The first thing Robert noticed was the damp smell of a tropical forest. A strange mixture of the scents of fresh plants and rotten leaves filled his nostrils. Though the mercury was in the mid-seventies, the excessive humidity made it hot. His forehead was covered with sweat beads, occasionally getting to his eyes, burning them like hell. He dried his forehead with his shirt’s sleeve. He felt the rough texture of the fabric on his skin. It was pitch black, and he could barely see more than a meter in front of himself, but he could sense heavy footsteps around him. He had company. “Who are they? Where am I?” Robert asked himself, feeling tense. Whoever they were, they kept their distance as if they were walking with him in parallel lines. It was then he noticed his rifle. He held a rifle in his hands, walking in a fire-ready position as if he was expecting to face a wild animal or a hostile adversary at any moment. “But I’ve never fired a gun before?” he thought.
A momentary glimmer of light brightens the attached bayonet on his rifle. “Am I a soldier?” Robert asked himself, confused. He knew bayonets were only used by infantry soldiers expecting to face their enemies, ready for hand-to-hand combat. The thought made him more nervous. He was in a war zone, and he was sure about it. Learning about his location sent a chill down his spine. “Where is here? And how did I end in this hell? Who is the enemy?” Robert anxiously asked himself, baffled.
“Hey, Bob?” someone on his right side muttered.
“We are going to rest at the river bank. Sergeant’s order.”
Robert stopped himself short of asking what river bank or his identity. He instead replied, “sure.”
He walked another twenty minutes in that pitch black, pondering on how he ended in that damn war without knowing his enemy—only distracted by constant mosquito bites. A swarm of irritating mosquitoes followed him all the way. All his body was itchy. How could these hellish mosquitoes bite parts of his skin covered with the thick fabric of his military fatigue?
“We rest here, Bob,” the voice said. Soon the voice materialized, and a soldier with a blackened face emerged from the darkness. Shortly, three more soldiers appeared. One with a corporal rank patted his back and said, “how are you holding up, Bob?”
“Fine,” Robert responded, knowing none of them. “Who are these people? And how do they know me?” he thought. He still didn’t know how he ended up in that place. “Where is this damn place?” he asked warily.
“Welcome to Vietnam, son!” the corporal said.
“Welcome to hell,” one soldier said with soft laughter.
“How is it possible? I haven’t even been born during the Vietnam war?” Robert asked himself. “What date is today?”
“You just deployed here, Bob! You have another twenty-two months out of your two-year tour,” one soldier quipped.
“I am serious! What is today’s date?”
“Second of November, which is going to expire soon.”
“And what year?”
“Go screw yourself, Bob.”
“I am serious.”
“Are you scared, Bob?” the corporal asked.
“If I say no, I am lying.”
“Don’t worry, son. We all are scared,” the corporal replied. Then he added, “1967.”
“How could it be? I was born in 1998,” Robert said anxiously.
“Haha! Before seeing an action, Bob has already lost his sanity,” one soldier giggled. “You should come with a better story than this to send you home, sonny.”
The worst part was to cross the river full of bloodsucker leeches. Robert hated them. On the opposite shore, he noticed a leech attached to his neck. It took a few attempts until he could grab hold of its slimy body and pull it off his skin. It was disgusting but oddly painless. Now it was over an hour that they were progressing in an endless marshland full of nasty bugs with no enemy in their sights. Robert had watched documentaries on the Vietnam war and sneaky Vietcongs. He wasn’t excited to face them. The war belonged to his grandfather’s generation and not his. He didn’t know what he was doing there. “Did I time travel?” Robert thought, but it sounded absurd.
It was then they suddenly came under the enemy’s fire. Bullets rained from all directions without seeing a single enemy soldier. Robert instinctively dropped to the ground in ankle-deep mud. It was filthy, but better than getting shot. His comrades were shouting none stop, and the officer was giving blind instruction, not knowing their foes’ actual location. Soldiers fired blindly into bushes but inadvertently gave their position to their veteran foes. Shortly their location came under Soviet-made mortars shelling. It was chaos, and Robert was scared to his wits, unable to move. But he was no soldier, and it wasn’t his war.
“God damn you, Bob! Move,” a soldier he didn’t know shouted.
Robert wasn’t in a situation to respond or react. He was panicked.
“For god’s sake! Move, Bob!” the soldier said, grabbed Robert’s arm, and pulled him up. “We are retreating toward the river,” he explained in a few words.
With shaking limbs, Robert followed the soldier with no protest. He wanted to be out of that nightmare as soon as possible.
They had only retreated a few hundred yards when Robert heard a subtle whistle sound, wondering what it was.
“Incoming shell,” the soldier shouted and threw himself on the ground.
