The Mighty Pen Podcast: Episode 9

Episode 9: Quirt Alerts and The Field Trip

This week’s episode features two stories by Vietnam veteran Randy Harritan.

They explore the intense relationship between military working dogs and their handlers, and a story of the moment a Vietnam Veteran received a true welcome home.

Quirt Alerts by Randy Harritan, 2016

He sits on his haunches in the middle of the trail. Nose held high, bouncing like a fishing bobber, pointing towards the ten o’clock position.

He looks back at Harry but does not move. Waiting for orders.

Harry’s senses go into overdrive. Which way is the wind blowing? How hard? Is anything out of order ahead; a turned leaf, a tuft of grass, an overturned rock? A quick glance encompassing all of his surroundings provides no feedback. The jungle opens ahead of him. It’s a perfect place for an ambush.

Harry gives Quirt the hand signal to stay. The dog will not move. His orders given, he sits tall and rigid with an occasional sweep of the area with his nose. Analyzing.

Having no cover Harry, as casually as his internal tensions will allow, meanders back to the next man in line.

At slightly above a whisper he says, “Enemy personnel at ten o’clock.”

Afraid of springing the ambush, Harry does not look back in the direction indicated by Quirt but nonchalantly shrugs and looks around the jungle as if taking a break. He can feel the rifle bores pointed in his direction. Silent. Deadly. Waiting. He wants to flop on his belly and crawl away. His instincts tell him run, but he waits.

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“Enemy personnel at ten o’clock,” relays back man after man. No adlibbing, no changing the verbiage. Repeating what is said until the sound dies out along this snake-like string of men stretching along the ridgeline.

Waiting. The interminable wait.

Beads of sweat run down Harry’s back. Pools form in his armpits. Harry hopes the company commander is flanking the dinks and will turn the tables, taking the pressure from the front. He isn’t sure how long he can maintain the subterfuge.

Voices low and mechanical, louder with each new voice, comeback up the line, “Move out and engage the enemy.”

Harry knows that the captain is under orders to engage the enemy—but walking into an ambush? Why doesn’t he come up here and engage the enemy? Shit, shit, shit!

He turns, recalls Quirt, praises him, and again orders him to “search.” Quirt will not alert again on these people. He has done his job, at least as far as these people are concerned. Still, it is comforting having him out front.

On shaky legs and at a snail’s pace the column moves out, watching, scanning the treeline, moving no faster than necessary. Each step winds the jack-in-the-box awaiting the monster’s release. A hundred meters. No one really wants to make contact, but this is the business they’re in.

The jungle opens in a solid wall of fire. Harry and the others are caught in an ambush along their left flank. The noise is incredible. Heavy machine-guns, AK 47s, RPGs, all aimed at the Americans and firing at once. Harry dives away from the guns. The ground slopes downward
providing some protection. Quirt, as trained, takes his place on Harry’s left side and lies as close to Harry as he can get. Protecting. Doing his job.

The fighting is vicious. Harry goes through several magazines in a few minutes. Can’t stop and conserve ammo. They keep rushing forward. He must continue firing or they will flank the unit on the right. Grass is being cut over his head and falling on him from the enemy fire.
They have him bracketed.

Boop, ping. Boop, ping. Boop, ping. The grenadier to his left is firing 40-mm grenades as fast as he can load them. Thank God for him. Helping to keep the enemy at bay. Troops down the line to the left are giving it to Charlie in spades but they are firing in the same direction as Harry and giving him no cover fire.

Chi-com grenade!

It’s on Harry’s left side, just beyond Quirt. He can almost touch it.

It lies there. No ticking, no sound. Just a gruesome inanimate object lying in its own cloud of dust. Time stops.

Boom! Quirt takes the full blast. He slams into Harry and then, almost as if in slow motion, rolls over him. They both are suspended in air. He lands and does not move. Harry comes down with a grunt, a loud whine in his ears.

An NVA soldier, a good-looking young man with a fresh haircut and clean green fatigues, walks from the foliage thinking he has killed Harry and the dog. He wears no hat and is looking over his shoulder, talking to other troops behind him. Harry puts three rounds into his chest and the man falls backward in a heap. Legs akimbo. He is lying there dead no more than five feet from Harry. Harry must move.

To Harry’s amazement Quirt rises and on shaky legs assumes his place again on Harry’s left side.

Time to go.

Harry and Quirt move down the mountain, then angle to the left in hopes of linking up the rest of the unit. Harry sees movement and yells, “It’s the Dog Handler,” in hope it is his guys and not the enemy. There is no answer. He moves closer and repeats, “It’s the Dog Handler.”

This time a welcome voice says, “Come on in, we thought you were dead.”

Harry doesn’t know how much time has passed. It seems like hours.

