I think you can honour the sacrifices of a common soldier without glorifying war.—Geraldine Brooks
It’s 1962 and I’m into my seventh month as a supply room clerk at a missile base on the coastline of the Yellow Sea in Korea when Sergeant Brennan shows up. He’s my former boss’s replacement and he’s a lot older than I expect. We shake hands and I notice a scar running the length of his left cheek. His eyes are watery and he looks exhausted, like he hasn’t slept in days.
“Good to meet you, Specialist Keith,” he says, his hand damp and limp.
“Mike, Sarge,” I say.
“Yeah, okay . . . Sarge is fine. Call me Sarge, Mike.”
He drops his sagging body into the chair behind the desk he figures is his and then asks what’s on tap for the day.
“About to hit the road to make my rounds,” I answer.
My primary job is to drive the supply truck up to ASCOM City (military distribution center) to pick up base supplies, mostly laundry and food for the guard dogs. It takes me from around 0900 until midafternoon to make the run, and I do it five days a week. I’m glad to be out on the road on my own. Sitting in the supply room makes me antsy, and already I think it would be worse with this lifer in my face.
“Oh,” he says, making it sound more like a question. “You drive the supply truck.”
“Do it every day, Sarge.”
“Good, well, I’ll familiarize myself with things while you’re gone and probably have lots of questions when you get back,” he says, and begins to cough loudly.
When I return to the base around 1530 hours, the supply room is empty. I look for Sarge, but the guy who runs the medic’s station across the hall tells me that he’s gone to his room in the NCO quarters.
“He wasn’t feeling too good. Gave him some APCs,” says my buddy, Corporal Rick Mosley, when I ask. “Think he’s got a drinking problem. Looks like a rummy. Could smell booze on him.”
The next morning I’m getting ready to head out and Sarge shows up looking none too steady.
“Morning,” he says, going directly to the pot of coffee I just made and pouring himself a cup.
His hand shakes as he lifts the mug to his lips.
“You okay, Sarge?”
“Sure, still getting my legs back after 20 days on the Breck,” he says.
“I came over on the Breckenridge, too,” I respond enthusiastically, but he doesn’t seem to hear me.
“Was supposed to fly here, but things got screwed up. Didn’t feel right as soon as that ship left Oakland. Couldn’t keep anything down. Same as the last time.”
“Were you here during the war?” I ask.
He begins to cough again, and it causes the contents of his cup to spill on his fatigues.
“Goddamn it,” he growls, wiping at his shirt and then his mouth.
There’s blood on his handkerchief, and he notices that I’ve noticed, and he tucks it into his pocket.
“Was here when the shit was flying, son. Not such a nice place to be back then. Hell of a lot better now from the look of things. Got a little banged up when I was here the last time,” he says, running his finger over his scar.
“Must have been real bad,” I say and gather my things for my day on the road.
“Wasn’t good,” says Sarge as I’m on my way out of the supply room. “Got pretty ugly. Stay out of the wars if you can, Mike, or you’ll end up like me.”
The sound of his hacking follows me halfway to the motor pool. Poor guy, I think, wondering how his full story must read.
The following week, I’m sitting at my desk and, suddenly, Sarge collapses. When I reach him, his face is already turning blue and there’s foam bubbling from his lips.
“Rick,” I shout. “Get in here, Sarge is in trouble.”
The medic shows up in a matter of seconds and surveys the situation. By now, I’m worried that Sarge is dead.
“Christ!” he blurts. “Damned if I’ll give him mouth-to-mouth,” says Rick. “Be right back.”
He returns in a minute with an oxygen tank and places its mask on Sarge’s face. To my great relief, he comes around almost immediately. By now, the captain is in the supply room having heard the uproar from his office down the hall.
“Get the ambulance truck, Rick, and get him to the hospital.”
I accompany both medic and patient to the medical facility in Seoul. On the way, Sarge is in and out of consciousness, but by the time we reach the hospital, he seems a lot better and asks us to take him back to the base.
“Can’t do it. The captain ordered us to bring you here. You need to be checked over,” says Rick.
“C’mon, guys. I’m fine. Just got a little dizzy is all. I’m okay, really.”
Despite Sarge’s claims, the attending doctor thinks otherwise, and he is checked in for tests. We return to our base, and several days pass before we’re told he is being shipped back to the states for more extensive treatment. Whatever his medical problem is, we never hear.
“Don’t know what the hell is going on with Brennan,” says our First Sergeant when I ask for more details. “Guy’s a hard drinker. Think the sauce is killing him. Too bad, he’s really paid his dues. Took some hard hits during the wars.”
“Wars, Sarge?” I ask.
“Yup, he served in World War II and Korea. Got a bronze star and two purple hearts. Poor bastard deserves better. Real damn hero. Think it screwed him up good. Lousy personal life. Divorce and all that shit. It’s why he stayed active so long. Should have retired long ago, but no place else to go, I guess.”
Later, I sit in Rick’s office and we both agree that Sarge got a raw deal in life.
“Man, it’s a heck of a way to end up after going through what he did,” I say, adding that I hope he’ll be okay.
“He seemed like a good guy. Reminded me of my uncle. He used to hit the booze pretty hard, too, after his wife died. Maybe he’ll get help back home. Sad how some guys end up,” remarks Rick.
Two weeks later, the base commander catches me as I’m walking to my truck to start my day, and he tells me that Sarge died of a brain hemorrhage on his way back to the states. It was news I couldn’t shake from my thoughts as I drove through the bleak winter countryside of South Korea.
Now, more than a half-century later, I can still see Sarge lying there on the supply room floor as if it all happened yesterday. The memory I have of that old soldier is still vivid. General MacArthur had it wrong; some old soldiers never fade away.
I hadn’t read much back then, but something that must have come out of a book filled my head as I made my designated stops the day I was told that Sarge had died: “It’s so much darker when even a dim light goes out.”