Where the Jungle Ends

The helicopters flew close to the tree line as the group of warriors sat, feet dangling from the doorways. It was early morning and the sun had not yet presented itself, but already the unit had been sent into the field to deploy a counter-strike against Communist forces operating in the area.

Tommy was in the third helicopter as it banked hard to the left and settled momentarily in the break within the jungle. For him, as the corpsman of this 24 man team, the jungle looked like one solid canopy.

“It seems too thick to move through,” he had complained once.

The military had proved him wrong. Tommy had been sent out three times to try and make hostile contact with the Communist. However each time the enemy was gone. Instead they left a wake of death and destruction in their retreat.

The helicopter lifted away and disappeared over the dense jungle. The green leaves dulled then blocked the sound of the aircraft as they moved farther and father from the landing zone.

Quickly each team member moved to the edge of the jungle, setting up a defensive perimeter for the next incoming flight. It was less than five minutes for each helicopter to drop off its armed cargo.

Once the last six man team was dropped and had moved to the edge of the jungle and out of the clearing, the unit’s mission changed. It was always like this, each step was a change in the mission. It ensured a smooth flow within the operation and each team member knew this.

Tommy was assigned to the second element which moved through the center of the team’s field of operation. This way he could go to either element if needed. He hoped that he would not be needed at all.

The jungle was quiet at first. This was natural as the life that it held had to become accustom to the presents of humans. It took another five minutes for the first of the birds that remained in the upper canopy to start calling out to each other.

That’s when the separate elements moved into the thick undergrowth towards their destination.

This was Tommy’s fourth time out since being temporarily transferred to this unit. He had been assigned to a Company that operated clandestinely in a desert area half a world away. There he was also fighting the Communist.

“We’ll move in this direction,” signaled a young lieutenant.

Quietly they advanced towards what was believed to be danger and possible death. Each man carried only an M-16, a knife and what provision he could stuff into his butt-pack. Only Tommy and the radio operator carried more equipment.

The radio was a PRC and much smaller than the older radios that where packed in previous conflicts. The radio operator stayed within steps of the commanding officer, a graduate of Annapolis and Major.

Tommy was close enough to hear the slight hiss of the PRC radio as it worked to maintain contact with the nearest firebase some twenty miles away. The jungle’s growth was no problem for the radio waves; however the multiple valleys and other shallows that the unit flew over and beyond made the radio nearly useless.

The company had been making steady progress for nearly an hour when the signal to “stop and hold,” was passed down from man to man. Soon the Major and radio operator were called forward.

“Something must be up,” someone whispered to Tommy.

It was less than two-minutes when Tommy was called forward. He quickly trotted up to where the commanding officer stood. The older man had a pale look on his face as he directed the young medic to a place were two Marines stood looking down.

Before Tommy could reach the two Marines, he was overwhelmed by the odor of death and decay. Then he saw the source. It appeared to be a man, who had been left to fester in the jungle.

The rotting body had been stripped and beaten. Eventually, the corpse had been reduced to a pile of meat and bones. It was obvious to Tommy that the human being had been tortured and then hacked up on purpose.

“What do you make of it?” the Major asked.

Tommy replied, “He’s been here about three days. There’s evidence that wild animals have been gnawing at the corpse. I’d say that this must be some sort of warning, sir.”

“We need to push on towards the river and make contact if possible,” the Major told a Captain.

The Captain nodded in agreement.

The remains of the body were covered by an O.D. green poncho. It was hidden from the sight of the other Marines who would soon pass by.

However the smell could not be avoided. It was pungent and nauseating, filling the heavy jungle air within twenty-five feet of the corps. There was no effort made to hide the smell.

It was less than 2 miles to the river and soon there was no hiding the fact that something awful had occurred in the area. The odor of death and decay was every where and men started to gag on the smell.

There were bodies left in the low lying vegetation as the two elements pushed on through towards their objective. Tommy soon realized that the bodies were those of the indigenous tribe of Mosquito Indians.

