Medic at rest, 1/7 aid station, Phuc Vinh, Vietnam, 1970.

Excerpts From a Dream Journal

The war, I’m told, with its white-tailed rockets and hard crack ricochets; the war, with its thumping whirl of trembling choppers; the war, with its shirtless gun crews manning steel- wheeled cannons; the war, with its fine plumed shells cutting silver arcs through infinite sky; the war, with its lumbering tanks and sun bleached bunkers; the war, with its steep, lush highlands, emerald lattice of checkerboard paddies; the war, with its mangled torsos triaged too late; the war, I’m told, on scheduled clinic days, had ended quite some time ago.

For 1971 to 2008 I occasionally wrote down my war dreams. Page after page reads like this: we’re being chased by enemy troops; my M-16 jams. Flying low, skimming the canopy, we crash and burn. We kill the enemy and like it, like it very much. We’re out of ammo. I’m blinded by swirling smoke, and an’t see the man who shouts ‘medic!‘ A burst of machine gun fire and I’m hit. On patrol, we’re lost in the jungle. We kill each other by mistake. Enemy mortars drop from the sky: crumpBANG! crumpBANG! My teeth fall out. My platoon lies dead.

The war dreams below were first published in So It Goes, The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum, Issue 5, 2016. The entire collection of 100 dreams was self-published in January 2017, under the title Dreams, VN.

7 July 80
I’m in a large empty house. My brother and I are dressed like soldiers. We’re hunting each other down. I see him before he spots me and hit him with a burst from my M-16. I walk the bullets up to him, but they make only small BB holes. There’s little noise or impact, but he falls and I rush to his aid. I feel sorry for him, for what I have done.

28 June 99
I’m with a group of people in danger. A seated black woman, who is light-skinned, over and over repeats, “If ever I go. If ever I go.” She’s unaware that she’s dying. I take her in my arms to divert her attention. I imagine a man from behind will execute her. At the last moment I will say, “Never mind. Shoot us both.”

19 January 2000
I’m at Pine Grove sleep away camp preparing for war. Low flying jets fire rockets into the distance. We cheer as the missiles whoosh and spiral to their targets. We move out, juvenile soldiers, all less than fifteen. In a large field teenage soldiers explode a device that releases a smoky fog that appears to be toxic. At detonation I’m hit by shrapnel. I feel the cardboard splinters penetrate my back, but they do me no harm.

We march back to our starting point. I’m walking uphill on the wide trail which leads from the lake to the bunk houses, weary from the weight of my pack. I walk next to an out-of-shape youngster. He huffs and puffs. In his hand he carries a silver-plated toy luger.

26 January 2000
I’m a guest renting a room in a residential area filled with many large wood houses. I’m skateboarding down a narrow sidewalk, propelling the board by clenching my toes and pushing down hard. The people are friendly. A block away a tree catches fire. A fierce wind blows the flames out of control. The sky turns white from heat. The house where I’m staying may catch fire. No one panics. I rush inside to recover my pack but I’m lost and can’t tell which room is mine. I look about. My things are missing. I find them in a room with no back wall. On the way out I watch an attractive woman undress. Outside everyone is calm. I meet a young veterinarian. His dog, burned on its back and aware of its wounds remains feisty. Humorously I say to the doctor, “So, you have casualties.” He is optimistic.

4 February 2001
I am with a large black woman who resembles the poet Marilyn Nelson. We’re sitting in the office of Dr Ahr. She listens while I speak about war. Suddenly a low resonant howl escapes me. The black woman says, “I know what that is.” I begin weeping.

17 Feb 2001
1) On a cancer ward all of the patients are men. One complains that his nose is too large. Another declares that without his doctor he would have died, but has lived an extra two years. The ward is home-like. The doctors are friendly. Each has his own cure; some succeed, others fail. My doctor is a woman. She is dedicated and loving.  A staff member and I reach a doctor’s office at the same time. I push the door open; it’s immediately slammed shut. The staff member knocks and is let in. I leave, aware that protocol must be obeyed. I become frustrated and rebel. For punishment I’m sent to a large forest to gather pine needles in long neat rows. After several hours on my hands and knees I try to escape. Using a dog, my doctor captures me. I quit the ward. In her presence I get dressed. I’ll be traveling heavy–there are my two backpacks, a toothbrush too small for my mouth. My doctor tries to discourage me, but I’m angry and sad. On the wall hangs a photograph of a male doctor at war. His pants are torn and dirty. His knees are wounded; he’s running for help. I say,“What does he know? I was the medic. They all came to me.” I begin weeping.

