The Forest

by Gabriel Urbina

Vietnam, 1966.

The soldiers of Alpha Company were surprised. The terrain did not have any trace of the hostile land to which they were accustomed. The vegetation was not that of a jungle; it was an abundant and welcoming forest of refeshing shadows. The breeze was soft, but sufficiently strong to move the tallest branches of trees, thus allowing the passage of the last sunbeams before dusk.

Meanwhile, Bravo Company, of the same regiment, was busy with the same tasks as Alpha Company: establishing their positions, eating, pulling guard duty, and thinking about the moment when the one year of service in Vietnam would be over. They were also impressed by the extreme change of scenery. There was no thick jungle; there was a shadowy and cool forest. The sun was not burning their skin, it was caressing them. The torrential rains of the monsoon felt extremely distant. The soft breeze was moving the trees, and the sunlight was moving furtively and intermittently through the leaves.

About ten o'clock it was pitch dark. All of Alpha Company was very alert because at a short distance shots were heard. The firing ceased after five long minutes. The night was just as pleasant as that already far twilight that greeted their arrival, but the minds of the soldiers were no longer busying themselves with that agreeable image.

At dawn, Alpha Company listened to the instructions for the day. They would keep their positions one more day, then they woul begin their march to return to their compound in Bien Hoa. About the previous night, they were told simply that Bravo Company had come in contact with the enemy.

Another day, another evening, and another night passed. The weather was identical to the previous day. The night was peaceful and without incident. At dawn they began the three-day march that would take them back to their compound. Some went to Saigon, others had guard duty; the rest slept, cleaned rifles, listened to the radio, read the paper, anda few unhappy ones had kitchen duty.

Neither the Armed Forces Radio nor The Stars and Stripes were saying anything about Bravo Company. After a few days, the men of Alpha Company forgot the incident forgot the incident at the pleasant forest, but not for long. They were spared the task of picking up the corpses of the men of Company B. Men of the Signal Corps were charged with that task.

The Signal Corps men figured the massacre could have happened only in one manner. The enemy had hidden in the branches of the tall trees. The men of Alpha Company could not believe this, because both companies had set up camp aroung 1800 hours. How could the enemy had hidden in the trees for more than four hours without giving themselves away? The men of the Signal Corps insisted on their story.

The deadly aim of the enemy was another point of controversy. In spite of the darkness, each of the men appeared to have been killed with one bullet and the trees were without bullet holes or marks. The combat men could not believe this either, and argued with the Signal Corps men, only to hear the same account again and again from those who had seen the aftermath.

The men of Alpha Company were left with a bitter taste in their mouths. No doubt an entire company had perished, but they were asking themselves whether or not people who were not in the infantry would have the tendency to exaggerate, particularly when taken away from their usual tasks. Who knows. Hard to say. Anyway, there was no time to think about those things.

A new operation was beginning and the men had mixed feelings while they were getting ready to leave the compound. They had been reminded of a certain peace by the harmony of the unforgettable forest. At the same time, they thought about the precise death that had awaited in the trees. These men were not afraid of getting killed. They were afraid of death itself, because it meant the denial of another opportunity to experience a sheltering evening, a soft breeze, the shadows of tall trees, and a welcoming forest. Everything they wished for and everything they feared was in that forest.

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