The stunned Robert didn’t react quickly. The shell landed about ten yards in front of him and exploded. The first thing Robert saw was a rapidly expanding ball of light, too strong for his eyes, adapted to the darkness of the moonless night. It was soon followed by a shock wave that hit him hard, forced air out of his lungs, and threw him backward.
“Stay with me, Bob!” the tense soldier said while his hands were on Robert’s abdomen, pushing it hard. “Stay with me, Bob,” he said again and shouted, “medic! Medic!”
Robert could hear him, but his brain was slow in interpreting the situation. Somehow, he felt cold and sleepy. Then, he saw another soldier, a medic. He recognized him from the tiny red cross on his helmet. “Am I injured?” he thought.
“Do you know him?” the medic asked the other soldier.
“He is Bob, a new draftee.”
“Talk to him, don’t let him sleep,” the medic said. Then he rushed open a sealed gauze bag and put the sterile gauze bandage on Robert’s wide abdomen wound. “Keep direct pressure on his wound,” he demanded. Then he quickly dragged a self-injecting syringe and injected morphine into Robert’s thigh.
“Bob, talk to me! It’s me, Wayne.”
“So, his name is Wayne!” Robert thought but didn’t have the energy to talk.
“Bob, talk to me!” Wayne asked again.
“What happened?” Robert asked with a voice barely audible.
“Just a scratch. Noting serious,” Wayne replied, but his expression was saying something else. “You might find a way to go back home early,” Wayne joked with a fake smile.
The medic took an IV bag out of his backpack and asked Wayne, “help me find his vein.”
“Sure, but how?”
“Hold the IV bag,” the medic asked. “Keep it high.”
Robert was exhausted and sleepy. His vision blurred, and the noise of war became a distant annoyance. He was in a euphoric peace, and nothing was important anymore. “Am I dying?” he asked himself. Dying wasn’t as scary as he had imagined before. His thought became less coherent, and he slowly lost his consciousness.
Robert opened his eyes. His body was clammy, and his heart was pounding fast. He quickly checked his environment. He was in his bed, in his tiny one-bedroom apartment. The flashing red, yellow, and blue neon light from the honky-tonk on the opposite side of the street brightened his room. He appreciated the tawdry neon light in his apartment for the first time since he had moved there. “Weird dream!” he thought. He looked at his smartphone on his bedside table. It was 4:07 AM, and he could go back to sleep for three more hours. But the thought of his dream kept him awake. The dream was so real that he could remember it with all its details as if he physically were in that place. He even felt a vague pain in his abdomen, in the exact position of his injury in that weird dream!
Finally, at 5:00 AM, Robert quit trying to go back to sleep. Instead, he walked into his small kitchen and turned on the electric kettle. While sipping his instant coffee, he fired up his laptop and ‘typed Vietnam War’ on google’s search bar. About 383,000,000 results appeared on the screen. “Sugar?” he murmured.
Robert clicked on the first article, ‘Vietnam War Wikipedia.’ It was a long article, the complete history of the infamous Vietnam war. After about thirty minutes of reading, he paused. Though the article was very informative, it didn’t provide the answer he was looking for. If he was honest, Robert didn’t know what he expected to find on the internet. After making his second cup of coffee and two buttered toasts, he resumed his search. This time he typed ‘events on the 2nd of November 1967,’ the date he was given in his dream. Soon, 36,300,000 results appeared on his computer’s screen. After checking a few unrelated sites, Robert revised his search and typed ‘Vietnam War on the 2nd of November 1967.’
Soon Rober found an article on the battle of Dak To, which happened on the 3rd of November 1967. “It should be right,” he thought. Though the Dak To battle was a victory for the Americans, it left 376 US soldiers killed and 1441 more wounded.
In the middle of reading the eighteenth article, his smartphone’s alarm clock rang. It was time to get ready for work.
The entire day, his mind was occupied with his strange dream. Robert had read books on spirituality and reincarnation, not by his own choice but by his hippy ex-girlfriend’s persistence. “Was the dream a glimpse of my past life?” Robert asked himself, but he quickly dismissed it as unscientific. Yet, though he tried hard to distract himself, he couldn’t leave his thoughts aside.
“What if I call the Arlington National Cemetery?” the idea came to him abruptly. “But what? How can I ask about my death in the Vietnam war? What will they think about me? A nut head!” he defied his thought. “But I can say that I am working on my family lineage as an amateur genealogist! So I can claim that I lost my grandfather in that war, that I’ve never seen,” he thought. “What if they ask about my grandfather’s name? What should I say? In the dream, no one used my surname?” “What if I give my name? I can later claim that I was named after my deceased grandfather,” he told himself. “It’s worth trying,” he finally decided. Still, Robert had his doubts. “What if they don’t find my name in their archive?” He asked himself. “I can thank them for their help and say that I am researching based on some unconfirmed information,” he thought. His internal chatters finally reach a satisfying conclusion. He would call the Arlington National Cemetery the following morning.
