Today, many Americans eat horribly and are willing to die for food. The result, lifestyle diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are killing hundreds of thousands yearly. Those bad habits were in Vietnam too. One Saturday, I became the designated non-eater when several Marines from my company wanted to leave the bunker and concertina barbed-wire safety of our base camp and walk into the nearest village to eat something other than twenty-year-old C-rations, reconstituted eggs and drink the daily ration of warm, canned Budweiser beer.
Before we left Okinawa, everyone in our company watched films about the dangers of having sex or eating native food in Vietnam. We were told there was a risk of being poisoned or having ground glass sprinkled into the food. After all, we were fighting a war with a phantom enemy, farmers by day and warriors at night. The cook could have been a Viet Cong who couldn’t miss the opportunity to kill a few enemies by adding something to what he or she cooked.
Since I refused to eat native food, I was asked to come along. If any Marines eating the Vietnamese food got sick or died, my job was to shoot the Vietnamese that fed them and any suspects. Six of us went to the village and five ate. The five that ate stacked their weapons and sat at the table eating what was put in front of them.
Flies and bugs buzzed around their food and mouths. There was no way to tell what kind of meat they were eating. The Vietnamese near our base camp ate anything that crawled, walked or flew like dogs, cats, snakes, rats, or monkeys. Hygiene was nonexistent. Human waste was added to the paddies and fields to help fertilize the crops. Even if there were no poison or ground glass added to the food, there was always the risk of coming down with dysentery or some other god-awful disease.
I didn’t sit. I stood in a corner with my back to the wall and held my weapon with both hands. I kept my eyes on the entrance and on every Vietnamese in the place. The safety to my M14 was off and my finger was on the trigger.
Chu Lai was not Saigon. The roads were dirt. The villages were small and the floors inside were also dirt. Those five fellow Marines that wanted to eat something “fresh” may have lacked common sense taking such a risk, but no one died or got sick that day. I watched them finish eating and drink the cool, locally brewed beer from glass bottles. I didn’t have to shoot anyone—not that day. I had no regrets.
His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.
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