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Artificial Tree, but the Man Was Real
Howard Landon "Dutch" McAllister
(written near the outset of the War in the Persian Gulf)

As Christmas nears, with nearly a half million American service men and women poised on the edge of war in the Middle East, I am haunted by the ghosts of a Christmas past. The year was 1967, and we were members of an infantry rifle company in Vietnam. It was less than two months before the North Vietnamese Tet offensive in February 1968, the time when war finally became unfashionable for the American people.

We belonged to Company A in the second battalion of the 18th Infantry. We were lean, hard young warriors, filled with pride in our country, and well versed in the traditions of our regiment, which had fought with distinction at Vicksburg in the Civil War, wearing the blue uniform of the union army.

That year, just before Christmas, our home away from home was a small fire support base, carved out of red clay and laterite soil alongside a dirt road some 35 miles northwest of Saigon. It was not picturesque. The little outpost was surrounded by gaunt, artillery-blasted mahogany trees, and we slept in holes in the ground surrounded by dirt-filled sandbags.

All in all, it was not the most dangerous time we spent in the war, either before or after. During the day, we were charged with protecting a two-mile stretch of road for long convoys of supply trucks. At night we sent out ambush patrols to intercept and destroy the enemy patrols coursing through the area. It was a rare day when one or more of us did not fall to a sniper's bullet or fragments from an artfully placed booby trap. Lucky soldiers were only wounded. The unlucky ones lay covered by olive green ponchos at the side of the helicopter landing pad, waiting their final journey home.

Our only reminder of the holidays was a small artificial Christmas tree, covered with glittering ornaments permanently wired to its branches. Sent from home by a soldier's relative, the tree stood on an empty ammunition box outside the mess tent.

Each evening, while soldiers moved through the mess tent, receiving their evening meal on steel trays, one soldier carefully brushed dust from the Christmas tree, which, like everything else, had collected a fine patina of red dust from the day's truck convoys. The soldier's name was Wayne Bates. He was the company's senior medical aidman, and was known to us as Doc, the nickname given to all medical aidmen.

The first time I noticed Doc Bates dusting the tree, I asked him, "What's this, Doc? First aid for the tree?"

Bates laughed, and replied, "Just trying to make myself count, Cap'n."

Doc Bates was from Missouri. He was short and compact, with a thatch of reddish-brown hair and a quick smile. If he had a motto, it must have been "just trying to make myself count." Usually, in an infantry unit, medical personnel are excused from some of the more onerous tasks assigned to the other soldiers. Infantrymen, who spend so much time digging holes for their own fighting positions and shelters, hate digging more than any other duty. But holes have to be dug. Field sanitation requires it--latrines, garbage pits and the like. Doc Bates always pitched in whenever there was digging to be done, and he never had to be asked.

Often, he volunteered to stand in the serving line at mealtime. In a good infantry unit, it is customary for the officers to be served after all the men have gone through the line, and, as company commander, I always ate last. Sometimes, I had some odd meals. On one occasion, Doc Bates was serving dessert in the line; when I reached his station, I had only spinach and bread on my tray. The cooks had run out of everything else. Doc deposited a huge glob of lime jello on my tray, and minutes later he sat down to join me with his own meal of spinach, lime jello, and bread. When I reminded him that servers were entitled to eat before other soldiers went through the line, his response was predictable, "Don't matter--just trying to make myself count."

We were a scruffy lot. We bathed as often as we could, but with a few quarts of water per man per day, and temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees, most of our fresh water went down our throats. When we went on a combat operation, loaded down with weapons and equipment, most of us carried several plastic water canteens clipped to our belts or rucksacks.

When Doc Bates was rigged for the field, he carried two huge bags filled with bandages and other medical paraphernalia, one hanging on each side, suspended by straps crossed over his shoulders. Doc also carried a number of water canteens, but time after time, in the course of his duties, I watched him use his own precious drinking water to cleanse a minor wound or abrasion when he was treating another soldier.

Christmas passed, and, in the first days of the new year, the enemy began stepping up operations that culminated in the violent combat of the Tet offensive. On January 6, Company A was airlifted to a spot near a village called Xom Bung, where we ran into most of a regiment of well-entrenched Viet Cong on the edge of a woodline.

We killed more than a hundred of them, but luck ran out for nearly a dozen of the men of Company A. Doc Bates was one of them. He died on that woodline, running into the face of enemy fire to help a wounded soldier.

One of the last things I saw before an enemy rifle bullet ripped through me was Doc Bates, running toward the woodline, helmet pushed back on his head, swinging a medical kitbag in each hand, just trying to make himself count.

Every time I see an artificial Christmas tree, I think of Doc Bates.

Copyright © 1997,1998,1999  Howard Landon McAllister