Another Night at the Binh Thuy Air Base

Airman First Class Steven Nathaniel Wright of the 632nd Security Police Squadron was not suited to the Air Force in the slightest. He liked to wear his uniform loose, liked to skip drills, liked to pick at his disgusting, fungus-encrusted nails, and really liked to piss off his superiors.

For example, one evening in November of 1967, Wright decided it would be cute to set off smoke grenades and flares in the central hangar so all of us security folk thought there was a fire–nearly gave First Lieutenant Moore a heart attack and got the boy thrown in the brig for a week.

See, Wright was the kind of guy that knew how to press your buttons and went out of his way to do it, so when we were assigned to night patrol together, I knew I was in for a really good time.

The first night on duty consisted of me trying to find Wright in a friendly game of hide-and-seek. The second night on duty was a regular rat race of me chasing him across the base. The third night, well, let's just say, what happens in Mekong stays in Mekong. The fourth night, I finally found the guy smoking up a storm at a perimeter post, and he has the gall to say to my face, "You're late."

The fourth night, I was thrown in the brig for beating Airman First Class Steven Nathaniel Wright's smug face in with the barrel of my Smith and Wesson Model 12, but First Lieutenant Moore let me out on "good behavior" after three days because we all knew Wright had it coming to him.

The seventh night, Wright met me at our post with a splint on his nose, a mighty fine black eye, and a big grin. Then, he shook my hand, pointed at me, and said, "I think we'll get along just fine."

"I highly doubt that," I replied, and he clapped me on the back, laughing. "Touch me again and I will fucking shoot you." That only made him laugh harder, so I introduced his face to my fist again.

Wright stopped laughing. That night, we had ourselves a nice little stroll up and down that air strip with our flashlights in hand and our guns at the ready, and for once, nothing happened on that air strip–no attacks, no bombings, no deaths, just an unnatural quiet.

"Say, whaddaya think they're doing over there?" Wright asked, one hand in his pocket and another gesturing to the plane being rolled out of the hangar.

"I don't know, and I don't care. That shit is way above my paygrade."

"But that looks pretty sketchy for just an average air strike if they're loading crates–" Wright began, blowing his damn cigarette smoke in my face like a smokestack.

"Do yourself a favor and shut up."

There was a sense of tension on the base. There had been wild rumors about a series of some VC ambushes in the north that wiped out a couple of no-name air bases out in the middle of nowhere, kind of like this one, and it had everyone on edge, especially First Lieutenant Moore, who had sat me down and thanked me for keeping Wright under some semblance of control only a few days before. Moore practically pissed his pants every time someone called for him out on the strip.

The boy hadn't pulled any nonsense since he was assigned to me; I didn't really understand why, but whatever kept him out of Moore's hair and me in Moore's good books, right?

So went on like that, patrolling and bickering as we did, until the eighteenth night when Wright and I were reassigned from patrol to a perimeter watch post. One man stays up for watch at the top while the other sleeps at the bottom, and they change places halfway through the shift. Seems fair enough, no? Wright was excited for the change, but I honestly didn't care much either way.

Wright woke me up for my shift at midnight, and I clambered up to the top of that tower as he collapsed onto the messy bedding. It seemed like a relatively quiet night besides the occasional gunfire in the distance, with only one real skirmish. I shot down a VC man with a bomb strapped to his chest. It exploded a few feet from the fence, the blast bursting my eardrums.

I fell to my knees, shaking, and called out for Wright, but no one came. I dragged myself over to the ladder and peeked down at his sleeping form, only to find him not asleep at all.

Wright was bound and gagged with ten or so bullet holes in his chest and another in his forehead. There was blood all down the front of his disheveled shirt, and his eyes were wide open, staring at me with that same smug look of his. A VC man stood over him. I winced, leveling my pistol at him and gasping for breath. He looked at Wright, then at me, before putting a machine gun to his head and blowing his brains out all over Wright's dead body rather than face being captured by the enemy.

I banged my fist against the splintered wood, grimacing. I should've heard him. I should have heard!

The nineteenth morning, First Lieutenant Moore wrote a letter addressed to a household in Omaha, where Wright's sister lived, explaining that she would never see her brother again. I was airlifted to a hospital in Japan and later discharged due to my injuries, but I would never forget Airman First Class Steven Nathaniel Wright, a smug bastard even in death and the name of the man that I failed.