He had not only read about the native tribes in the area, he had also been out to them, offering medical aid. It was part of a campaign to win the friendship and possible loyalty of the people who lived in the region.

In less than an hour, nearly sixty bodies, mostly men in varying stages of torture and dismemberment had been uncovered. The men within the two elements of the Company were unable to avoid the thought of what had happened to the once living, breathing beings.

“Breathe through your mouth,” Tommy told one man next to him. Then he added, “It’ll help you keep from gagging on the odor.”

Soon every Marine was breathing through their mouth. But soon this procedure would prove to be useless.

The Company was suddenly confronted by an opening in the jungle. The opening contained the half burnt remains of a village of ten or twelve small huts. There were no Native movements in or around the area.

The Major sent three Marines forward to investigate the village. Tommy watched as each man disappeared into the mist that also filled the air. In the distance he could hear the rush of a river.

“We’re close to our objective,” Tommy thought.

Minutes later, a Marine trotted up to the Major. He appeared to be agitated and out of breath. Quietly, he recounted what he had seen and how he left the other two Marines in the village as a precaution.

The two elements were directed to spread out and maintain a visual distance from each other. Tommy was directed forward with two more Marines and the Marine that had reported to the Major into the village.

There were bodies strewn all about. Some had been simply shot and left to die, while others had been bound by the hands and feet and tortured to death.

“It looks like they were peeled alive,” Tommy said aloud.

“Yeah, and notice how the one’s that were tortured haven’t been shot or anything,” replied the Marine who returned to the village a second time. “We’re going to have to set up a burial detail”

Tommy and the Marine moved towards the village, locating the remains of a mud-hut. Its wall had been caved in on three sides, only the back wall was left standing.

“This was a church of some sort,” Tommy pointed out.

Inside laid the dismembered remains of a priest. His head had been removed by several blows of a machete and picketed to the remains of a wooden cross still hanging on the back wall.

It was about that time that Tommy realized that all the elements of the Company were moving into the village. He stopped and waited for the Major to catch up to him.

“I can’t believe this,” he said. He stood still with both hands on his hips.

Tommy suddenly saw the youthfulness of the Major. He realized that the “Old Man,” as he was called wasn’t much older than he was and that he found the situation as appalling as the medic did.

The scouting party that had been sent to the river’s edge came back. They reported that they had found a number of women and children drowned along the banks of the river.

“They all appear to have been bound hand and foot before being tossed into the water,” said the reporting scout. His complexion was an ash-gray.

Tommy felt helpless. There wasn’t a person alive in a count of two-hundred men women and children that he could try and save. They had all been killed either out right or tortured.

“There doesn’t seem to be any young women,” a Marine said.

That’s when it occurred to Tommy that there were missing people among the wiped out village. He reported the findings to the Major.

“It seems that we’re dealing with people that will stop at nothing to ensure that their drug trafficking business continues,” the Major said.

Tommy knew that he was right. The drug cartels were financing the Communist party and now they knew that their enemy was also dealing in the slave trade as well.

Overhead was the familiar sound of the helicopters as they approached the clearing. There muffled sound differing from the noise of the details set-up to collect the dead.

The Chinook lowered a small bull-dozer into the area. Its blades caused the grass and loose earth to swirl into the faces of those below it’s down wash. It rotated to the right and moved away once the dozer was on the ground.

The remainder of the day was spent burying the dead in a massive grave created by the bull-dozer. Slowly the dozer pushed the dark red dirt over the mangled bodies until only a swathe of naked earth remained.

Then one by one the helicopters swept into the once inhabited village and picked up six Marines at a time. Tommy was in the fourth and final helicopter to leave the area.

He looked down on the lifeless village and strip of bare earth that was a mass grave of innocent civilians and wondered aloud, “And no one knows what were fighting for or against back home.”

It occurred to Tommy that soon even the jungle would hide the truth.

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