From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Combat Boots

Thirty Christmases ago, I was in Vietnam, a place so different from the Kansas prairie where I live now that I find it unreal. Yet, each Christmas, my thoughts go back to that land and to that time.

Lieutenant William Carter* was typical of the lieutenants who led platoons during the Vietnam War. He graduated from a small college in Tennessee, got married and received his draft notice all within two months of each other. Selected for officer candidate school and sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, after basic training, William was in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader within a year after graduating from college.

At the time, I was the company commander of B Company, First Battalion, Eighteenth Infantry Division. When William stepped off the resupply chopper in early August, I assigned him to command the first platoon. His next four months were spent in the jungle in War Zone C and along Highway 13 near the Cambodian border.

In my experience, the men you fight beside end up being the reason for fighting: You don’t want to let them down. There is no self, only sharing what comes with your friends, and this bond becomes closer as the intensity of combat increases. In William’s case, his platoon was especially close. What his soldiers felt for him went far beyond respect; he wasn’t just their leader, but also their protector, older brother and sometimes father.

Every evening after the ambush patrol (bush) and listening posts (LPs) were sent out, I would visit with as many of the men as possible. Almost every evening, I ended up at William’s position. We would spend an hour monitoring the status reports from the bush and LPs and sharing our lives. If I didn’t make it to his position, he would come by mine sometime during the night, and we would have our talk. I knew his hopes, ideas and failures, and he knew mine.

One night, we talked about the high points in our lives. When William was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army, his father and wife had attended the ceremony. Afterward, his father had told him, “Son, I spent four years in the Army during World War II and saw less than a dozen black officers. Now my son is a lieutenant. You have made us so proud.” I could tell by the tone of William’s voice how much that meant to him.

Quiet moments like those stand out in my memory. Most of the time, we focused on survival and the job at hand. In the jungle, infantry moving from one location to the next carried only what they could use: a few C rations, a clean fatigue shirt to sleep in, a couple of ponchos, an air mattress, ammunition for a personal weapon, a mortar round and an extra battery for the radios. We had enough to eat and received mail every day, but there were very few extras.

In November, I sent a request back to our supply sergeant for a new pair of size-eleven boots, as mine were in terrible condition. The laces had long since rotted away, and I had been using commo wire to lace them. Because of the climate and supply shortage, there were no extra boots in the supply line—commo wire or not, I would have to wait.

Late one afternoon, about a week before Christmas, I was having a meeting with the platoon leaders when the supply chopper came in with the evening meal. It brought a new pair of size-eleven boots, which I took gratefully. One of the other lieutenants noticed the new boots and called out, “Hey, look what Santa brought.”

William looked over and said, “Hey, maybe he’ll bring me a pair, too.”

I looked down at William’s boots—they were worse than mine. So I stood up with the new boots in my hand and said, “Merry Christmas, William, here is a new pair of boots. You need them even more than I do.”

At first, he wouldn’t take them, but when I told him that he couldn’t refuse a Christmas present and that I would request another pair, he finally accepted. That evening when I stopped by his position, he was wearing the boots. We talked into the night about Christmases past and future.

The next day, we opened our portion of Highway 13 as usual. The engineers swept the area for mines, and every two hundred or three hundred meters, I posted a squad. William left the column with his squad and disappeared into the wood line to set up the last position.

I was dropping off the first squad of the next platoon when I heard the firing: the flat sound of an AK-47 and the sharper reply of an M-16. The three remaining squads and I ran back to where William’s squad had entered the jungle, but before we could finish setting up security, I saw William and two of his men emerging from the wood line.

William was walking unassisted but holding his arm above his head. Although his platoon had been in as many firefights as the others had—and he had always been in the front—this was the first time he’d been hit. I ran over to meet him while the radio operator called for a “dust off.” By the time I reached William, I could see that although wounded, his injury wasn’t life threatening.

He explained he had been securing the position when he parted the undergrowth with his left hand and saw North Vietnamese soldiers less than twenty meters away. Each saw the other simultaneously, but the NVA fired the first shots. William’s extended left arm took the first round on the palm side at the wrist, and the bullet traveled up his arm and lodged just below the elbow. It was a nasty place to get shot, but not as nasty as it could have been.

William sat down and started apologizing for getting shot. His platoon members surrounded him, glad he was okay but sad, too, knowing they wouldn’t see him again once he went to the hospital. I felt the same way.

The “dust off” landed on the road, its rotor idling, but William made no attempt to get up. He appeared to be playing with his boots. His one good hand was untying them, while the medic tried to stop the bleeding from his wrist and arm.

The medic asked him if he had been hit in the foot, too. William shook his head. Then he looked at me and said, “I’m not going anywhere until I give you these new boots. I was going to wait until Christmas morning, but now I can’t do that.”

I felt like laughing and crying at once, but I couldn’t do either. I just stood there, looking dumb. William, who had probably just lost the use of his left hand, was worried about me.

As I walked him to the waiting chopper—me with an extra pair of boots around my neck and William with bare feet—I had the thought, We must look like quite a pair. The chopper revved up and lifted off.

That was the last time I saw William. His gift was soon worn out, discarded for another pair of boots. But the memory of the giver has never been discarded. To me, this is the true meaning of Christmas—that it is the giver, not the gift, that is unforgettable.

And William, I’m thinking about you this Christmas.

Watts Caudill

*Names have been changed.

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