The entire unit withdraws. Artillery is called; the big guns, 155s and 8-inchers. The ground rumbles and shakes. Metal shards cut through the trees. Cutting them in half as easily as a scythe through hay. Hell has been unleashed upon the dinks.

Even now, Harry has a certain admiration for the dinks. What brave young men they must be. They know what’s coming, yet they attack and endure Armageddon. A baptism of fire and brimstone.

Firing stops and the unit moves to mop up. There are pieces of human beings but no whole bodies. They took them. The rancid smell of cordite. Spent brass. There’s plenty of blood and bandages. It’s always the same. They try to make the victories hollow. No proof, no bodies. Always an estimation of kills.

They killed one of us. It is absolute. Not estimated. We have one KIA. Shot through the chest. Lying on his back in a pool of sticky red, already congealing, returning to the earth. Some wounded, but not bad. We won. Big fucking deal. We won.

A resupply bird comes in and unloads water and ammo. Harry and Quirt hitch a ride back to base camp with the dead man zipped into a body bag. After landing Harry prods Quirt. He will not move. Can’t. He died on the way home. He had no more to give. There are two dead soldiers on this helicopter.

The shock is instant and severe. Disbelief. It can’t be. He was fine. Harry knew something was wrong. He knew.

Harry dismounts, cradling a limp Quirt in his arms, and begins to walk with him. His tongue hangs. His eyes are glazed. The crew on the chopper look on with sympathy in their eyes, saying nothing. What can they say?

It is more than a mile back to the war dog area. Harry will not stop. Will not rest. He pushes on to find Doc, the vet tech. Maybe he can help. It’s hard to see through the tears, salty and bitter. Each leaves dirt trails on his cheeks. The heaviness is not his arms but his chest. He thinks he will burst open and spill on the dusty rotten ground. He wants to scream. Run. Run until the hurt stops. Run until all this goes away but his legs won’t let him. They are no longer a part of him but simply appendages to move him and Quirt over this godforsaken patch of earth.

Doc meets him at the kennels, but Harry won’t let Doc have Quirt. He slides down and sits against a wall holding him. The crying is over. He talks to Quirt as he always has. Thanking him for his protection, his dedication and love for over a year.

Time means nothing to Harry. He has no idea how long he’s been there, but eventually relinquishes Quirt to Doc. A wound has opened that will never heal. Harry heads for his hooch, alone for the first time in Vietnam.

A short time later the war dog provisional first sergeant tells Harry that the battalion commander of the unit he had worked with inquired about the soldier named Quirt. He wanted to give him a medal for his heroism during the battle. When informed that the soldier was a large
German shepherd, the colonel simply laughed. Dogs were considered to be equipment. Nothing more.

A month later Harry receives a letter from one of his dear friends and fellow dog handlers assigned to the Twenty-Fifth Division near Saigon. He says he heard that a dog named Quirt was coming to the main veterinary center near Saigon for a necropsy and immediately knew who it was. There was only one Quirt. He tells Harry that he met him at the landing pad, accompanied his body to the vet, and stayed with him. Both his eardrums were completely gone, which Harry already knows. This happened in an earlier engagement but had not been reported.

Harry had known the army would retire Quirt for this, so he kept it quiet. Quirt also had severe internal damage. Mortal damage. He was given a proper burial, complete with headstone, in the War Dog Cemetery. Pete said a prayer over Quirt and wants Harry to know he was treated with respect. Another soldier laid to rest. Gone to flowers.

Goodbye, Quirt; serial number 7A97.

The Field Trip by Randy Harritan, 2015

On Sunday morning First Lieutenant Hostetler, the company commander, came into the hooch and asked Harry if he’d ride shotgun with him to visit some nuns. Harry and the lieutenant had gotten to know each other and spent time discussing the evils of the world. The lieutenant was Catholic and seemed to know every nun in II Corps.

They loaded some supplies and, with the lieutenant driving, Harry with his M-16 and a map, headed out to find the nuns. After an hour they reached their destination.

This place was poor even by Vietnamese standards. In the middle of a fenced compound, a cinder-block building stood in need of repair. A lecherous-looking, bent-over individual loped out, opened the gate, and waved them in. The man didn’t speak but made slurping sounds when he breathed; drool ran from the corner of his mouth in his cocked head. He was ugly and odious.

“What kind of place is this?”

“It’s a leper colony; the sisters are friends of mine.”

“What? You brought me here with no warning? Haven’t lepers died out? Can we catch this stuff?” Harry was transported back to biblical times as he looked at these people with this ancient disease.

“Calm down, Harry. I wouldn’t come here if it were contagious. They need our help.”

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Harry didn’t mingle but stayed close to the lieutenant. The nuns were in full habit despite the heat. Those black and white outfits tugged up around their necks and the hats pulled low made a clothing sauna. They smelled no better than their charges. Surely God would have understood shorts and a t-shirt in this circumstance. The mother superior must have been very devout.

