His Guardian Angel

When life tests you in unexpected ways, sometimes the ultimate victory is survival.

As I turned onto the exit ramp linking I-95 South to the Baltimore Washington Parkway, last leg of the familiar Hanover to Washington, D.C., run, I noticed the hitchhiker. He wore jeans and a green Army fatigue jacket. I braked the 1963 Chevy, downshifted into second, pulled onto the shoulder. As the hitchhiker hurried toward the car, I saw he had no luggage, not even a backpack. Must be a local boy, I thought, probably heading into the capital city to have some fun. When he opened the front passenger door and slid onto the bench seat beside me, the first thing I noticed was how young he looked. My smooth-faced passenger couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19. His crew cut suggested he might be a soldier or cop.

“Thanks for stoppin’,” he said.

“No problem,” I responded, shaking the hand he offered. Then I gunned the Impala, shooting us down the ramp and back out onto the parkway. “Where you headed?”

“D.C.”

“What part?”

“Walter Reed.”

The sprawling Army medical complex was only a few miles from the house in northwest Washington where I’d grown up and where I still lived with my father.  “I’ll drop you there,” I said.

“Great,” the boy replied.

Being a long-haired, bearded, anti-war-type, 23-year-old Dartmouth undergraduate, back for my second pass through Hanover, I didn’t get many chances to talk to young soldiers. “So,” I said, “you’re an Army man?”

“Corporal Richard Stowe, at your service.” He saluted. We both laughed.

“So,” I said, “you must be out on leave or something.”

“Yeah,” he said, “went home for the weekend. Visited my mom.”

“Where’s home?”

“Cleveland.”

“So,” I said, “you’re assigned to Walter Reed?”

“No, I’m a patient.”

I stole another glance at the boy riding shotgun. He had no visible injuries, no bandages, no cast. In fact, he appeared to be robustly healthy.

Stowe must have seen how puzzled I looked. “Psych ward,” he explained.

“Oh.” A moment later I added: “You seem sane enough to me.”

My passenger smiled. “It’s the Army thinks I’m crazy, not me.”

As we rolled down the tree-lined parkway leading to the capital city, the young soldier began telling me his story. For the rest of the hour-long drive, he kept me spellbound. Stowe told me he’d been on a search-and-destroy mission in Vietnam, sweeping a jungle path for enemy troops, when a North Vietnamese Army unit ambushed his platoon. His sergeant was fatally hit early in the firefight. Not long after that, the enemy killed his lieutenant. Stowe and his comrades, hopelessly pinned down, had only one thing going for them: the NVA had surprised them just before nightfall. Eight members of Stowe’s unit, including Stowe himself, were able to slip through enemy lines under cover of darkness and escape.

As a corporal, Stowe was the highest-ranking platoon member still alive. He felt it his duty to take charge. No one complained. They all just wanted to get the hell out of there. About half a dozen klicks (kilometers) down the jungle path they were following, the dense undergrowth began to thin out; eventually Stowe and his men emerged onto a vast, open plain. It looked like “something out of a science fiction movie,” he recalled, barren and exfoliated, no doubt “wasted” by Agent Orange. Stowe ordered his exhausted platoon mates to keep an eye out for any potential cover, promising them they could bed down for the night as soon as they found some.

Eventually, Stowe said, the soldier walking point spotted a cluster of small, scraggly bushes. The vegetation clearly wouldn’t supply much cover, but the men were too tired to care. Realizing they could go no further without rest, the newly anointed platoon commander agreed to let them set up camp. In short order, they had their ponchos down and were sprawled around him on the ground. “If the NVA had caught us out in the open like that,” Stowe said, “they’d’ve cut us to shreds.”

About half an hour later, the 19-year-old Cleveland native was fighting to stay awake. As his mind wandered, he imagined what it would be like to be shot in his sleep. He sipped water from his canteen, checked on his sleeping comrades, anything to keep from nodding off. Then something happened that snapped him awake. In the near distance, he saw a figure approaching. Believing it to be an NVA scout, Stowe dropped to one knee, took aim with his M-16 rifle. But before he could squeeze off a shot, the figure disappeared. Stowe scanned the moonlit plain through his rifle sights, but saw no one. It was as if the intruder had dematerialized.

