Daniel: The Year 2008
Sixty-six-year-old Daniel Gardner had spent more than half his life by
himself after becoming a widower at the young age of twenty-eight. He
constantly lived with the self-imposed guilt he carried for the last
three plus decades and never remarried. He never even considered it.
He believed he owed his deceased wife, Ellen, his life because he had
not been there when her need for him was the greatest. Since returning
home from Vietnam, Daniel had lived life in a small, three-bedroom house
that he and Ellen purchased when they planned the rest of lives
together, including the goal of having children.
Now, two of the bedrooms remained empty, except for some items from his
days in the Army packed in dusty, old boxes that were never opened. When
words were spoken within the walls, which was on the rare occasions when
Daniel spoke to himself, they bounced off the walls stronger than any
The house is located in a crowded subdivision where the residents are
constantly milling about, but Daniel knows none of them. He has always
kept to himself and seldom ventured outdoors, except for his daily,
Only one time did he ever acknowledge one of his neighbors, and that was
after the neighbor approached him first, more than thirty years ago. He
never got to know the two individuals whose homes were just a few doors
from his, and who had managed to live through some of the same,
life-altering experiences he had.
For many years Daniel has walked with a heavy limp that served as his
constant reminder of a fractured leg that was not permitted to properly
heal, and had to be repaired surgically. As Daniel aged the limp had
become more pronounced and the pain more severe, and he often was forced
to walk with a cane.
In time he learned to welcome the limp and its accompanying pain,
believing it punishment for the decision he made that kept him from
Ellen when she needed him most. As he has done every morning for more
than thirty years, Daniel climbed from his 1964 Chevrolet Impala, the
same car he and Ellen purchased before his first tour in 1965, and the
car that was in his garage when he arrived home from Vietnam in 1973.
In his hand he carried into the house a single loaf of bread to perform
the same tasks he had completed every morning since arriving home more
than thirty years before. Daniel hesitated when he reached the three
front steps that would carry him to his porch and eventually his front
door, thinking about what an ever-increasing struggle is was to make the
short journey. But he had two promises to keep, so he pushed himself
through the pain that worsened every day, only to hesitate before
opening the front door.
Each time he approached the door he was reminded of the first day he was
thrown into his prison cell, and the endless hours of suffering
inflicted on his body at the hands of his captors. Though a far cry from
the little cell in which he’d been held him captive for two years, the
memories remained vividly clear still today, and the hollow emptiness of
the house only served as a constant reminder of that distant past.
Most difficult on him was the memory of the torture inflicted not on him
but on another. This was his memory. This was the memory that kept him
awake nearly every night as his mind relieved through uncontrolled
dreams the horrifying incident thrust upon the stranger to whom he’d
said little, but had been able to call a friend during his time in
Reaching the kitchen, Daniel carefully placed the bag on a counter and
began unwinding the wire twist that confined the bread within its
little, plastic prison. The bread freed, he took five slices from the
loaf and placed them on the lower shelf of a cabinet, the only shelf his
limited arm movement permitted him to reach, and replaced the five
he’d placed there the day before.
As he completed this task he recalled the promise he’d made while
still in that distant land. It was the first of two promises he had
allowed to control his life for three decades. He then looked at a
bottle of water that stood next to the bread. He knew the bottle would
be present, but because of what he’d lived three decades ago, he never
took for granted having water.
Before closing the cabinet door, he looked at the empty, upper shelves.
Daniel’s mind recalled the day when he could raise his arms over his
shoulders and reach those now elusive shelves. He was able to reach the
bottom shelf only because of his height, but even that accomplishment
took more and more effort as the years caught up with him.
Daniel performed this task, five slices at a time, in two other rooms of
his house until each slice from the new loaf was in place. Each time he
replaced slices he’d left the day before, and each time he confirmed
water was present. He then took the day-old bread, placed it in the
plastic bag that moments earlier held his fresh bread and secured the
bag with the little twist.
With the bag of day-old bread in his hand, Daniel limped to his car and
drove in the direction of a little cemetery located on the outskirts of
town. He climbed from the car and was greeted by a worn path that was
void of any grass and had formed over the three decades of his daily
journey through the cemetery.
