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‘Speaking with you now I’m back at Khe Sanh’

Justin Portess finds a surprising bond with a homeless man in New York City

By on Monday, 29 July 2013

A US Marine at the Khe Sanh combat base in Vietnam in 1968  (Photo: Rick Merron)

A US Marine at the Khe Sanh combat base in Vietnam in 1968 (Photo: Rick Merron)

I first noticed his small paper Stars and Stripes, fluttering weakly in an empty supersize drinks cup, the kind they recently tried to ban in New York. Though there was nothing particularly special about them – especially in this land of flags.

Faded by the sun and curling at the edges, Elias’s flags had long since lost the war for the most impressive flags on Fifth Avenue. But they were proudly displayed nevertheless, all four of them, a sidewalk-level foil to their crisp counterparts adorning Manhattan’s plushest shops. That evening all the flags stirred, flapped or, in Elias’s case, rattled in the chill wind that funnelled between the
buildings.

He was sitting quietly on the pavement behind them. A discreet handwritten sign announced his status, but otherwise he clearly hoped that this and his cup would be sufficient to encourage goodwill from the many passers-by. He had chosen a good spot, though none were stopping.

When I did, and Elias looked up from his flags, his tiny eyes bore into mine from under hooded, wrinkled lids. I knew immediately that he had served in Vietnam, as his sign testified. It didn’t take a soldier to see that he had suffered immeasurable pain.

In the comforting blast of an air duct spouting warm, chlorinated air, Elias and I spoke the soldier’s universal language: of long periods of boredom and moments of life-altering intensity, lost friends, extremes of weather and the search for love. We were temporarily removed from the passing tourists and the rich and beautiful inhabitants of New York’s Upper East Side.

Elias was only 14 when he signed up in the hallowed US Marine Corps to fight his generation’s war. His uncle, a recruiting sergeant, helped him lie about his age to get in. We both got the joke: when I was a boy, wanting to sign up was the most natural thing in the world.

Before the decade was out, Elias completed two tours in Vietnam, which included battles for places with names that now form the stuff of legend. One such place is Khe Sanh where in 1968, during his second tour and three years before I was born, Elias spent the best part of six months under fire. Khe Sanh Combat Base was a dangerously remote post in the strategically important hilly terrain near Vietnam’s border with Laos. Already besieged by walls of jungle, it soon became a focus for a hidden, hungry and embittered enemy.

Under orders to hold Khe Sanh at all costs, the Marines posted there endured a constant barrage of small arms fire, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks by the North Vietnamese forces, which periodically launched assaults on the base’s ragged perimeter. These skirmishes often ended in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.

Stripped of vegetation, covered in trenches, empty shell cases and all the other rubbish fighting men produce, the base soon looked like a scene from the First World War. By the time US forces finally withdrew in July 1968, both sides had lost many hundreds of men, with thousands more wounded.

A few weeks before they were hurled into this furnace Elias and his best friend spent a short, delirious period of peace crashing parties in Manhattan. One wild night on the Upper East Side, his friend had a premonition he wasn’t going to make it when they returned to the war. Elias assured him he would be fine. Within days of their arrival at Khe Sanh his friend was dead, killed by a mortar round.

Until I came to the United States, Vietnam was a distant war I had visualised through films, books and, especially, the haunting images of British photographers Don McCullin and Larry Burrows, among the many other great photojournalists who lived and sometimes died with their subjects. I have since met many veterans of a war that continues to echo through my own generation’s conflicts. They range from successful businessmen to those who have fallen through the cracks.

So far none have exposed me to the war like Elias. Waving skinny arms in the baggy sleeves of his old fatigues as he spoke, Elias took me to Vietnam in 1968. I saw the foxholes, smelt the mud and had the tiniest taste of the fear he felt when cowering under that endless bombardment. I was following a young man as he waded through the bloody, timeless, filth and degradation of conflict.

Before we parted Elias looked across the crowds on Fifth Avenue and shook his head. “You know, Justin, speaking with you tonight I’m back at Khe Sanh. It’s like I’m there, man. I’m there. But it’s alright.”
I glanced back at Elias several times. From the junction at West 51st Street, opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral, I turned around once more before turning off. He had returned to the position I had found him in, sitting with a dignified stillness, not disturbing anyone, eyes fixed on his flags in their oversized cup.

We had thrown up instinctive, hasty salutes at the end of our conversation. And we saluted each other again a few evenings later. Like old friends, we did not need to speak for long. But Elias fixed me with his black marble eyes once more and cheerily asked me how I was. Better for meeting you, I said.

Justin Portess is a former British Army officer who has recently been spending time in the United States for business

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 26/7/13