The VigilanceVoice

Saturday-- June 8, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 269

Blood On A Leaf
Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, June 8--The story in the New York Times this morning about construction workers at Ground Zero finding a new cache of body parts in a building adjacent to the World Trade Center startled me.   
      On May 30, I walked in tribute at the Ground Zero closing ceremonies with the families of those who had been confirmed dead or missing during the September 11th Terrorist attack 
       Officially, the search and rescue operations ended that day.  Symbolically, the last "body" was carried out of the Ground Zero pit to sound of Taps, put in an ambulance and driven slowly up West Street through an honor guard of firemen, police and rescue workers who, for the past nearly nine months, had dug and raked through millions of tons of dirt and debris to find any remaining signs of the missing. 
       Of the 2823 people presumed confirmed dead in the attack, only 1,058 have been identified as of May 30.   I thought perhaps the ceremony might offer me some closure, some suturing of the wounds of that horrible day when I witnessed bodies leaping from windows, and shuddered as the buildings collapsed and washed us all in a deathly pall I was sure contained bio-chemical agents.
     I hoped the ceremonies would end my constant reminder of the devastation of war.   The door to my memories of Vietnam had never been shut.  I thought participating in closure ceremonies on May 30 might offer some reprieve from both old and new war scars.
     I was wrong.
     This morning's Times article talked about finding fingers in the building's rain gutter, and jaw bones with teeth intact in the guts of building.  The body parts were found in a bank building adjacent to the World Trade Center.  It hadn't been searched because primary attention was given to Ground Zero soil.  After rescue operations ceased, construction workers began to dismantle the wounded building.   Inside, they found found parts of the airplane--seats and baggage containers--as well as human remains scattered everywhere.
     My stomach turned as I read the story.    It was like Promethius opening Pandora's Box again.   I saw the horror of the past come to life.  This time it was more vivid,  more disturbing because my Vigilance guard was down.  After May 30, I lowered my emotional shields.  I cried that day when Taps was played.  I had never cried before for war victims, or my part in war.   I did that day.
      The Times story sobered me to the reality that death and destruction always lingers, constantly fertilizes the present with its acrid scent of decaying flesh locked in my memory cells.  I had hoped the Closing Ceremonies washed such memories clean.  But the article resurrected the stench within.
     It  triggered ancient memories of Terrorism I prefer not to embrace.   They were of a time three-and-a-half decades ago when I was a young warrior in the Marine Corps, marching through the rice paddies of Vietnam on one of many  "search and destroy" missions.  
      It brought back the vivid memory of a bloody leaf.
     In early 1966 we were hunting  North Vietnamese regulars--the toughest of all enemies one could face in Vietnam.  They were regimented warriors, not hit-and-run specialists like the Viet Cong.  They stood their ground and fought to the death, taking as many of us with them as possible.
     They ambushed us, pinning us down in a rice paddy.  We crawled into our helmets, using any tiny precipice of a paddy dike for cover, waiting to die as the crossfire laced a network of lead inches above our heads and making it impossible to assault without instantly being cut in half.  
       We lay in the muck and lifted our rifles up blindly and fired, not daring to raise our heads into the killing zone to take aim.  We radioed for air support, hoping our Marine close air support would swoop down and surgically drop napalm or bombs on the enemy and not us.  The North Vietnamese were so close you could smell the foul odor of their fish oil saturating the bags of rice they feasted upon so they could kill us on full stomachs.
      Finally, the planes screamed down.  The heat of the napalm scorched us. We buried our faces in the dirty paddy water praying the jet jockeys didn't miss their targets and light us up.  Then we assaulted.  
     A few of the Vietnamese warriors survived.  They injected themselves with heroin or opium, and tied their hands to the grips of their machine guns.  Some were literally cut in half but still firing, the drug easing the pain of death as their fingers twitched on the triggers, taking as many of us out before the final drops of their blood  drained into the soil.
     In the end it wasn't a victory.  No one cheered as we waded through the charred bodies, searching for any lingering life, wary of snipers tied into trees.  The snipers protected the retreating enemy.  They tied themselves to the trees so if they were wounded they wouldn't fall and could squeeze off final rounds before we blew the tree and their remaining bodies to kingdom come.  They died honorable warriors.