2 July 2001
I’m in a large room at ground level. Its green walls and floors are made of smoothed out earth. Large square windows without glass overlook a forbidding no-man’s-land. The NVA begin shooting. I return fire. They’re everywhere. Several reach in. I push them off and continue shooting. They are everywhere but I’m not afraid. I keep fighting. There is no escape.

25 July 2001
I’m brought back to Vietnam. The platoon tells me I look good. I’m wearing my old jungle fatigues and steel helmet. I have no weapon, no gear, no leech straps beneath my knees. I want to tell them that dressed like this, ordinary people think I’m strange, but I keep silent. Mike and I walk to the water point. We pass through a small town, then into forest where I become lost. I walk to a highway, then pass through a circle of college students. I expect unkind remarks, but the students are friendly. At a busy traffic intersection a college professor smiles. “Where’s the water?” I ask. He tells me. I find a dark, turbulent river. This can’t be the water point, though I know it is. Frustrated I sleep under a moon lit canopy of thick brush. I wake up under a large plastic tarp. Crawling forward I accidentally wake the lieutenant. I say, “It’s me, Doc.” He throws me a pair of bowling shoes that are too small. A man I’ve never seen glares at me with contempt, then throws me a pair that fit. Then everyone leaves. I look out from beneath the tarp. Someone inside a nearby house appears in silhouette, then vanishes. I anticipate an ambush. I imagine being shot in the head. I imagine how the lieutenant will comfort me. It’s raining. I have no water, ammo, or weapon.

14 September 2001
I’m with my old platoon on LZ Ranch in Cambodia. We’re pressed up against the berm. An attack is coming. My M-16 is broken. There’s no trigger or clip. A sergeant offers me his weapon, but I refuse, saying he is the better grunt. The scene changes. We’re in a village. An old VC hides in a hut hoping to escape. I throw him down and sit on him. He’s taken prisoner, but will not speak. I devise a way to torture him. We dig a vertical hole, bury him up to his neck, then place a clear plastic cover over his head. We urinate on him, but the VC is stubborn and stays silent. He accepts that he will die. We hear shooting and rush for cover. I find a Viet Cong who resembles David Boyle, my college best friend. He tries to steal American weapons from a display case, but instead, grabs an umbrella. I tell him to give up. When he refuses, we fight. Each time I stab his belly he says, “Kill me.” I feel terrible. It’s as if I knew this man. When he weakens I take him in my arms and call for help. His stomach leaks on me. I’m crying. I’m saying “Oh God….Oh God,” American soldiers arrive. They look perplexed, awed. We march to the hospital.

1 July 2002
A young soldier shows me a gem bought from a villager. He regards its beauty and power but I can tell it’s fake. The villager, who is middle aged and wears a business suit, leaves his house. He walks toward me. I throw the gem in his face. “What are you doing?” I say. “This is uranium.” Aloof and calm, he curls his hand around my neck then releases it. We return to his house. There is the long flight home. I begin planning my escape.

9 July 2002
I’m on a combat assault. Only a few of us ride in the chopper. Most stand on the slicks. We carry full combat gear: pack, weapon, ammo. We fly toward the Ivy Hill Apartments. From high up I see buildings, which appear like photographs. We land on a roof top. I see my brother. At the same time, I see a terrible sight and walk toward it. The intact body of an American soldier glows like fireplace embers. His internal organs, hardened to stone, are fully visible. I shout to my brother, “How did this happen?” He says he doesn’t know. I can tell my brother is lying.


Addendum: to see what effect combat has on my sleep nearly fifty years after I returned from Vietnam, from 2016 to 2017 I recorded all my dreams. That record became Other Dreams.

Top italicized paragraph is quoted from How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories.