Another Night in Viet Nam

In January 2022 Medic received an email from Vietnam vet Samuel Freeman. Samuel had read The Best of Medic in the Green Time, which had a profound effect on him. He laughed. He cried. He felt unburdened. Like many combat vets Samuel has war nightmares. His article below was first published in The Advance News Journal, 5 November 2008.

They come less frequently than they first did—every few nights. Now, several months may go by. But still, over thirty-eight years later, I occasionally spend another night in Viet Nam. The last time was a few months ago. But when I do, I remember it for a long time. I remember it forever. It will play on my mind for days, weeks; then wander off only to return to rattle around in my head when something occurs to trigger its memory.

I remember them forever because they always are much the same. Perhaps the last one came because I had begun research on PTSD among Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans living in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. The research put me in touch with my own PTSD in ways I had not experienced before. There is no way to explain to someone who has not “been there.” Trying is to try to explain the unexplainable.

It may be day; it may be night. We are moving slowly, silently through the jungle. It is hot as sunlight filters through triple canopy jungle, or maybe it is cold as my sweat soaked fatigues cause me to shiver in the chilly night air. The jungle is quiet, too quiet; and we all sense it, tense against it, and wait for the burst of automatic weapons fire. We always are upon them (or are they upon us?) in an instant. Close. So close, were we acquaintances and not enemies trying to kill before we are killed, we almost could lean out and shake hands.

Rifles are fired from the hip. No time to raise it to the shoulder and take aim. Just point, squeeze the trigger, burst of fire, turn right or left a little, squeeze, burst of fire again. Bodies fall like ducks in an arcade. Some theirs, some ours; screams of pain drowned by the crescendo of rifle fire. Drop a magazine. Slap another in. Fire. Empty magazine. Drop it. Slap another one in. Fire.

I scream for my RTO (radio-telephone operator). I need to get on the radio to call in air strikes. Our artillery forward observer is nearby, or maybe far away, screaming into his radio for artillery fire. No, the RTO is not there. Where did he go? Sometimes; not always.

But they always are all around us, outside our lines, inside our lines, in front of me, beside me, behind me. No matter how many we kill, there always are more than there were the moment before. I need to run, not toward, not away from, just run. But my legs are heavy. I move slow. Cover is just a few yards away. If I run fast, I can get there. But my legs are heavier than lead. Charlie moves quickly, darting here, darting there. I just saw him clearly. Where did he go?

With every passing moment I am increasingly alone. I do not know where my men have gone. They were here a moment ago. Bodies, once all over the ground, now gone. Just me, trying to get to cover. And Charlie….

Somewhere along the way, I awake. I sit up suddenly, heart pounding, breathing hard, mouth dry, eyes straining into the dark, straining to see Charlie, to get a fix on him, to see where to move to, to find my target and fire on him before my target fires at me. But my weapon is gone. I had it. I was firing it. Now I am disarmed, naked without it.

Fully awake, I realize I was dreaming. My dream was so real it followed me from sleep to waking. Does this qualify as a flash back? No point lying back down, not yet. Must calm down. Go to the bathroom. Go get a drink of water. Walk the perimeter—make sure all defensive positions are secure. Check my weapon. Oh yes, I’ll sleep for the rest of the night with a weapon by my side, or laying on my chest. If not, I will not sleep at all.

Some nights, even before I go to bed, something nags at me. I know, for some reason, I will not sleep without a weapon by my side. In the jungle I learned to sleep with my M-16 laying across my chest, right hand on the trigger housing, full magazine, round chambered. Safety on of course, but just a flick of the thumb away from being off. Some nights that weapon just has to be in bed with me or I will not sleep. Strange, I am no more likely to spend that night in Viet Nam than any other night. Actually, maybe less. Explain that for me.

Heart rate has slowed. Breathing is normal. Eyes have adjusted to the dark. A drink of water has taken care of my thirst. The doors are locked. Peering through windows, no movement outside. Holding my breath, listening intently, I hear only the quiet of night. But I know. Back to bed. Back to sleep. Back to Viet Nam.

Asleep again, the dream, in short order, returns. I am alone in the jungle. Just me and Charlie and he still is moving faster than me. No weapon, my only chance is to find a way to get away from him. But he has me fixed in his sight. Struggling to move faster, I seem to move slower by the second. And Charlie moves fast, catching up to me.

For some reason he has not shot me. It is as though he wants his kill up close. But I know the round is coming. I do not want to die. I struggle not to die. But I know I am doomed. He lunges forward. I trip and fall, and try to roll away. But there is no escape. Charlie prepares to take his kill shot. Close. Personal. Now.

Again I sit up suddenly, heart pounding, breathing hard, mouth dry, eyes straining into the dark. This time, fully awake but still searching for Charlie I get up. Get some water. Walk the perimeter. Calm down. Go back to bed. Back to sleep knowing it will be only a short while. The dream will return. I will spend the rest of the night in Viet Nam. Once I go, once the dream begins, there is no escape, not that night.

The details of the dream vary. It is hot as the sunlight filters through the triple canopy jungle, or maybe it is cold with my sweat soaked fatigues causing me to shiver in the chilly night air. But the dream always is the same. I struggle in vain. I am doomed.

If I am lucky, the time until my next night in Viet Nam will be longer than the time before. If I am lucky. But I have learned after thirty-eight years it is not a question of if but of when, because there will be more nights in Viet Nam.

A normal tour in Viet Nam was twelve months. I pulled my time and came home—at least most of me, or maybe only a part of me. I do not know. What I know is I have been drafted into the unreturning army. Some part of me, however large or small, remains patrolling the jungles of Viet Nam. In the thirty-eight years I have been back, I have pulled the better part of another tour, one
night at a time. When do these tours end? Another night in Viet Nam.

Tonight, we have men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tens of thousands have been sent back to war even though suffering from profound PTSD. George Bush does not care. John McCain does not care. Thirty-eight years from now, thousands of men and women will spend an occasional night in Iraq or Afghanistan. And they will ask the same question: When do these “tours” end? This Veterans Day, thank veterans you know for their service and sacrifice. Find an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran and apologize for your role in their suffering, and give them your solemn word you will do more to end these God forsaken wars of U.S. imperial aggression.


Samuel Freeman served as an advisor to an ARVN airborne infantry company in 1979-1970. Once home he earned a PhD in political science and became one of the first professors in the nation to teach a course on the American war in Vietnam, which he taught for thirty-five years.


Lead photograph: The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Detroit Institute of Art Public Domain

See Medic’s two books on war nightmares.