     Some battles end in reverent silence.   When warriors fight fiercely to the death it seems there is no jubilation on the victor's side--just a gladness it is over prevails--an ecclesiastical resignation to the end of one more conflict that only signals a momentary respite before the next one begins.  The threat of death never leaves the combat zone except after a battle when you realize how lucky you were to still be alive.
     As Marines, we respected the North Vietnamese's fighting will.  They were as tough as we, as dedicated, as brave and and courageous toward their goals of winning, of inflicting the greatest pain and suffering upon their enemy.
     That's why we walked through the body count in respect.   Man-for-man, they were our brothers in blood.   We all knew that.   We didn't cheer at their defeat.  In another time, another place, under different circumstances, we might have fought on the same side.  Ideology separated us, but we were equals in Courage, Bravery and Conviction.  Our parallel willingness to die made us blood brothers.
       After mopping up, we left the battlefield and moved on, continuing our sweep.
     A few months later we were on patrol in the same sector.   I had forgotten about the battle in the rice paddy until we came upon the scene.  
      It was a bright sunny day.  Life was peaceful.   The rice shoots were standing tall above the water.   Silvery spots danced on the surface as the wind tickled the water, causing the sun's reflection to create a shimmer..   Clumps of white clouds lazed overhead and the bright green verdant view of the Vietnam landscape framed the scene into a soft watercolor that might have rivaled any travel poster.
      We took a break at the spot.
       I began to search for battle signs--perhaps a shell casing, or a used compress, a helmet, some artifact that might denote we had been here turning the rice paddy water red with our blood.   The battle area had been picked clean either by the farmers who wanted their land returned to its original state, or by the Viet Cong who used anything and everything left behind.
       Tired,  sweaty and empty handed  I sat down next to a paddy dike.   I removed my helmet and leaned back against the slope of a small mound of dirt.   That's when I saw it--my artifact--the bloody leaf.
       At first I didn't recognize the rusty color clinging to the bright green "V"-shaped leaf that arched upwards from a long stem and appeared to be sunning itself.    I slipped my finger under the leaf and lifted it slightly, religiously, to inspect it more closely.
       The dried blood had survived; it was now part of the leaf.  I sat for a few moments staring at it.  I wondered whose it was--ours or theirs?  I wondered how old the owner of it had been?  I wondered about his friends, mother, father, wife, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles?
       I touched the dried, caked surface where the blood had been embossed into leaf's veins, as though hoping to dial up some mysterious spiritual station that might lead me to its owner's life, to see who he was, what he was like.   There was something special about touching it--both life and death in one body.   It seemed the two had blended into one, the alpha and omega, the binary of existence.  I felt the answer to the meaning of life and death was captured in the molecules of the leaf--that it held some answer to all my questions only I couldn't translate them.
       Then the command came for us to "saddle up and move out."   I sat for an extra moment, pondering whether I should pick the leaf and take it with me as a memento, a reminder of the devastation of war.  I thought about sending it home to my fiance' and having her press it into a book so that years later I could open it and touch and smell and ponder some more, hopeful that the answer to my questions might come with age and wisdom.
      "Saddle up!  Move out!"
      I reached for the leaf.  My fingers were poised near the stem.  Then they froze.  I couldn't pick it.  It belonged here, in a rice paddy in Southeast Asia, not in a book.  Life and death were not mine to pick, only to ponder.  I took one last look at whomever's blood it was that anointed the leaf and realized that everything recycles.   The blood of the dead gives life to the new.  
      I stood and placed my helmet on my head. Then I saluted the blood-stained leaf.   I saluted the bravery and courage of warriors fighting for what they believed, and, at the same time, felt the sadness and waste that resulted when people's viewpoints differ so much they are willing to kill one another over their differences.  How sad, I thought, how terribly sad.
      When I returned to regimental headquarters, I wrote a story about the bloody leaf.  It was published in our paper.   Its theme was how the earth swallows the signs of war and recycles them back to life, but leaves in that soil the Courage, Conviction and Bravery of those who fertilized it with their blood.
.    Then I forgot about the bloody leaf.  I forgot about it until this morning when I read about the new body parts being found.
      The story this morning reminder me that Terrorism is the blood on America's leaf.