THE FIRING



by Jim Tolbert

Behind the bar hung this painting of a beautiful woman, done up in velvet. You know the kind, you've seen them lined up on the ground at busy intersections on the weekends, poor likenesses of Elvis, and flying horses with horns. This painting was different though, not because the woman was completely nude but something about it kept drawing your eyes right back to her. This was a quality work. She was hanging next to the cross bow and the sign that read, "The VC have no PX, and no R&R".

I was in one of three main clubs at the 5th Special Forces Group compound in Nha Trang, killing time while I waited for my next assignment. And this beautiful girl, who smiled with her eyes, smiled at me from the wall behind the bar. The bartender was busy cleaning glasses, and mama sanh was cleaning up the floor. I was the only customer this early in the morning, and here I was, having a love affair with a little brown girl in a painting, a velvet one at that. "I need R&R, not a new assignment".

While I slowly moved my finger around the rim of my salty dog, removing the excess salt and trying to make the glass sing, I thought about the unit and the reason I was leaving. "Get rid of that SOB", the new Commander had said, "What this war don't need is another guitar picker". At least, that's the message I got from Crash at the time. I remember DOC Simpson said that to me once. He was waiting to load body bags on the slick I came in on. I helped him load the bodies, and he bitched the whole time about strap hangers and shoe clerks. That was DOC Simpson, on his way to DA Nang after just losing three good men. I never saw DOC after the war, I often wondered if he still had the K-BAR I gave him.

I mulled over the events which brought me to Group looking for an assignment. Two years in Project Delta was more than enough, maybe I shouldn't have tried to give them a third. I pulled hard on the salty dog, and mumbled to myself, "who the hell said, third time's a charm?"

Someone said he was a Cavalry Officer, put there by General Abrams to undermine Special Forces. Someone else said he was spying on the troops for that purpose but was too stupid to do it covertly. Then someone else said, "No, he's just an asshole". Never the less, we were gun shy of the new Project commander. And not knowing anything about him, didn't care to get his attention. The operation had been relatively successful, and we could only hope the stand down would go as well.

Special Project Delta, Detachment B-52, was on stand down from the first TROJAN HORSE operation (FOB Mai Loc). And most everyone was at the Delta Club letting it all hang out, something that routinely happened after every operation. What I recall that wasn't routine, was the new Delta Project commander, LTC Moore, spending the whole evening with the troops instead of being at the Officer's club. It also seemed strange, that everywhere the commander went, there was Paul Hill. Paul was the club manager. Crash moved him to the club from the Ranger Section, someone said he had too much time in the field. As I remember, he spent a lot of time with Moore that evening, and that caused an unsettling quiet with the troops at my table. When either came around, they just shut up.

I was at one of the large round tables with Stick Evans, in the front section of the Club, close to the bar. All the seats were occupied and needless to say, I had my guitar and was entertaining myself, and anyone else who would listen. I remember Moore coming by the table that evening. He stood there long enough to hear me sing, "That Burning Barrel of Shit" to the tune of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". He listened and when the song was finished, just turned and walked off without a word. My Burning Barrel of Shit didn't impress Moore, maybe he just didn't like my singing. Hell, sometimes, even I don't like my singing, but there was more to my leaving than just war songs.

The following morning after breakfast, I was sitting on the steps of the barracks feeding scraps to a small stray dog that had wandered into the compound. And like some of the old mossey backs assigned to Delta, he had found a home there. Before he could eat all the bacon, Diaz hollered across the street for me to come over, the Sergeant Major wanted to see me. I no sooner walked into the CP, when Crash told me to pack my shit, and hit the road. No fanfare, and not even a kiss my ass goodbye. The only reason he gave, "There were more Radio Operators assigned to the Project than authorized". And then he added, "The old man said anyone with more than one tour in country, git rid of him".

Crash Whalen was not a big man. He stood less than six foot, and wouldn't weigh 140 pounds soaking wet. But he was all man, and all soldier, and I had great respect for him. He had come to Special Forces, like so many others, from a conventional Airborne Unit, and had that salt and pepper hair which told his age. I had only known him a short time but counted him a true friend. I also knew the difficulty he was having sending me on my way, and how uncomfortable it made him feel.

Over his shoulder, LTC Moore watched every move, while pretending to be busy. Diaz shuffled papers, and pretended not to notice what was taking place. I didn't press for any more reasons, I had seen a dozen firings in SF before, and this was the way it was usually done. It was most always, Pack your shit and hit the road. There was nothing subtle in a Special Forces firing.

As I started walking out of the compound that day, I noticed the dog chasing one of the ducks which had gotten loose. I had not said goodbye to anyone, I never liked goodbyes. And then too, only the head shed knew I was leaving. I passed the revetment where Coffey had been sitting two years earlier, and thought about Ahn Hoa, and Coffey's memorial service, where too little was said about a fine soldier.

I walked through the Delta gate, returned the gate guard's salute, and thought, "What will that asshole do next"? The new commander was turning Delta Project into something I didn't recognize. The gate guards were now wearing Class A's, and looking like conventional Cavalry troops, with painted helmets, and spit shined boots.

As I moved the duffel bag to my other shoulder, it occurred to me that you can never re-capture what once was. I had liked my first two tours with Delta and had signed up again, but this third time was no charm. I walked on toward the 5th Group compound, and didn't look back.


EPILOGUE:

To my knowledge, (Sweet Peter) Perkins was the first, and I was the second person, to be fired from Delta Project in it's six years of existence. But we were not the last. Before this non-Special Forces asshole left B-52, he fired 27 old Special Forces operatives who were as good as, if not the best the Army had to offer. Most of the 27 who were transferred remained with SF, some ended up in conventional units, and several never returned to the Forces. Shortly after I left, Diaz, who was the S1 clerk, was fired. Sergeant Major Crash Whalen went on to pull two full tours with Delta. I found another home with Command and Control Central at Kontum. The Velvet Painting I liked so much came into the possession of Bill (Bata Boot) Bennett when 5th Group closed down. He later gave it to the Special Forces Association, and it may still be hanging on the wall behind the team house bar, just off Doc Bennett road in Fayetteville. Since these events, Bata Boot Bennett, Doc Simpson, Stick Evans, Crash Whalen, and Sweet Peter Perkins have all reported to the big First Sergeant upstairs. And someone said later, Stanfield's Nungs ate the dog.

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