“I’ve never been more afraid in my life,” my cousin said.

We were sitting on his back porch. Both of us had our feet up on the railing with a cold beer in our hands. I was surprised at the beer. My cousin has always been the kind that shied away from beer, but considering the conversation, this once it was appropriate.

I’d gotten back from the Gulf War and had dropped in for a visit. After catching up, he invited me outside, gave me the beer, and said something that floored me. “Now that there’s someone else in the family that’s seen the elephant, maybe I can tell you about some of what I went through.”

When he said that, I had a flashback to when he came back from ‘Nam. I remember people trying to get the stories from him but he stayed far away from what had happened. Instead, he talked about having good times in Saigon, or being in the hospital and eating tons of ice cream. He never actually said what he’d done and seen despite being an 11B (Combat Infantry). That meant he’d seen it, but he wouldn’t talk about it.

I was soon to learn a lesson I never expected to learn. When I went through counseling to talk about what I’d gone through and my traumas, I made the comment that I felt like I was in one of those Ray Bradbury stories where astronauts land on a distant world only to find a place that looks like home but just alien enough to be Mars.

It would be a long time before I realized the people like my cousin and I hadn’t come to an alien world. We were the aliens. We were the ones who went off, saw things that changed us. When we came back, we’d become the round pegs trying to fit into square holes our families and communities thought we should fit into.

It doesn’t work.

And then people wonder why a combat veteran is so different.

But, as we sat in the cool September sun, he began talking. I wondered how many years the stories had been bottled up. And once he started, he didn’t stop. It turned into several hours of download, but one story really stuck with me.

“We’d just been through a firefight, and as the last of the shooting petered out, I came to a frightening realization. As the VC [Viet Cong] fell back, we pursued them into the bush. They melted back into the jungle and suddenly I saw that something was wrong.

“I was alone. I looked around, looking for the rest of my people. They were no where to be seen.

“Somehow, I’d become separated from the rest of my platoon and I was completely and totally alone. They could have been fifty yards away, but I’d never see them. I thought about yelling, but I’d probably be silenced by a bullet between the eyes. Worse, I didn’t know exactly where I was, or how to get back to our base.

“For several minutes I stood frozen by fear. I didn’t know what to do. If I kept going straight ahead, I’d get further from where we’d been. There was also the chance I’d run right into the enemy.

“My best bet was to head in the direction I thought it was, and hope I’d stumble across someplace that looked familiar.

“I began walking, trying to be quiet. Every time my leg brushed against a branch or I stepped on a twig harder than I should have, no matter how quiet it was in reality, it sounded like a gunshot to me. I moved on, sure that I’d run into the VC and either I’d be shot or captured. Or I’d step on a mine and bleed to death here in the jungle.

“Eventually, I came across a path and followed it. Looking back, it might not have been one of the smarter moves I made. But in this case, it led me into a village. I generated a few curious stares and several of the villagers tried talking to me. I didn’t speak their language and no one there spoke English. I saw no evidence Americans had ever been there.

“Worse, I didn’t know if it was a friendly village or not. There was a large tree in the middle of the village. I backed up to it and loaded a fresh magazine into my rifle.

“I sat there, sipping water from my canteen. I had some rations, but I ate sparingly. I felt my continued survival hinged on my vigilance.

“Around me, the daily lives of the villagers went on. I soon felt like I was just one more piece of the background to their lives. I didn’t let it lull me into complacency. It would have been easy to stand up, walk around, and maybe find my way out. But I was sure the VC was around the corner of every hut and behind every bush. Even now, I might be in the sights of one of them. Or one of the kids here might rush out into the jungle and bring them here where I would fight, probably be killed, or captured.

“Before sundown, one of the women brought me some food. I was hungry but wouldn’t eat it. She’d placed the bowl just far enough away that I’d have to leave the shelter of the tree. It was clear to me that they were just as wary of me as I was of them. Since I didn’t know the status of the village, I assumed the food could have been poisoned. It sat there in the bowl all night, the smell of the spices making my mouth water.

“The sun went down. Around me the village went to sleep while I maintained my silent vigil. Above me, the stars spun past, and after a long night that was a battle to stay awake, the dawn came.

“And with it, a platoon of Marines came through. I yelled for them and got up from the tree. Every muscle in my body was stiff and sore. I explained my problem to their LT, and he said they’d get me home.

“I fell in with them. That night I was in their camp, eating Marine chow, and sleeping in a Marine cot. It turned out the the village I’d stumbled into was friendly, and they patrolled it on a regular basis.

“I was back with my unit the following day. They’d been getting ready to declare me as Missing in Action, something that would have worried my parents sick.

“From that day, till the day I left ‘Nam, I always made sure I knew where my people were.”

RESOURCES: If you’re a veteran, and you need to talk to someone, the VA has a ton of resources. Here’s a link to their page: