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The sprawling air base at Bien Hoa was lit only by the runway lights which the controllers turned off as soon as the plane came to a stop. The only other lights were evenly spaced along the perimeter wire a half mile away, and the lights from the terminal building south of the runways. The pilot shut down the plane's running lights as a jeep arrived at the boarding platform placed at the forward hatch by the air base personnel. The door opened, and Sgt. Vincent Torelli saw the interior lights had not been turned off again.
"Shit, Sarge, when are those idiots gonna learn?" Satler said, shaking his head.
"Maybe, Corporal, when the VC drops a mortar round in his cockpit."
"Never happen, Vince. Those gooks ain't no good with them mortars. Can't aim 'em for shit, then they only fire two or three rounds before they run off. Never hit anything but open space anyway."
"What's the matter, T.J." You forget so soon what can happen?"
Vince shivered as the memory of the terrible night five months ago flooded back. He could once again hear the explosions and the gunfire, could feel the pain of his wounds, hear the cries of the dying. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and forced the memories from his mind.
"I don't want to be around if they get lucky, T.J. That open door is shining like a beacon, and maybe ol' Charlie will use it as an aiming point."
Torelli lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply as he watched the soldiers walking down the stairs from the plane. "Hey, T.J., how many of these guys you think will be getting back on a plane a year from now?"
"I dunno, Vince. I guess it depends how lucky they are."
"Yeah,"Torelli said under his breath, "or maybe how smart they are." He turned to T.J. and said, "Let's get these newbies to the 90th before Charlie wakes up."
Phoung watched the soldiers walking across the tarmac with the binoculars he had stolen from the American deuce and a half parked in front of Three Doors earlier that evening. He could not see the unit patches on their shoulders from where he was, but he could at least count the number for his superiors.
He thought, It does not matter how many come, we will prevail in the end. One year from now, maybe ten years from now, but we will prevail. As the last of the Americans entered the terminal, he put the binoculars back in their case, and crawled through the brush down the low hummock he had been using as his observation point.
Sgt. Vincent Torelli stood on the table, addressing the newly arrived troops. "Welcome to paradise, gentlemen. You're probably wondering what's going to happen to you now. Well, from here you will be bused to the 90th Replacement Battalion where you will spend a couple of days while your paperwork is processed and arrangements can be made to get you to your permanent units." As he looked out over the group, he could see fear and uncertainty in their faces. Good, he thought, fear makes a man cautious, and a cautious man has a better chance of surviving here.
"From here on out" he continued, "you touch nothing that isn't government issue. You do not leave the friendly confines of the 90th until ordered to do so, and starting right now, consider every gook your enemy. You will be right most of the time. Trust no one who doesn't have round eyes, and be careful of some of them. If you keep your head out of your ass, you just might survive long enough to get back here a year from now."
Torelli knew it wasn't his job to lecture these men, but he figured the more they heard it, the more likely they were to take it seriously. "I wish you all luck. Now, head out to the buses, out that door", he said, pointing to the exit behind him.
Watching them walk out the door, Torelli's mind drifted again, remembering when he had first arrived at Bien Hoa. He, too, had been a green 20 year old PFC, scared of the unknown, wondering what the next year would hold for him. He had stood at the top of the boarding platform, squinting in the bright sunlight. The heat and humidity were like a damp blanket, covering him and trying to pull him down. Now, here he was almost a year later, still alive, though somewhat worse for the wear. He was a short-timer now, with less than two weeks left until he rotated home. He thought of the last year and how it had changed his life. He was no longer the naive, sheltered, middle-class boy who had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He had matured beyond his 21 years, and his eyes had been opened.