“Who goes there?” he demanded anyway. He received no response. Was it possible he had fallen asleep and was just dreaming all of this? He pinched himself on the neck. Sure enough, he felt pain. Then he heard it. Somebody out there was softly calling his name.

“Richard.”

Stowe thought he was hallucinating. He’d heard people do that when they’re out in the bush too long. Or was somebody in his platoon playing a cruel, dangerous joke on him? He quickly counted the sleeping bodies. All present and accounted for. What the hell was going on, he wondered.

“Richard.” This time, Stowe said the voice sounded louder, closer, more distinct. “Richard, it’s me, Dad.”

Stowe’s father, a World War II veteran, had died of a heart attack early in Stowe’s tour of duty. The young soldier had been issued a five-day hardship pass to return to Cleveland to attend the funeral. One of the reasons Stowe had joined the Army, he told me, was to show his dad he too could be a hero. (His father had fought with the Marines on Guadalcanal, earning a Bronze Star for valor.) But the elder Stowe had been disparaging, telling Richard the conflict in Vietnam was nothing more than a “police action,” not worthy of being called a war. Stowe had never forgiven his father for saying that. Not even after he died.

“Can you hear me, son?”

Stowe was certain now. It was his father’s voice. Twenty yards away, he saw a shadowy figure emerging from the darkness. The ghost soldier wore battle fatigues, a World War II style helmet, and he carried an M1 Garand rifle. Stowe remembered seeing a gun like that in an old wartime photograph of his father. The only thing he couldn’t see was the soldier’s face. His helmet was titled down in the front, and the features were in shadow. The apparition began to advance on Stowe’s position. Instinctively, Stowe trained his rifle on it.

“It’s okay,” Stowe heard the ghostly figure say, as it came closer. “Don’t shoot. I’m here to help you.”

Stowe now could see the apparition’s eyes. They looked sad, haunted, the same as his father’s had looked the last time they were together. “My God!” Stowe exclaimed. “It really is you!”

“Get your men up, get them out of here,” his father warned.

“Why?” Stowe replied, “Did the NVA spot us?”

Stowe’s father smiled, then reached out his arm as if to touch his son on the shoulder. But before he could, he started to fade back into the shadows.

“Dad, wait!” Stowe exclaimed. “Don’t leave! I need to know—”

As his father’s image faded, so did his voice. Stowe could no longer make out what he was saying. Then, as suddenly and inexplicably as he had appeared, Stowe’s father was gone. Whether what he’d seen and heard was real or not, Stowe could not be certain. But the deeply shaken young soldier believed he’d been given a warning. He woke up his men, got them on their feet, ordered them to move out—on the double! They grumbled, some cursed him, but they obeyed. They hadn’t been marching more than 20 minutes when they suddenly heard the shrill, terrifying whistle of an artillery shell. They scrambled for cover, tried to dig in, wondering how in the hell the NVA had obtained their coordinates. Stowe and his platoon mates watched in horror as the shells continued to shriek directly over their heads. But it soon became clear that whoever was firing the big guns didn’t know where they were after all. Either that or “they couldn’t aim worth a damn.” As dawn broke, the barrage ended. Stowe took the binoculars he’d recovered from his dead lieutenant. What he saw sent a chill through him. The spot he’d chosen for the men to rest had been obliterated. All of the bushes were gone; huge craters pockmarked the plain where the artillery shells had hit.

Only later, when Stowe and his platoon mates had reached safety, did they learn that the deadly barrage they had barely escaped was friendly fire. His company commander had ordered it, ironically, to “punish” the NVA unit he believed had wiped out Stowe’s entire platoon. When the lieutenant colonel heard about the alleged “psychic powers” Stowe had used to save himself and his men from certain death, he called the young combat veteran into his office. Stowe dutifully told his commanding officer the same story he’d just told me; his reward, he said, was to be sent back to the States, to be treated for what an Army field hospital shrink had diagnosed as a “situational disorder.” “I guess he figured that anybody who sees ghosts—and listens to ’em—has got to be out of his mind,” Stowe said.

