THERE WAS A little dog, for a short time. The soldier-doctor got it when he went back to Saigon on one of the rare breaks he was allowed – to recharge, see family, remember what it was like to exist outside of a war zone.
He’d never been much of an animal person, but he didn’t know how to say no when his aunt brought the little dog to him, after buying it from a market.
“Aiyee, you need company out there,” she said, stroking his arm. “I can’t imagine how awfully lonely you must be. You need a friend.”
It was a beautiful dog with the fluffiest tail, all bunched up at the back, and an inquisitive face that seemed to question him every time he looked at it. He picked it up and it immediately licked his face, and he felt a strange kind of warm relief.
So off he went back to the trenches, now with a little dog following behind.
HE DOESN'T REMEMBER the dog’s name now, or whether he even gave it one.
The days and nights were the same – long, uncertain – but when he burrowed underground at night to sleep, there the dog was, a snug little body, a heartbeat on his. He grew fond of the dog, even when its tail fell off when they got close to the Cambodian border to reveal a red, raw behind, and he realised that it had been shaved, changed, just to be sold as something exotic and rare.
Sometimes he felt like he was pretending, too.
One afternoon, the soldier was sitting around with the other troops, smoking, talking. The dog sat obediently by his side. It was a rare moment of serenity, though of course, such a thing wasn’t possible, not really – they were all always on guard. To simply exist in a place of constant violence meant that every sound was amplified, the threat of death always near. So when they heard the clicks, far off – a sound no other human would hear, could hear, in normal circumstances – they all jumped.
It was everyone for themselves, diving down into the trenches. He leapt down to find his patients huddled – a bleeding leg here, a weeping arm there, all along the earthen wall, little foxholes everywhere. It was a heaving sea of human bodies, limbs, and he pushed through to find an opening, cramming himself in. His mouth was pressed up against the small of someone else’s back, filling with the lint of their uniform, chalky and tasteless.
They waited. He could hear one of his patients crying, another one reciting a prayer to Buddha: Nam mô a di đà Phật, Nam mô a di đà Phật…
The earth around them rumbled, and the dirt began to crack off the filthy makeshift walls, sweeping onto his head, brushing against his lips. His grip tightened around his rifle. His tongue felt dry.
The loudest sound he’d ever heard, like someone smashing his head against the bitumen, then stomping down so it cut through his teeth.
The ground split.
He passed out.
When he came to consciousness ten seconds later, all he could see was red dust, flying like miniscule bullets. He coughed and the dirt entered his lungs, causing him to splutter. Touching his face, he realised his glasses had blown off with the detonation.
CRAWLING OUT OF the foxhole, he looked around him to all of his comrades doing the same – clutching their sides, touching their eyes, noses, mouths, surprised, grateful, guilty to be alive. The air was thick, starchy, and he fumbled through it, pawing the ground to look for his spectacles. When he found them, they were covered in dust, and he licked the back of his hand to crudely clean them before putting them back on his face, everything an orange blur.
A little way ahead, he saw a comrade slumped in the corner where two dirt walls met. His eyes still adjusting to the dust, he began to stumble towards it, as his instincts kicked in – to help the wounded, as was his job. “Brother!” he shouted. “Brother! Are you alright?”
As he approached more closely and his vision blurred, then came together, he noticed that the soldier’s head was missing. There was no blood, no sign of a struggle – just a body, decapitated clean, red dirt cascading down its shoulders.
And nearby, the body of the dog. God, he’d forgotten the dog even existed in those moments where everyone was shouting to get down, and he jumped headfirst into the trenches, and now there the little one was, lying lifeless, its tiny form split open by the impact of the explosion. As if it had never been awake; as if its blood had always run cold.
He felt something catch in his throat, but he swallowed it, remembering that he’d seen much worse. War was work; work was war. He’d made a promise long ago not to let himself get too emotional or attached to anything.
Darkness came that night, as it always did, and the next day, the sunlight. It went on like that.
Tien Manh Nguyen served as a doctor in the South Vietnamese army, in charge of the medical section of the 32nd Ranger Regiment. He was on the front lines in An Loc from 1973-75, then in a re-education camp for a few years, before escaping by boat with his wife in 1980.
This memoir project by their daughter Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen will explore her parents' journey to Australia as refugees after the war, and her upbringing as a Vietnamese Australian.
The story of the war in Vietnam continues in Ken Burns' landmark documentary series The Vietnam War, now screening on Saturdays from 7:30pm on SBS.
Watch the first two episodes now at SBS On Demand:
EXCLUSIVE: Director Ken Burns talks 'The Vietnam War'