I first wore a helmet in Basic Combat Training at Ft. Bliss Texas. It wasn’t very comfortable and while low crawling on my back across the burning sands of an obstacle course, I hated it. It always scooped up hot sand that one way or another managed to end up inside my shirt. Helmets were something to be endured indefinitely before experiencing the joy that came from having it on when you really needed it. The primary difference between walking down the street naked and being under fire without a helmet was that the latter made one feel far too exposed.

     Back then; helmets consisted of a stamped steel shell and a fiberglass liner with adjustable straps for individual sizing. They came with a camouflaged-canvas cover that had slits sewn across it to insert foliage. The elastic band that secured the cover was a good place to carry cigarettes or insect repellent. Also called "steel pots," helmets provided some protection against shrapnel or ricocheting bullets. Its rounded shape would often alter the angle of a bullet, but wouldn't stop one. They were multi-purpose tools; handy seats or headrests, and portable roofs. The fiberglass liner was a dry place to store mail when it rained.

     After getting lost one day while driving through the Army’s huge complex at Long Binh, Vietnam, I came upon an enormous salvage depot. It was impossible to see the depot’s incredible size without wondering about its price tag. Millions of dollars worth of used equipment lay scattered across rolling fields or piled inside numerous warehouses. Salvaged artillery barrels stacked in neat rows sat rusting in the sun. Enough beige-colored filing cabinets were stacked atop each other to cover a football field. There were no telltale entrance or exit holes consistent with flying steel, and I would have never guessed that war was so hard on filing cabinets. Although nothing is really made to last, nothing lasted long in Vietnam.

     I climbed from the deuce and stepped inside a warehouse where I found a waist-high pile of helmets stretched across it. Some looked new and their camouflage covers weren’t yet faded by the sun. The helmets were a powerful and disturbing sight. I couldn’t look at them without imagining the scenarios from which they’d been retrieved.

     While slowly circling the pile, I noticed some with a single hole on one side and others that had multiple holes penetrating both sides. A few were crushed or looked lopsided or egg-shaped and a handful were flattened like tacos. The entrance or exit holes made by bullets were easy to spot, but a closer look was required to find the tiny perforations left by shrapnel. Jagged tears were ripped across a few as if they were aluminum foil. The pile had been hosed down but the water didn’t remove every bloodstain or minute pieces of adumbrated matter. Despite their steel construction, helmets weren’t impervious to damage.

     Almost all the camouflaged covers were adorned with words, drawings or decorations. Similar to high-school yearbooks, soldiers wrote on their helmet covers or garnished them with artwork. I read creative graffiti, original and plagiarized. “Preacher” was precisely stenciled across one but names were usually nicknames. There were many “Short-timer” calendars and it saddened me to see how few days remained on several. Peace signs and religious crosses were very popular. In addition to personal or political beliefs, favorite expressions were etched across them with bumper-sticker brevity. “Don’t shoot me, I’m short.” "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow . ." "F.T.A." "What, Me Worry?" "Don't blame me, I'm not old enough to vote." "Just you and me, right, Lord?" "Ask My Uncle." "We gotta get out of this place.” and, “God Bless America.” Hearts were drawn on many and the name of a wife or girlfriend penned inside. A few displayed names and ages of the wearer’s children. The salvaged helmets told me far too much, but less than my imagination. As I eased through the warehouse, it felt as if I’d swallowed a bowling ball.

     The helmets told a truth that was as obvious as it was painful. Mostly young American heads had once been strapped inside them. Troops had walked, slept, hidden, and died beneath them. The pile made me think of the faces that had peered from beneath them and wonder what those faces were thinking, feeling, or fearing when their helmet suddenly changed shape.

     Endless expressions of hope along with joyful descriptions of future reunions had once floated from inside. Fears of an imminent, terrible death and a powerful desire to live had had happened simultaneously in some. Others had heard urgent, desperate prayers for immediate survival followed by desolate pleas or painful screams when surviving was no longer possible. Others had echoed final agonizing cries or last words or nothing at all. So many hopes had vanished and the dreams were all gone now. They were killed by explosions and intrusions so violent, not even steel could save them.


Nyronus   Nyronus wrote
on 5/20/2008 12:40:56 PM
Very nice, powerful. Can't wait for the book.

seeker561   seeker561 wrote
on 4/27/2008 2:10:13 AM
Powerful piece, well paced. Welcome fellow refugee! :)

Raven Spirit   Raven Spirit wrote
on 4/26/2008 11:37:36 PM
I think this excerpt exemplifies what I like most about your work...and I never really articulated it before, even to myself. Those chapters or excepts that I enjoy most are highly personalized and humanized with graphic living detail...such as this. I love it...Liz

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This is an excerpt from one of fifty-five chapters in my historical memoir of Vietnam.
A Word from the Writer
I think it is self-explanatory.
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