Christmas 1966 on Operation Sierra
by Michael W. Rodriguez
The operation, south of An Hoa in Arizona Territory, I
Corps, Republic of South Vietnam, conducted during Christmas
1966, is called Sierra.
Grunts move softly through the jungle and the treelines, weapons
at the ready. They carry no machine guns, no rocket launchers.
Most are armed with M-14s
and shotguns. They wear softcovers instead of helmets; they do
not wear flak jackets.
The rain has been steady and dreary, and has been so for many
days and many nights. Everything rots and molds and mildews,
rotting toes and the flesh that bears the weight of bullet belts
and water bottles. Their chow is cold C-rations and brackish
water from canteens.
Four-deuce mortars up on the hill throw an occasional illum round
up into the night sky, doing, most of these Marines agree, more
harm than good. The half-light cast by these illumination rounds
creates weird shadows, playing tricks of imaginary gooks moving
against them through the trees.
Cloud cover is so low that medevacs can only land with
difficulty, causing concern among the Grunts. It's one thing to
get hurt out here; it's another thing entirely if whoever's hurt
can't get out. This, more than anything else, causes morale to
plummet. "Don't mind throwing hands", they say, "just don't wanna
get fucked up doing it." There it is ....
The rain stops. The clouds part. Most of the Marines do not
recognize the phenomenon for what it is: their misery is so
complete that the rain has become part of them, part of their
psyche. They are soaked to the bone, chilled to their very souls.
They reach the crest of a small hill and pause. The squad leader
frets, afraid to move his people over the top, afraid the moon
will expose his people ....
The squad leader turns and signals his people to go to ground.
The squad obeys without question, facing outboard. They wonder
what the squad leader has seen, but they know he will tell them,
The squad leader, a young man of nineteen, backs up, faces his
team leaders. "The moon", he whispers.
They do not understand the squad leader's words, and then they
do. The moon! The rain has stopped!
Team leaders pass The Word behind them: The
moon! Young faces turn upward, not wanting to believe;
afraid to believe.
They see stars in the heavens above them. Bright, shiny,
million-year-old stars shine down at them; just for them.
Their jungle utilities are soaking wet, drenched beyond
redemption. They feel as if their blood has frozen in their
veins. Most of them are so cold, they believe they can never
again be warm.
They stare up at the stars and feel, impossibly, the warmth of
those stars above them begin to dry their clothing, to dry their
bones, warm their souls.
"What the fuck?", one of them wonders.
"God's face", says another. "God's face. Merry Christmas, man."
"Oh, yeah", agrees the first one. "Oh, yeah", he says again,
believing again ....
Renewed, recharged, relieved, the squad resumes its patrol of the