When he reached the headstone at the end of the path that read Gardner
on one side, he stepped around it and read the names Daniel and Ellen.
He confirmed the bread he’d left here the day before was gone, which
it always was, before he spoke a few words that no one but Ellen could
Daniel then placed the bag on the ground, untwisted the little tie,
reached into the bag and pulled from it each slice of bread, carefully
placing the slices at the base of the headstone, under the name Ellen.
With each slice he held a private conversation in a voice that could not
be heard, with someone who could not be seen.
Satisfied at his accomplishment, he stood, a task which required more
effort every day, and limped from the grave of his wife, following the
little trail long ago formed by his daily journey. This task was the
result of his second promise, one he had made after returning home from
Vietnam, more than three decades ago.
Daniel, a medically retired combat veteran, survived his first two tours
in Vietnam, but his third tour was extended beyond the normal twelve
months due to circumstances lived by so many who fought in that distant
land. His physical state following the war was hindered only by the
heavy limp and the extremely limited mobility of his arms, and it was
this physical disability that prematurely ended his promising, military
The circumstances that extended Daniel’s third tour filled his head
with thirty-six years of memories with which he was forced to live. What
he suffered after returning home formed the thirty-six years of
unsubstantiated guilt that he would not allow himself to be free of.
Both took an ever-increasing toll on his mental capacities.
In 1960, at the age of twenty-two, Daniel enlisted in the Army as an
infantryman. In 1962 he met Ellen, and they were married in 1963. She
seemed to understand that Daniel was to be a career soldier, even if he
didn’t know it. She even encouraged it when asked her opinion.
He volunteered for Vietnam when combat actions first began in 1965,
thinking he would get his obligatory tour out of the way. Returning home
in January 1966, he decided he’d had enough of being a foot soldier
and applied for flight school, believing it afforded him a better career
than an infantryman, and would open more doors after retirement.
Daniel’s timing could not have been better. Wanting to avoid an
anticipated shortage of pilots, the requirements for being accepted to
flight school were lowered, and Daniel was quickly accepted and
commissioned with the rank of Warrant Officer, WO1, upon completion of
However, becoming a pilot came at a price he had not anticipated, and
Daniel was returned to Vietnam following completion of flight school in
late 1966. He was given a few weeks to spend with Ellen between the end
of flight school and the beginning of his second tour, and the two lived
each day to the fullest, just as they had planned to do when they were
When the time came for him to depart for his second tour, he found it
harder to leave than it had been for the first. He held Ellen in his
arms while she cried tears of pride, sadness and fear. He never spoke
the words to Ellen, but in his mind he apologized to her for becoming a
pilot and forcing her to live apart from him for another year. During
his second tour Daniel distinguished himself, and was awarded the Silver
Star, a Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals. With the medals
and the many hours of flight time in a combat zone came a promotion to
Chief Warrant Officer, CW2 about six months after arriving in Vietnam.
In just over a year he had completed flight school and been promoted to
CW2. He could never have imagined making CW2 so quickly, a feat that
normally took at least two years and often three. He completed the
remaining months of this tour and was packing his belongings for the
trip home when his commander approached him. The Army offered him a
promotion to CW3 if he would remain in country and complete a third
He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to achieve the higher rank so
quickly. Daniel wrote Ellen and told her of his decision. He apologized
for not consulting her before making the decision, explaining that he
had no way of contacting her in the time he was given to make his
decision. He emphasized that he could not pass up the opportunity for
the quick promotion that would take much longer if he refused the offer.
Daniel: The Year 1968
In June 1968, during what is commonly referred to the second phase of
the Tet Offensive, Daniel volunteered for a search and rescue mission of
a downed, navy pilot. The mission would take his crew nine miles into
Laos, into forbidden territory, but the downed pilot had to be rescued.
Daniel hovered just above tree top level over a clearing smaller than
the span of his aircraft’s rotors, which prevented him from landing,
in order to facilitate the rescue. He maintained the controls of his
Huey as a crew member was lowered to secure the downed pilot in
preparation to lift him from the ground and to safety.
He wanted to rush the rescue knowing the longer he hovered, the more
susceptible his bird was to being attacked, but this mission could not
be hurried and be completed safely. His crewmember was half way down
when the helicopter came under heavy, enemy fire.
