
Quang Tri was a hotbed of activity, but things calmed down by the time I arrived. But we always had to be on the alert, because the attacks could begin at any time.
Our base in Quang Tri was primitive. We poured buckets of water over each other to "shower." Later, makeshift wooden structures were built with small stalls providing the luxury of a shower, with ice-cold water.
In Quang Tri I became the Battalion Signal Officer and the Signal Equipment Maintenance Officer - responsible for everything from field phones to counter-mortar radars. I had to ensure that everything was installed and working properly.
Although I knew little about Judaism, I soon became the Jewish lay leader on the DMZ. The place lacked Jewish books and supplies, so I wrote my father, who contacted the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York. I soon received a box with tallaisim, yarmulkes, siddurim etc., and a warm letter recommending that I contact Chaplain Glenn Stengel.
Chaplain Stengel was brought to us by a Special Forces helicopter from Phu Bai on a Friday afternoon. Shortly before his arrival, we received intelligence reports warning us of an imminent enemy attack. I therefore slept in my boots and flak jacket on Friday night and kept my loaded weapon handy next to my bed.
The report proved accurate. At about 0300 hours (3:00 am), we were awakened by the shrill whistle of incoming rockets followed by earsplitting explosions. The sky lit up as the rockets came in, one after another. Soon we could discern the sound of our own artillery and nearby machine guns returning fire. The place was in an uproar.
We all jumped out of bed to run toward our assigned battle positions. One fellow, Captain Doug McGill, also slept in my hooch. "Here," McGill said, holding out his flak jacket to Chaplain Stengel.
"Take this. Youll probably be needed at the battalion headquarters bunker to assist the dying with their spiritual needs."
I looked at my friend incredulously. I couldnt believe he was ready to go into battle without his flak jacket! I wasn't about to part from mine, and here he was offering his to a Jewish chaplain he barely knew. After handing the jacket to Chaplain Stengel, he ran out, completely exposed, to do his job.
I followed Doug into the night, running toward the sector for which I was responsible. The noise was incredible, and the entire sky was illuminated, so that I had no trouble seeing where I was going.
In addition to one's regular duties, everyone on base also had a designated position that he had to assume in the event of an attack. I was in charge of defending a section of the perimeter that included nine bunkers each manned by four or five soldiers. The "bunkers" were not dug into the ground, but were enclosed by sandbags for protection.
I was in constant communication with the men I commanded, directing their fire toward the enemy's position. I suddenly lost communication with some of the bunkers. I was now forced into the terrible position of having to order one of my men into a life-threatening situation. One soldier, Sergeant Bob Emery, instantly agreed to crawl toward the perimeter and try to restore communication.
As Emery slithered away through the mud, I doubted that I would ever see him alive again. Bullets were flying everywhere, and it was unlikely he could avoid them all. Nonetheless, the sergeant bravely did his job. He followed the wire and managed to repair it while fire raged all around him. I was immensely relieved when I saw him crawl back unscathed.
The battle continued for two hours. Halfway through, I could no longer command effectively, since I was unable to see what was going on outside my bunker. There was an observation tower with four soldiers inside directly above the bunker where I huddled with several men. I decided to go up there to get a better view of the enemy's position.
While the tower itself was fortified against enemy fire, I was exposed during my climb up the ladder. I tried to ascend as quickly as possible, despite the heavy protective equipment I was wearing and the rifle slung over my shoulder. Just as I was on the top rung, about to step over the tower's railing, I felt a breeze as a bullet whizzed by, grazing my right ear. I hurled myself over the railing, startling the four guys crouching inside as I fell on top of them.
Laying on my back, looking up at a sky ablaze, I wondered whether I was still alive. Was this what death felt like? I had heard the bullet; I had felt its breeze. Was it possible that my life wasn't over yet?
I pinched myself hard. Surprisingly, it hurt. An odd sensation came over me, as I listened to the sound of my breathing in disbelief. I never felt more alive, as I suddenly became keenly aware of each intake of breath.
I was overcome with a sense of gratitude.
"Thank you, G-d," I whispered. "You kept me alive. Please help me get through this to the end. I know that you saved me for a purpose. I must have something important to do with my life. Ill try my best to figure out what that is, and Ill do whatever You want of me. Just keep me alive and give me a chance to fulfill this promise."
It all happened in a matter of seconds, but it was a moment of truth and inspiration. I quickly got to my feet and surveyed the battlefield. I saw incoming fire from an enemy position on the right side of the perimeter. I directed my men to aim toward that position, and I fired at it as well. Soon the firing from that location ceased. Ill never know if my bullets killed or injured anyone, but we all fired in self-defense.
At 0500 hours, just as the first rays of sunlight appeared, the incoming fire stopped. The long, terrible night was finally over.
Climbing down from the observation tower and inspecting the surrounding area, I found a young man who was hit in the stomach. I stopped a sergeant driving a jeep. Together, we dragged the man onto the front seat, placing him between us. While the driver made his way toward the hospital tent, the young soldier was losing color in his face with each passing moment. He was bleeding profusely, and I literally held his stomach together with my hands. At last, we reached the surgical area, where doctors treated him immediately. (The man lived several days, and I stopped by twice to visit him. Sadly, he died while being transferred by air to a hospital in Japan.)
By now, I could no longer ignore the deep yearning I felt for a more purposeful lifestyle. My sudden brush with death was a turning point that made me long for a meaningful life. Shortly after the terrible battle, I began observing Shabbos, trying to make good on my commitment that "I will do whatever You want of me."
Excerpted from Loyal Soldier by Shaindy Perl