Fifty years ago, the field phone on my desk chirped. I pulled the handset out of the cradle, and raising it to my ear I pressed the transmit button and said, "Sergeant Carson, how may I help you Sir?
"It's me, Sarge," Corporal Fleury, our Company Clerk said. Without waiting for a response, he continued, "We just got a new man. His name is Castellaneous. He will be working in your section, and he'll be in your platoon. He's on the way over...." There was a long pause, finally broken, when Fleury, who couldn't define a sense of humor, much less give an example of the term, managed to add, "Sarge, he must be the last man who could pass the physical."
Before I could snap the handset back in place, the door opened and a duffle bag, with legs, stumbled in, took two steps, then the bag and legs separated, revealing a PFC, who couldn't have been over 5'7" and on a tall day maybe weighed 140 pounds on a heavy day. His geeky-looking, Army-issued, plastic-framed glasses, hid a lot of his pimply face. Still I could tell he could easily pass for fifteen. He spotted me in the dusty gloom of the quonset hut, pulled his cap off and slowly made his way toward my desk.
Too shocked to move, I sat and stared. Six inches from the desk, he snapped to a stop, and I saw his right arm start moving upward. "Hold it, Castellanos," I said. I'm your Sergeant, not your commanding officer. Don't even think about saluting. Now, relax."
With some effort he managed that.
I said, "As my Daddy says, 'you look like you're worn to a frazzle.'"
He grinned shyly and said, "I haven't slept in..." he paused, sneaked a look at his watch and said, "Eighteen hours."
"Then this conversation is over until you sleep. Come on, I'll show you your bunk." Thirty minutes later he was sound asleep about ten feet away from the door to what I called my room, though, it was only a few sheets of plywood nailed to the joists, in the corner of the barracks.
It was furnished with a makeshift door and a cot I'd raised a foot with bunk extensions to give me room to slid my foot locker under. I conserved every square inch of floor space to give me room for a second foot locker, which served as my desk and was accompanied by two folding patio chairs - one for me, and one for any infrequent visitor to my den.
A few hours later, Castellanos was jackknifed into my second chair, sobbing. There is nothing in the NCO Manual that covers "Sobbing New Guy." I watched, listened and finally, afraid one of the other guys would hear and wonder what was going on, stood, reached across my desk/footlocker and touched him on the shoulder. "Castallaneous, I can't fix it until you stop crying and tell me what's wrong."
Finally after shaking and snorting and wiping his nose on his sleeve a few times, he raised his head and said something I'll never forget. "Sarge, I'm afraid I'm going to be a coward."
There's nothing in the manual for that one either, but I charged ahead anyway. "What the hell are you talking about Castallaneous?" I said.
The short version of his story was, he came from a long line of war heros that began with his great-great-grandfather and progressed, without missing a generation, or a war, though to his father. "And that's why I'm here Sarge. It's why I volunteered. My family expects it, and I have to do it, and..." he sobbed again but recovered quickly, "I'm afraid I'm going to be a coward. The first in my family."
A lot of things ran through my mind, but all I managed to say was, "Castallaneous, when the time comes, if it comes, you'll do what you have to do. Now go back to bed." He did. A few minutes later the lights were turned out. I listened a long time until I heard the sobbing stop and the sounds of Castallanous' sleeping blend in with the sleeping sounds of the rest of the squad, at least those who weren't on duty.
Sometime between 2:00 and 2:30 AM, Victor Charlie came past Camp Bearcat on his way home from a firefight in Long Binh, Binh Ho or Saigon. The first rocket hit on the small 9th Division Helipad just behind our barracks. Strapping on my gear, I walked into the bay. Castallanous, horror paralyzing his face was sitting up but not moving. I slapped him on the back, "Forget everything except getting in the bunker. NOW!"
The slap got him moving, and in the feeble light of my flashlight, I began working my way to the end of the bay. When I reached the first bunk, I ran my hands over the cover to make sure it was empty, then I went to the second and third, until I'd checked all twenty. Rockets and an occasional mortar were still lighting up the Stephen King scene when I started down the outside stairway of the two story building.
At the ground floor, I stepped into the bay and began checking bunks again. Between in-coming rounds, I heard the door at the other end of the bay open. I looked up as a small figure came in,and, in the dim light, I realized it was Castallanous. He stopped at the first bunk, ran his hands over the cover and moved to the second. We met at the middle of the room just as another rocket, this one further way, lit up the scene. "I know you said go to the bunker, Sarge. And I did. But when I asked someone where you were, he said you always checked to make sure everyone was out before you came to the bunker."
He paused, looked at me through his tear smeared glasses, and said, "I thought I ought to come back and help you, Sarge." That was the first of many times he "came back to help me," the kid from upstate New York, who was afraid he would be a coward. Castallanous was one of the bravest men I've ever known.
Men and women are heroes or cowards long before they are called on to prove which they are. I don't know why that's true, but I damn sure know that it is. No training or rehersal can change it. It's a built in fact. One that most never know about, and that's not a bad thing.
There's one other thing I know about heroes and cowards, and it's the thing that prompted this post. Unless you know which you are, you aren't qualified to call a man a hero or a coward.... Mr. President.