Daniel immediately knew the Laotian soldiers had set up an ambush using
the downed pilot as bait. Army procedure in the event of an attack
during a rescue placed priority to the safety of the helicopter and its
crew of five above the one or two individuals on the ground.
It called for the helicopter pilot to disengage from the rescue and fly
away by the safest means possible, ensuring the safety of the crew
members is taken into account. Daniel decided to violate that procedure.
His M60 gunners were already firing on the Laotian soldiers as they
defended the aircraft.
His rescue man was already more than half way to the ground and below
treetop level, and to attempt to fly away would result in him being
caught in the trees and hanged. It was too dangerous for him to attempt
to fly away with his crew member in such a vulnerable position. He
radioed the crew to speed up the process, but his instructions were
interrupted by bullets punching holes in the sheet metal fuselage.
One of them struck his co-pilot in the leg and bright red blood flooded
the cockpit floor as it spurted from a gushing artery. The panicking
co-pilot screamed in fear as he desperately attempted to stop the blood
rushing from his body. No matter how much Daniel wanted to help his
co-pilot, he could not. His priority was the Huey and his crew.
Daniel heard the continued sound of M60 machine guns as his crew chief
and door returned fire to the ground below. Everyone’s efforts were in
vain, and the enemy soldiers riddled the engine compartment with
bullets. One M60 fell silent when the crew chief was killed.
The quietness took on a greater significance when the second M60 fell
silent, and all Daniel could hear was the deafening absence of their
defensive weapons. The Laotians continued to riddle the Huey with
bullets and it started losing power.
Daniel used all his strength to work the throttle and the collective in
an attempt to keep the helicopter in the air, but the more he worked the
worse their situation became, and within seconds the bird was
descending, out of his control. The aircraft struck the ground hard.
Daniel was still alive but barely conscious.
He could do nothing but wait for the inevitable, and the Laotian
soldiers ensured he didn’t have wait long. He heard a gunshot from the
rear of the helicopter and wanted to turn but was unable. Moments later
he heard another, and Daniel knew his crew chief and door gunner were
The Laotian soldiers continued their search of the Huey, looking for
anything they could use. They found the co-pilot still alive but
determined he had bled too much, and one of them put a pistol to the
man’s head to hasten his death.
They then reached for Daniel and he was quickly dragged from his seat.
With every tug on his arms the worst pain he had ever felt awakened his
senses. Daniel was aware enough to know the members of his crew were
dead, but when he saw where the bird had landed, he became distraught.
He had done all he could to avoid crashing, even knowing it was
inevitable. But when he saw the bird had crushed the pilot he was trying
to rescue and his fifth crew member, sorrow overtook his heart. He had
failed his mission and his crew, and they were all dead because of it.
The sorrow offered a temporary reprieve to the pain flooding his body,
but the pain soon washed away the mental anguish and reminded him that
on this day, physical pain would reign. When the pain returned, he
realized he had a fractured leg, some cuts and bruises and some very
Using small movements that only he would recognize, he attempted to move
his outer extremities. First his right fingers then his left. Next his
head. He tried his toes last. Everything worked, except for his
fractured leg, so he knew he hadn’t suffered a spinal injury.
Deciding he was going to survive, Daniel’s thoughts returned to his
crew and the downed pilot he was attempting to rescue. Knowing they were
dead, and he tried to make his captors carry him to their bodies so he
could retrieve their identification tags. They ignored him.
Daniel was carried on a make-shift litter that left him so
uncomfortable, he believed he would rather be walking, even with the
broken leg. Each step of the man at his head resulted in brush and
leaves from the thick, heavy jungle being swept across his face and
He was constantly brushing away mosquitoes and other bugs that wanted to
feast on his sweaty, blood-covered flesh. The leaves sweeping across his
body deposited more bugs onto him, many of which he was not able to
reach, and he feared they would feast on his open wounds. His face
suffered cuts from the sharp blades of grass, and he eventually had to
cover it with his arms to protect it from more cuts. This prevented him
from using his hands to sweep the flesh-eating insects that crawled on
his body, forcing him to endure the anguish of the irritating bugs
feasting on his wounds.