“Arlington National Cemetery, how can I help?” a female clerk responded to his call.
“Good morning. This is Robert Miller. I am working on my family tree.”
“Yes!” she impatiently replied as if she had often heard that line of conversation.
“And I’m trying to collect information about my late grandfather, who lost his life in the Vietnam war long before I was born.”
“Sure. What is your grandfather’s name?” the clerk asked in a tired, monotonous voice.
With a bit of hesitation, still doubting himself, Robert answered, “Robert Miller. Like mine. I was named after him.” Then he immediately regretted making the call, felt like an idiot. “It is a goose chase. It was just a dream, and I shouldn’t make this silly call,” he thought.
“Certainly, Sir. A moment please,” she said and typed on his computer’s keyboard, which was old and noisy, like all computers in the government offices. “What is your grandfather’s date of birth?”
“Um…, to be honest, I am not sure. But he died on the 3rd of November 1967, I believe,” Robert said and again felt guilty for lying.
“Sure,” she replied and went silent, typing more. Finally, after a full ten minutes of silence, she returned, “I found the information you are looking for.”
“Great! Thank you!” Robert responded in a shaky voice, shocked by the news. He didn’t expect her to find anything in the cemetery’s records.
“I found your late grandfather’s name on the Vietnam memorial list, but we don’t have him here at Arlington.”
“What do you mean?”
“Private Robert Miller was reported killed by a hostile artillery shell explosion on early hours of the 3rd of November in Dak To battle. But they couldn’t recover his body and transfer it back to the States.”
“Why they couldn’t recover his body?”
“I don’t know, Sir. It was a nasty war, as I was told.”
“I see!” Robert said, thrilled by the news, thinking about his bizarre dream. “Did I was in that war? Did I die there in my previous life? Did I reincarnate?” he asked himself.
“Is anything else to help you with?” the clerk interrupted his chain of thoughts.
“Um…, are there any documents or photos I can collect?”
“Not with us. You should call the army,” she replied. Then, after a second or two of silence, she added, “more accurately, call Vietnam Veterans, Department of Veterans Affairs.”
A fortnight later, after Robert’s call to a few army offices, he found a large manila envelope in his residence mailbox. A quick scan confirmed his guess. It was from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Vietnam Veterans. Robert hastily tore the envelope, which to his surprise, was stronger than he expected. Inside was a bunch of papers, roughly twenty pages about his invented grandfather and five-piece of black and white photographs. He first checked the photographs that were not in good condition. They were all aged and pale. But as he sensed and expected, the private Robert Miller looked identical to him, just a few years older version of himself. “So, I was in the war, and I died there!” he thought. “Is reincarnation true?” he didn’t have an answer to his question. As far as he could remember, in reincarnation belief, the person doesn’t necessarily reborn in their original shape and certainly does not keep their name and surname.
After finishing examining the photos and letting his internal chatter get calmer, he began reading the information sheets about the fallen soldier. Robert read the report; ‘Private Robert Miller, DOB: 12 August 1939, was killed in action on the early morning of the 3rd of November 1967 by the explosion of a North Vietnamese artillery shell in Dak To battlefield. Paramedic John Wallace and private Wayne Brookland attended to his wounds and confirmed his death. But for some unknown reasons, his body went missing later, which occasionally can happen in the chaos of a battlefield.’
Robert stopped reading there. He was born on the 12th of August 1998, sharing the same birthday as the deceased Robert Miller. “Is this a coincidence?” he thought. “He was 28 years old when he was killed in action. And I am 24 years old now,” he asked himself without knowing the correlation between their age differences.
Rober resumed reading until he came to this paragraph; ‘CNOs (casualty notification officers) numerous attempts failed to track down the deceased soldier’s PNOKs (the primary next of kins). The address provided by the individual wasn’t valid.’
What does it mean? Didn’t he have a family? Or he intentionally lied to the army?” Robert thought. “It can’t get stranger than this. First, in my vivid dream, I experienced his moment of death. Then our physical similarities, though he looks slightly older and thinner than me. We have the same birthday. He didn’t have a next of kin and gave the army a fake address,” Robert told himself. “Am I going to time travel to the sixties, ending fighting for Uncle Sam in that infamous war? Is even time travel possible?” Those were questions he asked himself without having a single satisfying answer for them. “Only time will answer my questions? Though it is tough, I have to wait,” Robert told himself.