“Well,” I told my hitchhiker, “I don’t think you’re crazy.

“Too bad you’re not my shrink,” he quipped.

Both my hitchhiker and I fell silent. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but his amazing story had opened the Pandora’s box where I kept my own feelings about the war locked safely away. Here was this decent young man who had fought gallantly for his country only to be ignominiously labeled a lunatic, sent back to the States and confined to a mental ward. Meanwhile, this writer, along with thousands of other middle- and upper-class male baby boomers, had taken the easy way out of military service. We’d used student or medical deferments—sometimes questionably obtained—to avoid the draft. I was relieved, of course, that I didn’t have to fight a war I didn’t believe in; but I also felt guilty. I had friends who were killed in Vietnam or who came back with wounds, both physical and emotional, that forever changed them. Nobody could question their bravery; but, because of what I had learned about the conflict from my father, TV journalist Martin Agronsky, starting with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964—he believed it had been orchestrated by the Johnson administration to provide political cover for its deliberate escalation of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia—I knew the war in Vietnam was a deadly farce.  He told me that it would be an act of stupidity, rather than patriotism, to sacrifice one’s life in such a tragically misguided military adventure.

Richard Stowe, of course, did not have a father who warned him away from the conflict; his father had insulted him, questioning his courage and trivializing the dangers he soon would face overseas. In abusing Richard, however, Stowe’s father had only egged his spirited son on, making him more determined than ever to show the ex-Marine what he was made of.

Dusk was falling when I pulled up to the front gate at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and stopped at the gatehouse. A military policeman wearing a black beret, white gloves, a .45 side arm and a white braid on the shoulder of his uniform leaned into the driver’s side window. Eyeing my ponytail suspiciously, he asked me what my business was. When I pointed to my passenger, the sentry asked for Stowe’s I.D. After examining it, he walked around the front of the car, handed the laminated card back to Stowe, then crisply saluted. At least somebody on the base respects the guy, I thought. Stowe then directed me to a winding asphalt lane that disappeared behind the hospital’s main building. 

When we arrived at the psychiatric wing, I could find no parking spot, so I pulled as close as I could to the building’s rear door and stopped the car. Stowe and I shook hands. Behind him, a few yards away, a rust-colored door began to swing open. A young man wearing pajamas, slippers, bathrobe and what appeared to be heavy pancake makeup, lipstick and mascara, emerged from the ward and propped open the door. He smiled at Stowe, who looked embarrassed. I shrugged and smiled too, as if to tell the young soldier, Hey, just because you’re locked up with these nut jobs, doesn’t mean you’re as crazy as they are! The man I’d known for just over an hour got out of the car and walked over to his friend. Pancake Man said something that made Stowe laugh. Framed by the doorway, both young men were lit by the eerie red glow of the exit sign above their heads. Before going inside, Stowe turned toward the car and flashed a two-fingered peace sign and a grin at the stranger who’d just given him a ride. Then he and his made-up buddy disappeared into the building.

As I made my way back to the entrance gate, I thought about my hitchhiker and his remarkable story. How much his dad’s disapproval, followed by his untimely death, had affected Richard Stowe’s mental stability, I realized I would never know. But of this I was certain: By heeding his father’s ghostly warning on that distant battlefield, the teenage warrior from Cleveland had saved his entire platoon. In my view, this was hardly the act of a delusional personality, as the Army claimed. While fighting both his own private demons and a foreign enemy, Richard Stowe had won a small, but indisputable victory in America’s first lost war.  

Jonathan Agronsky flunked out of Dartmouth—twice—before finally earning an A.B. in English in January 1971. Author of three books, scores of magazine articles, essays, films and radio scripts, and recipient of 10 writing awards, he has been writing professionally since 1967.

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