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The Soul Survivors

In the midst of a fierce battle, a soldier feels a strange calm envelope him. Was he the only one to experience this comfort?

By John Senka, Wayland, New York

As appeared in

Welcome, U.S. Army 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, 25th Division. I stared at the sign outside the reception. For 40 years I’d avoided these Vietnam vets’ reunions. I didn’t want to talk about the battle that haunted my nightmares, or how I’d survived.

The Battle of Mole City, December 22, 1968. We were a unit of 500 American soldiers, stationed in deep bunkers along one of the North Vietnamese Army’s busiest supply routes. I was 20. Fit, strong, tough.

My three months in ’Nam hadn’t been much different than working on our family farm. I spent most days in the hot sun, digging the trenches the base was named for.

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There was a holiday truce. After dinner, we opened packages from home with cards, cookies and miniature trees. It almost felt like Christmas. At 10:00 p.m. we received our orders for the night: patrol, L.P. (the listening post), or perimeter. I was assigned to defend the perimeter.

All was quiet till midnight. The L.P. reported some NVA movement. The four of us in our bunker took our positions. Suddenly the night sky lit up. Flares. Mortar fire. A surprise attack!

We returned fire. There was a tremendous explosion. An anguished scream from the soldier next to me. I looked over. He was dead. I was struck too, in my right leg. Another grunt dove out the back of the bunker. I crawled after him.

We squeezed into the next bunker, filled with GIs. Something thudded into the mud. Another grenade! I threw myself as far from it as I could.

Boom! Blood ran from my ears. A third grenade rolled in. Shrapnel ripped into my belly. My rifle was clogged with mud. My injured leg was useless. We were overrun. Guys were falling, crying out for their mothers.

One brave sergeant climbed out of the bunker, firing his M16. His silhouette crumpled; his body rolled down past me. All I could do was lie there and wait for death.

I wouldn’t have called myself religious, even though I wore a miraculous medal with my dog tags. Still, I shouted above the gunfire, “God, help me!”

Everything went silent. No explosions. No screams. Like I’d gone deaf. At the same time, I felt something hover over me. It fell softly upon my shoulders, warm, comforting, like I was a child being tucked into bed. Before I could figure out what it was, I blacked out.

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When I came to, it was daylight. I moved to uncover myself, but nothing was there. Feet shuffled outside the bunker. Who had won? The NVA? Would I be taken prisoner? I pulled away a sandbag blocking my view. It thumped to the ground.

A helmeted head poked in. A U.S. Army sergeant. “It’s okay, soldier,” he said. 

I was the only one found alive in that bunker. The Army sent me home. The physical wounds healed. My other wounds didn’t. Counselors told me that the nightmares were my mind trying to piece together what had happened in Mole City.

Even after I learned that we’d been stormed by 1,500 NVA, outnumbered three to one, the survivor’s guilt remained. Why had I been wrapped in that cocoon of safety, while others died?

For 40 years, that guilt kept me away from reunions. I wasn’t sure why I’d come now. But I took a deep breath and entered the reception hall. I put on my name tag and scanned the room.

A man came up, saw my name tag. “You’re the guy I’ve been looking for.” “I’m sorry,” I said. “Who are you?”