Book Learning and Experience


It was hot and muggy even before the sun had risen over the greenness of the jungle canopy. The sounds of the base mingled awkwardly with the natural sounds that grew and rapidly died away in the tropical forest that surrounded them

The sentries on the perimeter were on edge. Twice during the night the outposts had alerted them to the possibility of enemy troop movements. The guards in the outpost were overly sensitive to anything unusual as two had been taken from their assigned post and tortured to death.

Fear permeated the atmosphere.

Doc was up at his usual time. He needed to be ready for the everyday business: first sick call then aid to the local inhabitants.

“Coffee’s on,” Doc said to the Captain as he stepped inside the infirmary.

The Captain glanced at the small stove in the corner and then back at Doc. “Thanks,” he said. Then he added, “Best be ready, something’s up.”

Doc stopped and turned around to face the Captain. “What’s up?” he asked.

“I can’t put my finger on it,” the Captain replied back as he made his way to the coffee pot that was on the stove.

After pouring a tin full of coffee and taking a sip, “We haven’t heard from Garfield, yet,” the Captain said.

“What time was their check in?” Doc shot back.

“Couple of hours ago,” the Captain replied, “I’m planning to send out a sweep at first daylight.

Doc knew immediately that he would need to set up the infirmary so it could be used as a make shift hospital and morgue. He sighed heavily as he set himself to work.

Within the first hour of the sun peeking over the horizon, the first casualty was in the morgue. Soon a second body arrived. Both had suffered the same torturous death. Skin that was peeled away and broken bones. It was savage and a form of emotional hell that worked on every man’s soul.

No one wanted to admit to himself or to his comrade that he was frightened of the prospect that he might be captured or taken and murdered slowly and painfully. The torture death of their comrades was having its effect.

But daily, soldiers left the safety of the compound, in numbers of five or greater, set on tracking down and engaging this invisible enemy. Their only link to the outside world was a radio, carried on the back of one of these men.

And daily, a soldier would not return only to be found later at some remote location, dead. To answer this growing concern it was decided that pushing the jungle back would solve the problem. For weeks the engineers ran their heavy equipment up against the tropical forests. They slashed and they burned, until the jungle was more than one thousand yards clear from the base perimeter.

For weeks the work continued and torturing deaths stopped. The Captain was transferred to another base and a lieutenant arrived as his replacement. He was fresh from officer training and felt he was up for the task.

“He’s sending units out again,” came the grumbling from a soldier standing in line for sick call. Doc noticed that the line had grown longer in the last few days. This was the effect that the enemy wanted and it was working.

Doc walked across the compound towards the Commanding Officers’ tent. The new lieutenant met him. “Sir, can I speak with you?” Doc asked.

The lieutenant looked him up and down, and then requested more than asked, “Do you remember how to salute?” Doc just stood there and looked at the young officer.

“Well?” the officer inquired again.

“Yes, sir,” Doc responded, “But I’m not going to salute you because it’ll get us killed.”

The officer narrowed his eyes and glared directly into Doc’s eyes. The stare was penetrating, yet Doc didn’t blink. Then the lieutenant pushed passed the fire base medic and rapidly walked into his tent. Doc turned and followed him inside.

Once inside Doc came to attention and raised his right hand to this eyeglass rim and saluted. The lieutenant stepped behind his desk and returned the salute.

“If you think that gets you off the hook,” the young officer said, “You best think again.”

“Sir, you haven’t been in country long enough to know that the enemy looks for us to salute,” Doc started, “It gives them a target to shoot at.” Then he added, “Sometimes they can hit their targets, some times they can’t.” He paused, and then asked, “Do you want to take that chance, sir?”

Doc remained standing at attention. He could tell that the officer was still angry as his jaw was jutting out and his eyes were nothing more than narrow slits. Then the lieutenant growled, “Dismissed.”

“Sir, I still need to speak with you,” Doc responded.

“I don’t care! Get out of my office, now!” the officer snapped. Doc saluted, turned on his heels and left the tent.

Later that day a communications runner entered the infirmary. “Heads up, Doc, just got word that a teams coming in blown all to hell.”

“Thanks,” was all that Doc said as he went to work setting up the tent.

The next three weeks brought more of the same. A unit would go out and while walking through a cleared trail, they would trip an explosive trap. “It’s always the new guys, sir,” Doc said to the lieutenant. “They don’t have the training.”

“Oh, so now you know all about training, do you?” the lieutenant countered.

Doc shook his head, “No, sir, that’s not what I’m saying.” He paused then added, “There’s learning what the manual says and then there’s experience.”

“That’s what they’re getting, aren’t they?” the officer came back.

“Yeah, but they need to be told what to look for and to expect before you send them out for a walk in the woods, sir,” the Doc offered. The young officer dismissed him.

Two days later a unit came into a firefight with the enemy. There were seven enemy soldiers captured. Four had been killed in the battle and left for the jungle to reclaim their remains.

The seven-captured enemies were taken for interrogation. It was soon discovered that these seven enemies were the invisible enemy that had taken so many troops and murdered them. There was sense of relief throughout the firebase.

Operations continued as usual and morale picked-up and sick call decreased. Yet Doc had an uneasy feeling. He knew things were still not right. The matter of so many soldiers being killed by anti-personnel mines still haunted him. Doc had seen eleven servicemen arrive and eight of those had returned home in body bags. Doc discovered that he was starting to feel demoralized now.

“You need to make it personalized for the C. O.,” was the suggestion of another non-commissioned officer. Doc thought it over and decided that this was the best course of action. It took one more death for Doc to conclude the best direction needed to make his point.

“Hey, Gunny, you got a dummy grenade?” Doc asked.

The sergeant looked at him and answered, “Yeah, but what does a medic need with a grenade?”

“Got a little demonstration planned for today,” replied Doc as he walked out with the grenade tucked in his pocket.

After chow, Doc watched as the lieutenant crossed the compound to his tent. Next he reached into his pocket and pulled out the dummy grenade. Then he walked across the compound to the Commanding Officers’ tent.

Doc pulled open the tent flap and said, “Hey, Lieutenant, sir.”

The young officer looked up at him and said, “What?”

He was sitting behind his desk doing paperwork. He looked down at the papers in his ands.

“I want to show you the difference between book learning’ and experience,” the Doc continued.

“What the hell are you talking about,” the Lieutenant said impatiently.

Doc stepped inside the dimly lit tent and yanked the pin from the grenade. The Lieutenant was still looking down when the grenade bounced off the desk and struck him in the chest, finally falling into his lap.

The Lieutenant screamed as loud as he could as he rolled back from his desk. He pitched himself from his chair. The grenade bounced to the floor next to his head. He rolled away from it and up against the interior wall of his tent office.

He tried to crawl towards the doorway of the tent where Doc was still standing. He looked up at Doc. Then he stood up.

“You’ve wet yourself, sir,” Doc said as he pointed to the Lieutenants’ pants. The officer was shaking as he looked at his wet uniform.

You son of a bitch!” he screeched.

“No, sir! That’s you,” Doc said back to him. Then he added, “I’m certain that you were taught what the manual says to do in case you encounter a grenade attack, doesn’t it, sir?”

“Yeah, but that’s different,” the officer shouted.

“That’s the point,” Doc coolie stated. Then he added, “They’re all different!”

Then Doc left the officer standing in his tent. He walked across the compound with the dummy grenade and pin in his hand.

The following week, training was implemented to supplement the incoming troop’s education about the type of warfare they would encounter. And the Lieutenant requested and received a transfer to a state-side job.

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