Harry was relieved when it was time to go. The trip back was uneventful. The lieutenant told him that the sisters were from his hometown, and he felt a need to help them. Harry admired both the sisters and the lieutenant for caring for these poor rejected souls. His mother used to say, “There’s a lid for every pot,” and Harry was glad these good souls existed. But he didn’t want to be one of them.

A month went by and the lieutenant asked Harry to accompany him again to the leper colony. This time he said leper colony up front. Harry and the lieutenant loaded the supplies and headed out. This time Harry drove. Once the lieutenant found out that Harry had his military driver’s license, he insisted on being chauffeured. Harry chuckled that he had been driven around by an officer in the first place.

As soon as they arrived at the leper colony, both their hackles went up. Something was wrong. No one came to open the gate. The cow lay on its side, tongue hanging from her mouth to touch the ground. Cautiously, they opened the gate. The smell remained but added to it was the odor of blood and death. Stillness greeted them. Lifeless bodies were arranged on the ground as only happenstance can do. God’s final “fuck you” to these miserable souls. The pale horse of death traveled silently beside Harry and the lieutenant as they made their way to the main building. Crouched and wary, the two worked their way through the bodies, not stopping to check them. Ugly in life, grotesque in death. Some stared at nothing and others hid their faces as if ashamed even to have existed. Animals moved in the distance, shaking, daring the two soldiers to do something about the tragedy.

They made their way to the block building where they found the two nuns. Executed. Shot at close range in the head. Some of the blood was still wet. Harry and the officer had missed the murders by only a few minutes. The lieutenant, repining, needed time to gather himself. He had just lost a couple of close friends. Non-combatants. Ladies of God. Senseless murder committed in a rage that led to the unthinkable. Harry stood guard at the door, wondering why the flower of American youth was asked to fight and die for these people. This was not an enemy target. It was most certainly done by the compound’s neighbors. A message was delivered here, but no message stronger than intolerance.

The trip back to base camp was long and quiet. Harry’s heart ached for the lieutenant. He was hurting. They drove in the stillness of death. Harry’s only thought was “Why did they have to kill the cow?”

In January 1970, Harry returned to the States and tried to assimilate into normal life. On the outside he was the guy he’d always been. Loving, carefree, easy to smile, the first with a joke, but inside he had turned rock hard. His heart was a lump of coal, hard and black with sharpened edges that cut and sliced into his soul.

He was alone. Desperate. His wife allowed no talk about the war. She held her position that she had it rough, too, while he was gone. They attended couples therapy, but Vietnam wasn’t mentioned. He had two beautiful children, a great job, in-laws whom he adored. Life was as good as it was supposed to be.

Harry’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1984 and died within six months. This beautiful woman wasted away and left them. He was sad and knew he’d miss her but couldn’t bring himself to tears. His attitude surprised everyone, especially Harry. He wasn’t rude or uncaring but simply accepted the situation. This wasn’t normal, but what was?

At the Chesterfield County Fair in 1986 with his wife, kids, and brother-in-law, Bobby, a crowd gathered around a misshapen, badly burned man on stage. He was an injured Vietnam vet whom the nurses called a “crispy critter” (a burn victim). His lips had been reconstructed, and his ears and nose were mostly missing. Yet he was full of life and presented his harrowing story with energy and humor. Afterwards he invited all Vietnam veterans to join him on stage. Harry said absolutely not. He had been ridiculed enough and wasn’t about to get on stage for another round of humiliation. Bobby, Harry’s brother-in-law, literally pushed him to the foot of the stairs encouraging him to go. Reluctantly he ascended the stairs along with a half dozen other vets.

The little burn victim looked at the row of men and with a big smile said, “Welcome home, thank you for your service.” The crowd erupted with cheers and applause. All the veterans were taken aback.

A mountain of a man, about six-foot-four and 250 pounds, sat on Harry’s left and cried like a baby. This surprised Harry until he realized that he, too, was crying. It was the first time any of them had been welcomed home, thanked for their service.

Harry cried more that night, for himself and all those innocent, trusting, and needy human beings two decades before, even the cow, all snuffed out in a senseless act of war and ignorance.

Harry could now grieve and begin his healing.

About the Author

Randy Harritan in Vietnam with Quirt

Randy Harritan has been involved with the Mighty Pen Project since 2015.

“I was 22 years old in this picture. I turned 23 in Vietnam.

I was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina and went into the Army in 1968. My Dad was a World War II Veteran and my maternal Grandfather served in World War I. Two of my Great Great Grandfathers fought in the Civil War.

After returning home from the war, I started a Mechanical Contracting firm from which I retired in 2001. I now have four kids and seven grandchildren which I love with all my heart. Life is good.”

The Mighty Pen Project is a free writing program for military veterans and family members, offered by the Virginia War Memorial Foundation. If you’d like to learn more about the Mighty Pen or send us your thoughts, email us at

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