By Ron Bland
I wake. Something doesn’t feel right. I lay quiet, trying not to move or make a noise until I am sure of what’s going on. I hear the sounds of snoring and the clank of someone’s weapon banging on his bunk, or maybe against his web gear. Doesn’t sound threatening. It’s ok. Another minute goes by. The flash of fear is gone, but there is still a sense that something is out of place.
My sense of smell has turned into a bloodhound’s. I can smell the dirt in the sandbags, the metallic taste of perforated steel planking overhead, mildewed boots, rotting sour fatigues, and the unbathed stench of my hooch mates. I check the time on my watch, and as I move my arm to see it in the darkness, I catch a silhouette move. I slip the safety off my 16 laying beside me. My brain is panicking, but I tell myself to wait. Wait, one of the other guys might be up.
Coming back from pissing? I lay quiet for what seems like a long time. Nothing happens. As I let my body go back to a rest, I catch the faint movement again. Now bolting upright, 16 in hand, I see the silhouette of a familiar shape. Then, in an almost inaudible voice, more like a gesture or even telepathy, Miller indicated, “You’re with me today!”
Miller might be the most frightening person in the Nam. “We’re with ‘Amos and Andy,” he tells me. “I got the 60’s and ammo in the revetment. Saddle up. Let’s move out. Bring water, all the canteens you can carry. They always need water!”
It was still dark when I got to the revetment. Kobyoushe, the crew chief, was doing the pre-flight inspection. Miller was loading crates of ammo and C rations on the deck and getting the evil eye from the crew chief all the while. Miller was never subtle about rank, respect for position, or time in service. He was the chosen door gunner of all the troops on the base by every pilot. Looking up, I see WO2 Andrew “Andy” Hensley and “Sloppy Joe” Amosd, WO4, coming across the field like they’re on a stroll. They walked up, spoke to Kobyoushe in a quiet, ego-soothing tone, adding a note of understanding for Miller’s preferred status. Then they turned and mockingly salute Miller. He smiled big, turns to me with a “get your ass moving” look.
On all other ships, the crew chief would act as the second door gunner. But when Miller was aboard, the crew chief stayed behind, replaced by myself, “the right side meat,” as I had become known. Or, when they thought Miller couldn’t hear them, it was “Miller’s boy.” Either way, I was afraid of Miller but in awe of his command of people, tactics, nav, and radio skills. Most of all, I recognized his total lack of fear that permeated through the whole crew, giving us a false sense of security that was sure to get us all in deep shit one day.
I still think that I was the better 60 gunner, except for that one time, in the heat of leaving a hot landing zone (LZ), when I shot off the front of our right skid.
Miller thought we were taking hits from the ground and went hot mic trying to find where they were coming from. Now I was screwed. Hot mic put our intercom conversation out to everybody in earshot of a radio — our troops on the ground, other aircraft in the area, the artillery folks, spotter and cannon cockers alike. But my ass was in a sling because now our Tactical Operation Center (TOC) could hear this also. To make it worse, Miller, who hardly spoke a word, was now screaming for more info. Best I could do was scream back, “I got him! I got him!” Then Miller realized what had happened and had to laugh. I hope the commanding officer had the same spirit about it.
Another dark morning, we were on a resupply run up near Ben Het to a small Special Forces outpost. Miller and I knew they were “spooks,” maybe special forces or long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRPs), and we suspect they’re an even more secretive Special Operations Group (SOG) team. They wore a hodgepodge of uniforms mixed with Vietnamese and civilian clothes. Even their weapons were a mix that appeared to come from the United Nations. That would explain the exotic ammunition we loaded this morning. With the chopper still running, we hurried to unload our ship to avoid being a target too long.
Miller and I had already agreed to swap out our lightweight M60 barrels with these badass soldiers to make their load through the jungle a tiny bit easier. With wide smiles and promises of “We owe you a beer!” we were in the air and gone, taking one trooper back to catch a ride to R&R. Nothing to write home about. Hoping to catch another run today to stay out of the master Sergeant’s sight. He doesn’t like it much with Miller making up the rules, or at least not until the shit hits the fan. Then he’s looking for us.
Miller appeared at the foot of my bunk one day about half way through Basic, just after our first time at the firing range. He looked big, with muscles on top of muscles, with blond hair almost white, with no expression on his face, except for his piercing eyes that you wanted to hide from. But it was his haircut that gave him the look of a psycho. Buzzed short and skin tight, one inch wide around his ears, not the usual GI high and tight style like the rest of us. I realized all the guys had quietly drifted away and were trying to watch from the corners of their eyes, acting uninterested. No one was interested in challenging Miller about anything. For the first time, I was getting that almost nonverbal communication he had created, or maybe it came from hell. I don’t know.
The next day Miller and I looked like a couple going through Basic together. I liked to think it was big brother and little brother, so I followed his nonverbal commands. Don’t stop at ten pushups. Don’t stop running till you just drop. Don’t whine. No complaining. Keep moving to the top. I wondered, “Why me? The top of what?”
I didn’t know Miller and I were the only ones to fire expert that first trip to the firing range, but Miller did, and was offended. It was almost a year through Basic, Advanced Individual Training (AIT), and a Temporary Duty Assignment (TDA) before I began to see Miller’s plan to use me as his second gunner. By this time he had become “Miller the Killer.”
When I returned from TDA, our whole division had packed up and was headed to Vietnam. Miller was sent to a leg unit, and I to a small generic helicopter unit, not to see him again for another month.
The monsoon season had ended, and Miller showed up on the flight line looking for me. He had been transferred to our company as a door gunner, later called shotgun riders, and I am “his” right side gunner, according to him. This move was confirmed after passing our CO at the armory when he called to me, “Bland, you got the word from Miller?” I gave him a little quick salute. He replied, “Miller got you too, huh?”
There would be lots of other dark mornings, some peaceful and quiet. Then we had the hard trips that left us stunned, lonely, and full of grief. Thank you, Miller, for taking me through them.
Ron Bland returned home from Vietnam in 1968 and followed the youth movement to Colorado for 12 years. He returned east to Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1980 and worked in the building industry for 50 years. He has been married for 46 years and has three adopted children. He volunteers at the VA Hospital in Martinsburg, WV and enjoys playing guitar.
Ron wrote “Miller” in a veterans’ writing class, offered in Harrisonburg. For more information or to register for upcoming writing classes, contact: Christine Black at (434) 825-3794 or [email protected]; or Spencer White at (540) 421-8243 or [email protected]. The donation-based classes are offered to veterans of all military branches, any age, any war.