The trip took nearly half a day, but it seemed to Daniel to take an
eternity. When his captors stopped to rest, they didn’t simply set him
on the ground. He was dropped like a piece of wood, and the pain in his
leg increased with each rest break. The humidity was so unbearably heavy
Daniel could see the moisture in the air and it seemed to him a light
The sweat from his body had every inch of his clothing wringing wet, and
the canvas portion of the liter that held him was dripping water. When
his captors finally reached their destination, Daniel was light headed
and close to passing out. He had sweated more heavily than ever before,
and his captors deprived him of the water his body desperately needed.
His body was still crawling with insects, but by now he didn’t notice
them. This time, when the litter bearers stopped, they gently set him
down. Daniel turned his head to see an important man step from the
largest building, if it could be called a building. He looked around at
the little compound and saw several structures, most of which were built
from bamboo and tree limbs, including the one from which the man
Daniel would never be able to find this spot of ground on a map, but he
knew exactly what the camp was and he didn’t like the realization.
Pointing toward him, the important man shouted something not understood
by Daniel, and another man rushed a container of liquid to his new
captive. Daniel, believing he might be given the humane treatment that
had been missing during his journey, grasped the container and drank,
He had not taken more than a swallow before he spat the liquid from his
mouth and threw the little container, spilling its contents on the
ground. Instead of being given the water he needed, he was given the
first taste of his life for the foreseeable future.
The container held urine.
Everyone laughed, and the laughter was emitted a sense of humiliation
that Daniel felt. The important man, who Daniel would learn was the camp
commander, Captain Trang Văn Phan, laughed the hardest. Satisfied at
what he had accomplished, Captain Phan turned and returned to the
comfort of his building. Daniel was lifted, carried into a bamboo
structure and thrown into a small room.
Unable to move at first, Daniel lay on the floor, wondering what he had
gotten himself into. He wanted to move but his broken leg did not permit
it. He sat up and looked around the little room that was now his prison
cell. How long he would be held here he begged to know.
He cringed at the realization that he could be left in the prison for
several years. He now accepted that this room, which stank of stagnant
air, humid sweat and rat droppings, was his home until the war was over,
he could escape or he was dead.
Daniel was brutally awakened from a restless sleep when he was kicked in
the chest and his assailant shouted something he didn’t understand. He
hadn’t realized it the day before, but he now knew that his inability
to understand the language of his captors may prove to be the most
difficult for him.
When the captors shouted an order, they expected an immediate response,
but not knowing the language caused Daniel to react too slowly for their
desires. His slow response time usually invited harsher punishment. He
would have to learn the language as best he could if he were to have any
chance of survival.
Pointing in Daniel’s direction, his assailant shouted again and two
others rushed to grab him. Daniel cursed under his breath, not at the
way he was being handled, which was unmercifully cruel, but that he had
a broken leg which appeared to mean nothing to his captors.
Daniel was handled without regard to his injured leg, and the pain
spread through every inch of his body. He was able to keep from
screaming, but only for so long. After a few minutes he could not hold
back as the jagged, bone ends were cutting and ripping at the muscles
inside his leg. As he screamed in agony he instinctively reached for the
fracture in an attempt to relieve the pain.
When he had regained his senses, he looked at his wound and saw a bone
was now protruding from the skin. He struggled to reach his injured leg
in an attempt to somehow splint it while his captors laughed at him.
Though he was surrounded by guards Daniel didn’t hear any of it. He
was so focused on treating his leg that nothing else mattered.
Lying on the ground, his thirst for water was even stronger than he had
expected, and he now wished he had drunk every drop of the urine.
Captain Phan stepped from his building and walked to Daniel. He knelt
down, leaned into Daniel’s ear and said something in Lao that Daniel
heard clearly but did not understand.
Daniel expected to hear a roar of laughter from the others watching him,
but heard none. The light-skinned man Daniel saw as he was carried from
the building heard what was said and allowed the translated words to
pass through his mind. Your discomfort is only beginning.
Excerpted from "Time Passed" by Robert Barlow Jr. Copyright © 2016 by Robert Barlow Jr. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.