[Gorilla Jim as a young American soldier battling in Vietnam]
The Appalachian Trail attracts many different people. Here is another person who—through the struggles of war—would eventually find his way to Appalachian heights and adventures.
* * * * * *
The next mortar boom was ear blasting; it was so close there was no time for the whistling zzzzzzzz sound. The ground shook. A hot blast hit the back of Jim’s head and side of his face. Dirt and shrapnel exploded toward him. The filth-filled air rushed at him. In the flourish of dust, huge arms surrounded Jim, lifting, pushing him like he was a puppet on a string. He had a vague feeling of floating as he was blown off his feet, the stink of burned explosives in his nostrils. It felt like someone had struck the left side of his head with a hot iron poker. He felt warm trickles down his face. The immense pain developing in the left side of his head was overshadowed by the more immediate need to focus on the son of a bitch 150 meters away, pointing his rifle at Jim and shooting, shooting. Jim got up on one knee, raised his M16 and squeezed the trigger until the crack of sniper fire ceased.
Three squad guys were killed, several were wounded. Jim continued to fire on the enemy. His squad could not pull back. There was only one way to go—right through the hostiles. The close combat—running and shooting—continued as they moved toward the enemy, forcing them back.
In the last stages of chaos, the rest of the company arrived. The wounded were picked up and moved back. One of these reserve forces looked at the Sarge, “Holy shit!” He turned, waving his M16, and yelled, “Medic, dammit, medic!” It looked like half of Jim’s face was blown off, but it was mostly blood. Pieces of shrapnel were embedded inside—and the concussion had taken its toll.
“Who’s hurt?” Jim asks.
“It’s you, Sarge.
“Take care of the others first.”
Jim was medevaced to a hospital at Cam Ranh Bay where doctors performed surgery. Afterward, Jim’s eyesight started to fail him. One day, all he could see was carbon blackness—he was blind. People had to lead him around, help feed him, take him to the toilet. He didn’t know if he would see again. His mind kept replaying the memories of stealthy Vietcong sneaking up on him, of heads getting blown off. He was angry and afraid of the dark.
There were moments when he could calm the fear and hatred. He would visualize a pastoral path through the trees and up mountains, and it brought him serenity. The outdoors was peaceful and inviting—when it isn’t raining down terror. He knew he would walk in quiet, peaceful, green woods someday; he would shake off the veil of anxiety that was war, that traded sleep for nightmares; he would enjoy a path without explosions and punji sticks. Someday.
The doctors operated on his eyes. After thirteen days in the dark, Jim could see the world around him again. In a small compartment of his mind there remained a vivid picture of that peaceful trail—a place he needs to go, to be at peace.
For service to his country, Jim received the Bronze Star Medal, awarded for heroism to those in close personal combat with the enemy. It hangs from a crimson ribbon and comes with the V device for valor. For wounds sustained in battle, he was awarded the Purple Heart, a royal blue ribbon from which is suspended a heart shaped medal with the profile of George Washington against a purple background.
All he needs now is that peaceful path through the mountains.