DANNY was a tough, street-smart kid from one of the boroughs of New York City. I guess I knew him as well as anyone else in our infantry platoon and probably liked him a little better than most. You see, Danny didn't make a lot of friends, probably because he operated solely on two principles. One was: get them before they get you. The second was like unto it: me first. Danny was a true loner in a place where they were few and far between. The place was Vietnam in 1968. It was wet, dirty, and dangerous, and because of the latter, most guys stuck together. But not Danny; he was out for No. 1 and he didn't care who knew it. As a matter of fact, he took a strange pride in announcing to every replacement that came into our unit: ``Listen, rookie,'' he'd say. ``I'm a short-timer and I'm going back to the world in one piece no matter what happens to the rest of you. So just don't get in my way. You understand that?''
For the newcomer it must have been frightening. First off, he probably hadn't been in the country long enough to understand that ``the world'' just meant home and ``short-timer'' meant someone who was close to going there. The kid didn't even know the language yet and already this guy was telling him that he didn't care whether he lived or died just as long as he stayed out of the way.
Sometimes I wanted to tell Danny to leave the kid alone, but I had learned to mind my own business.
It was just before the Tet holiday that things changed suddenly and drastically for Danny. We were on a mission just outside of Dung Ha when we saw the little village off to our right near the tree line.
It was standard operating procedure to search any settlements that we encountered, and this one was no exception. Orders were given. We lined up about five yards apart facing the target and swept toward it like a huge, olive-drab push broom, sending everything from animals to rice-paddy workers scattering in front of us.
When we reached the edge of the village we set up a perimeter and our platoon began its move into the random collection of wooden huts with their thatched roofs, dirt floors, and doorways full of wide-eyed children hiding behind the grimy pant legs of their mothers. There were no men, just the tired, worn-looking mothers and the curious, dirty-faced children.
The sharp crack of the shots sounded so foreign at first, like they didn't belong in this place of mothers and children. But the shots were there and real. Reflexes took over and I found myself on the ground crawling for the relative protection of a tree off to the side of the village's center path.
My heart was pounding against my chest when I reached the tree and I found that I wasn't the only one who had sought this particular refuge. There, firmly entrenched in the protection afforded by the broad trunk, was Danny. I needed someone to watch my back, not ``me first'' Danny.
When I could raise my head to look around I found the little village instantly empty as soldiers, mothers, and children had all taken what safety they could find. I could hear our people shouting that there were snipers in the tree line and at intervals the distinctive crack of the snipers' Russian-made AK-47s and then the answering roar of our M-16s.
I looked at Danny and found him staring at something a few yards in front of our tree and off to the right. I followed the line of his sight and that's when I saw her. She was strikingly small there on the ground. She couldn't have been much more than five or six and although any sound she might have made was completely drowned out by the fire fight, I could see that she was crying. I could also see a small red stain on the arm of her shirt, and I knew she was hurt.
At that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Danny move. Saw him leave the protection of our tree and run, crouching low, toward the little Vietnamese girl. The rest all seemed to happen at the same exact instant. Danny reached the girl, got hold of her clothing, and half crawling and half running began pulling her back toward the tree. I could hear our platoon leader yelling for Danny to get out of the open, then the crack, crack of the sniper's rifle.
I saw the muzzle flash in the trees and I emptied my clip in that direction, but it was too late. Danny was down, and yet he'd managed to push the fragile child close enough for me to reach out and pull her to safety. The others must have seen the flash too, because they began pouring round upon round into the tree line and the snipers, knowing that the game was up, fell silent.
I guess I must have grabbed Danny and pulled him back to the tree, but to this day I don't remember doing it. The medic was there when I turned around. He pulled Danny's flack vest off and began trying to patch him up.
I looked at the girl. Her eyes were red from crying and the tears had made muddy paths down her cheeks. When I tried to look at her arm I thought she'd cry out but she just stared at Danny. Even if Danny could have heard her, she had no words that he could understand but she reached out and touched the leg of his fatigue pants and then she ran away into one of the nondescript huts.
I heard later that Danny was going to be all right, but he was hit bad enough that he was going to get his wish; they were sending him back to the world. Our platoon leader gave us all a long lecture about how a soldier's duty to keep himself safe far outweighs any need to help a civilian.
He said, ``This is the stuff they don't give out medals for.''
And I imagine that he was right, but I do know that in that village one tough kid from New York found out that he was much more of a man than he ever thought he could be. And somewhere there's a Vietnamese girl, now in her 20s, who knows that the Americans who came to her country with war were not all animals with only the instinct to kill. All in all, not a bad exchange for a medal. I think Danny would agree.