by John Blue
I have always said to family, friends, vets, doctors and VA folks that I’d gotten my strange jungle fevers in a little place in Vietnam we bush GIs called “LEECH VALLEY.” I got the idea they never believed me. “Leeches that hunted down and attacked humans?!”
Maybe it was one reason my requests for “service connected disability” for my nasty life-long debilitating jungle fevers were always rejected — it was too impossible to believe! Now thanks to a book I just discovered, I can prove “LEECH VALLEY” existed, and so help other vets! The book is posited at the end of this true tale, but now let me begin it.
Sometime in early 1972, my platoon in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade was told to patrol “LEECH VALLEY” about a dozen miles SW of the big U.S. airbase at Da Nang. We were to look for VC rockets that were being launched at the airbase.
We all knew about and dreaded the place. Long-standing bush gossip about it said the leeches there were very aggressive and actually chased you on the ground, or dropped down on you from branches as you passed under just to get at your warm blood! We could think of nothing worse, except maybe getting eaten by jungle tigers!
We hurried through “LEECH VALLEY” for a couple of hours, cursing silently. I had prepared for it by tying the drawstrings on my jungle trouser bottoms as tight as I could to keep them out. I buttoned my jungle blouse up to my neck, and taped my wrist cuffs shut. I did the same for others who wanted it. We never saw any VC or NVA, and why not? No one could possibly live here!
(I was their Conscientious Objector C.O. platoon medic. I didn’t want to harm another human, yet wanted to do something for my great country, so I volunteered as a C.O. I never regretted a second of it, but sadly came back with lifelong health ills lasting to this day. As a Conscientious Objector C.O. medic I carried no weapon at all. I felt my best contribution was to carry extra medic gear, food and water for the platoon. So I carried a backpack weighing 120 pounds, including 11 quarts of water. I remember this number exactly, as I was trying to make it an even 12 quarts, but I found there was actually no place to put or hang that 12th canteen on me. I was so overloaded, it took another GI to pull me up after a sit down on the trail. The pig-gunner had the same situation, loaded down with the pig and ammo.)
Finally, we got to a river that supposedly marked the end of “LEECH VALLEY.” Once we crossed the river, I called a halt to check our bodies for leeches. Yea, medics can do that. They have final control over a platoon when it comes to health issues. 60 young GIs “dropped trou” on the opposite riverbank and stood stark naked!
Most had leeches on their bodies. We couldn’t feel them! You had to see them! I had one on each testicle getting fatter and fatter on my blood as I gaped at them! I still don’t remember exactly how I got them off me, or off the other GIs, but as their only platoon medic, I somehow did. You can’t just pull them off, as its head would stay buried in your flesh and later infect you. I think I put a zippo lighter under them and lit up their little wiggling tails until they dropped. Then you stomped on them, splattering your own blood into the jungle and onto your boots! Disgusting!
Now it’s a rather risky proposition to hold a flickering lighter flame fractions of an inch from anyone’s *****! It had to be just the right distance to make leeches drop off in pain, and not flame out upward! A total nightmare, but I got them off all the guys! When I was done, we pulled our GI pants on, formed up, and continued our patrol.
Anyway, soon we were in a totally deserted small Vietnamese farm village. It was creepy as hell! No life anywhere! All bad vibes! Absolute stillness everywhere… We got nervous and bugged the LT (Lieutenant) and the RTO (Radioman) to call higher-higher. We wanted to know what had gone on here? Plus we feared we were lost. Medics are always near the RTO but I don’t remember if I overheard it from the squawkbox or radio handset, but I definitely heard: “Why are you there?! There’s no VC there! Get the hell out! Those villagers all died from Typhoid! Go!”
That was all it took! We split, but it was too late. I’d gotten something… In a few days I got weaker and weaker. Soon I was having trouble walking! I began to sweat profusely and scratch some red chest rash. I got kinda dizzy. Now, sweating is normal in a hot jungle, except this new sweating seemed very different. It produced very fine, misty brow droplets — and smelled like burnt wood! I
went to our platoon Sergeant, and told him I was very sick with some fever! The dickhead said exactly: “Shaddup! We’ll be in our rear base camp in a day or two, and you can go to our Battalion Aid Station in Da Nang and get checked out.” In a few days we were indeed in the rear! I staggered to our Battalion Aid Station. I pulled myself into the plywood hooch and found a black Medic and white Medic hurriedly packing up gear. Shipping boxes were everywhere on the plywood floor.
I said: “Hi guys! I’m kinda weak and feverish with something from the bush.” The black guy turned to me and said: “SHADDUP! Can’t you see we’re busy?! The whole unit is being sent stateside in a few days. You can take it up back there!” Too weak to argue, and tired of petty abuse, I turned around and left. REMFS!
I went to my platoon’s assigned plywood barracks, and lay down in a full fever. Indeed, in a day or two we were ordered to drop off our military gear and pick up our personal gear. My unit was then loaded on a jet, and flown out of Vietnam. It was 3 days from front lines in the jungle to us boarding a charter jet to the USA! We were part of President Nixon’s attempt to be seen as “a peacemaker” for his upcoming Fall 1972 re-election. He was rushing US troops out as fast as he could.
This had a disastrous effect on me that lasted my lifetime. It meant my torrid jungle fevers were never caught by Army doctors in rear bases, or at my Honorable Discharge. For there were no doctors waiting for us in Seattle, WA when we landed! At Seattle’s SEA-TAC in March of 1972, I remember shuffling down the plane’s ramp. At the bottom was a guy taking our pictures, and giving his card so we’d buy them later. When I came up, he ran out of film! He had to reload, but everyone behind me on the ramp was very anxious to move on and get discharged. So, I moved on too. I never got the last picture of me in the U.S. ARMY — a service I was very proud to do, and still am.
Inside a metal air terminal, a few bored 19-year old GIs sat behind simple wood tables piled with documents. They held up pens and papers: sign, and you were out! I bent over and looked at the documents but couldn’t see clearly as stinging fever sweat was rolling into my eyes! It also dripped all over the discharge papers! I asked a snotty GI kid if I could first have a medical exam, as I was very sick.
He snorted: “There are no doctors here! It is 3 AM! What do you expect?!”
I asked: “Well, could I wait here until a doctor comes in tomorrow morning?”
He said: “You can but you’d have to wait on that bench over there with them!”
I looked over and saw three very pale, skinny, sweaty, twitchy, young GIs yanking on handcuffs which held them locked down onto a steel bench!
I asked: “What is wrong with them, and why were they handcuffed like that?”
He said: “They’re junkies the Army has to clean up before they are discharged!”
(Part 2 will be in the next editionof The Paper.)