Saigon, 1969

by Ursula Villarreal-Moura

The first thing the Army taught my father was how to run. In basic training, he ran five miles around a quadrangle. He ran from the barracks to the rifle range. To the med clinic back to the barracks. He ran with extended legs, not a trot or a jog or a half-assed skip, a full-fledged run.

He arrived at the barracks one afternoon and, while trying to catch his breath, noticed a squashed blackberry on the floor. It had been weeks since he’d seen—much less tasted—exotic fruit.

Using the toe of his boot, my father smeared the black pulp across the floor only to realize it was blood. Inky blood that continued across the floor into the lavatory.

Crouched in a shower stall was Hollins, a fellow solider. His scrunched face burst like a wet carnation, a discarded razor blade inches from his polished boots.

“Why?” my father asked.

Hollins trembled and shook his head, a rope of blood sliding off his wrist onto the tiled floor. This was the fourth man in my father’s company to slit his wrists.

“You know I have to notify Sergeant Wilks,” my father said.

The man’s face pleaded, but my father, young and afraid, ran to alert the sergeant. Together they ran back to the bleeding soldier whose hiccups created an acoustic disorder.

“Motherfucker,” the sergeant said inspecting the slashed wrist. “Can’t even kill yourself correctly. You really are a piece shit!”

Hollins’ hysteria paused momentarily as tears glided off his face without sound.

“You cut yourself like a 13-year-old girl. Across? Is that how you think it’s done?” the sergeant continued.

My father long expected the worst to happen in the jungles of Vietnam. Yet he was unprepared for what he was witnessing in a godforsaken john in Texas. Watching blood rivet into a spidery mosaic near the drain, my father realized no doctor had been notified.

“To kill yourself, you cut down,” the sergeant said, running two fingers down the length of his own forearm. Sergeant Wilks shook his head, picked up the blade and placed it in Hollins’ palm.

Hollins shook like malfunctioning machinery.

“That’s right,” Sergeant Wilks said. “You’re just looking for attention. A fucking girl. Villarreal, take his maggot to the med clinic. Fucking run!”


My father says the Army taught him three hundred ways to kill himself. With reason and without. If captured by the enemy, he knew to stay quiet and end it all by shoving his own nose into his brain.

 Since my father never pulled any antics, he was flown from Biên Hòa to Saigon once a month to a secret base. Upon arrival, he was led into a cold room filled with covered equipment. A guard unhooded a single computer for him to transmit data back to Fort Benjamin Harrison. A timer was set, and my father was left with his cloth knapsack full of war facts. He faithfully reported soldiers missing in action or killed. Men undone.

I asked if curiosity ever led him to unveil other equipment in that isolated room. He said no. Running taught him to appreciate static objects. The data room, he explains, was a church. All the cloaked figures might as well have been bowed nuns. Holy ones in unmovable prayer.

Ursula Villarreal-Moura was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in various publications including Catapult, Tin House Online, Bennington Review, Prairie Schooner, and Washington Square. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and longlisted for Best American Short Stories. More about her at