As platoon sergeant I was organising the setting up of an ambush in the bean fields, about 150 yards from the jungle line. All of a sudden a man came walking out of the jungle. He had a weapon on one shoulder and, on the other, a sack in which to collect supplies for the Vietcong. I felt an overwhelming sense of power. I could either wound him or take his life. I opened fire with another soldier in my platoon, and the man went down.
As an American soldier I had been trained to treat people as objects. You are trained that you are killing a ‘thing’, not a person. We were also told to take the property of the enemy when they were dead. So, in the near darkness, I went across and took the wallet out of his pocket, and slipped it into mine. The following morning one of my fellow soldiers asked me what I had collected the previous evening. Having forgotten about it until then, I put my hand into the pocket of my trousers and pulled out the wallet I had removed from the Vietcong – my own wallet!
About two weeks earlier the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, of which I was a part, were working in the jungle villages some 25 miles North East of Saigon. I was leading a unit through the jungle, on a rotation basis with other squadrons. At one particular point, our squad was leading. I was walking about two to three men back from the lead man. The water in which we were wading was beginning to get deeper and deeper. Eventually I called back to one of the other officers that we needed to change direction, because the water was getting deeper, and we could literally become sitting ducks.
At this point the foliage of the jungle had become almost impenetrable. One of the men, Bill Woods, came up and cut, as it were, a hole in the wall of bamboo ahead of us with his machete. I followed him through, but after about ten paces he stopped, turned round to me, and whispered that he thought we had walked into an ambush. The Vietcong were heading towards us in a U shape, and were to the front and side of Bill and myself. The rest of the platoon had quickly moved backwards, behind the thick curtain of bamboo.
By now Bill and I were up to our chins in water. Suddenly he stumbled and went under the water, leaving me alone. I later discovered that he had quickly dived, swam under the water, and surfaced behind me. There was a big log in the water. As I swam to the other side of it, I startled a Vietcong soldier who was hiding there. Then automatic fire started. I thought I would trick them into thinking I was dead by holding my breath and diving into the water, making sure I came to the surface face-downwards. However, when I tried to do this, I discovered that my feet were entangled in the roots. To make matters worse I had a 36-kilogram (80 pound) rucksack on my back. At that moment the Vietcong threw two grenades into the water, and for me it was as if someone had turned out the lights.
Suddenly, everything got really dark. I sensed that I was standing in my uniform, all neatly pressed and clean, and carrying no weapon or rucksack. Ahead of me was a long, long trail, and on either side, as far as the eye could see, there were fields and fields of sunflowers. The colours of the flowers, yellow, brown and green, were set against the most beautiful blue sky I had ever seen. There were no clouds, just a huge expanse of brilliant blue sky.
I could not understand where I was. As I looked down the trail I could see, at the end of it, a small light. My whole attention was taken up by it. As I watched, all of a sudden, the small light zoomed down the trail towards me. Never, in all of my life, have I seen such brightness. It is impossible to describe. It was as if the light captured me. I could not take my eyes off it, and I became enveloped by it.
Gradually, though I had no concept of time during this experience, I became aware of a Presence at my right hand side. I did not turn and look, but I knew there was someone there. Somehow, from within me, came the thought, ‘Please, don’t take me, I am not ready to go.’ Nothing had been said about me dying, but I knew that was what this was all about. Then thoughts of my mother came into my mind. I had a distant relative who had been killed in Vietnam, and I knew the effect the death had caused to the family. My mother could not handle my death, I thought.
As I stood there, still enveloped by this light, I heard a voice saying, ‘Do not be afraid. Everything is all right.’ That voice came from the right hand side of me. As I heard those words, I experienced a feeling of unconditional love spreading from the top of my head and down to my toes. Then came the voice again, ‘He is not ready yet, you can take him back.’ I felt my right hand being taken by this presence, then instantly I woke up. I was lying on the ground, and all the men of my platoon were standing or kneeling around me.
The officer in charge was pressing with both hands on my chest. I began to cough and spit up water. He said, in a stunned voice, ‘Are you OK?’ My response was, ‘I think so’. He asked me what had happened, and I told him I really did not know. One of the other men chimed in, ‘They threw grenades at you.’ Another said, ‘Sergeant Delaney, if you keep on like this, we’ll begin to believe in that God you keep talking about.’
I told the officer I would put him in for a Silver Star when we got back to base, because he had risked his life to get me to safety. He looked at me totally bewildered, and said, ‘But I never touched you!’ Thinking he was being modest, I told him he had pulled me back, because I had felt his hands dragging me from the water. ‘You’ve got it all wrong’, he said, ‘I plunged into the water, but I could not get close to you because of all the bullets. Then there was a huge explosion. By then you had disappeared, and I thought we had lost you. All of a sudden though, your hand came up out of the water and you were right here in front of us.’
I could hardly believe it. Obviously it was not him who had rescued me. But if he had not come through the water to get me, then there was only one other answer – it was God’s hand that had miraculously brought me through the root-filled water and back to safety.
Standing up, I fastened my clothes and we moved on to a new location. Prior to this incident, I had, for some unknown reason, taken my wallet out of my trouser pocket, and put it in my shirt. As I dressed, I checked my shirt pocket. The wallet was gone, and I knew there was no way of getting it back. It was probably lying in the bottom of the water where I had gone down.
It was two weeks later when we were in the bean fields, 150 yards from the edge of the jungle. When I opened up my wallet, I discovered the money had gone and the photographs of my family had been put in that section. In their place were photographs of a Vietnamese family. I cannot clearly describe my feelings at that moment, when for the first time it struck me that I was killing people. This man I had killed was a family man just like me. His family would now be grieving for him. The senselessness of war hit me. All this man was doing was trying to chase me out of his country. I had great difficulty in balancing the near death experience I had just gone through, when I had experienced such unconditional love, with killing another human being. I did not know how I could continue in Vietnam.
About a week later, during very heavy fighting, I was shot. I lost most of my right arm. I was sent home to an American hospital to recover physically, but I suffered terrible post-traumatic stress, trying to make sense of it all. In fact for a few years I was convinced I was going mad. No one I knew had ever had an experience like mine, and I had certainly never read about anything like it.
I had been brought up as a Christian, married in the church, and even pastored a church for a while. After Vietnam I went back to college and obtained a Bachelors Degree in Psychology. I then attended graduate school to study counselling. So deep was the trauma I had been through, however, that eventually my marriage broke up. I had to receive counselling myself. The counsellor asked me what I was dying of. As I tried to tell him, we both sat and wept. It was the beginning of my return to sanity.
In 1975 I read a story in the Readers Digest about a lady who had had a near death experience, and the relief I felt was unbelievable. I was not going mad. It really had happened to me! One great thing I have learned from all of this, is that our God is compassionate, and always there to forgive. We do not have to be perfect, just repentant. God is there to pick us up and use us for His Glory.
Jerry Delaney is a qualified psychologist, and works in a practice, but is also part of a church pastoral team.