It was the early 1970s, and a time of great military upheaval in Southeast Asia. To call it the Vietnam War would be a rather vague generalization; as the conflict knew few, if any, real borders. I was part of an organization that did not exist; supplying imaginary armies, who were fighting enemies that were all too real!
Inevitably, one day, it all began to unravel... War is chaos; plain and simple. But usually it's a semi-organized chaos, with a modicum of purpose, process, and results. Our missions quickly changed from indirect re-supply, to emergency combat support, to (inevitably) evacuation; usually under fire. Our “clients” were the Montagnard “hill people”, who were the paid mercenaries fighting the North Vietnamese. This “army” was truly an army of the people, as they lived and fought from their home villages. Their wives and children were their support infrastructure; both in terms of logistics, as well as moral support.
As America began to withdraw from Southeast Asia, the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) began to overrun the traditional sanctuaries of the Montagnard people. The evacuations of some of the more remote camps soon took on an almost surreal urgency. Our days and nights soon merged into a weary fog of flying under-maintained aircraft; landing at impossibly-small landing strips; taking off grossly overloaded; and dodging increasingly-fierce anti-aircraft fire.
As the situation worsened, and the evacuations became more desperate, the chaos of the evacuations intensified. Families were often separated, possibly never to be re-united; and some were unavoidably abandoned. Believe me, one never forgets the last radio transmissions of those who know that the inevitable is upon them!
Toward the end, there was one evacuation that is indelibly etched into my mind. It began like any other; dodging the red and green tracer fire of the NVA gunners; and setting down amidst the swirling red dust of the village center. Initially, the evacuations had been calm, orderly affairs, but as the fighting worsened, they began to take on the fierce urgency of the truly desperate. Our aircraft were mobbed, and it was first-come, first-loaded aboard. To say that chaos reigned would be an understatement!
Then, suddenly, through the dust and smoke of this hellish inferno; there appeared a man leading a woman and four small children. Amidst all of the running, shouting, desperate people; they were calmly walking toward my aircraft; as though they hadn't a care in the world. Wordlessly, this man loaded his children on-board; then turned to his wife. As I looked on, it was as if time stood still. I watched her look up at him, with a look of love and trust and admiration; such as I had never before seen in my life. His quiet dignity and calm demeanor seemed to reassure all those around him... They embraced, and, without a backward glance, he walked back to the village defenses.
His wife continued to look at him, even as we took off, and the village faded quickly from sight. I'll never forget the look on her face... Not fear, or pain, or loss... But a radiant pride; lighting her face, and shining forth from her eyes. In that instant, I understood that I was in the presence of an intense, uncompromising, and timeless love and devotion; such as few ever attain. To this day, I have often wondered at the story of this man and woman... Who were they? How did they meet? What was their life like?
One thing was certain... It had undoubtedly been a life of love and devotion... That this man was the head of his family was, for me, beyond dispute.