The Things They Carried Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong Summary
Rat Kiley often tells stories, and it's hard to know whether they actually happened or not; he believes in story-truth, not happening-truth. But the story that Rat is about to tell, he claims is absolutely and completely true – something that he saw with his own eyes.
Mitchell Sanders says that the story – about a medic who ships his girlfriend over to Vietnam from Ohio – couldn't possibly be true. But Rat insists.
The story starts when Rat is assigned to a small medical detachment in the mountains near a village called Tra Bong and a river called the Song Tra Bong. There isn't a lot of military oversight in the medics' compound, and the security is provided by a mix of RFs (Regional Forces), PFs (Popular Forces), and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) infantry.
The ARVN are, according to either Rat or Tim, useless as soldiers, and the RFs/PFs (also known as Ruff-and-Puffs) are South Vietnamese militias and are worse than useless – they are dangerous.
The only other soldiers on the compound are a squad of six Green Berets who use the compound as a base of operations. The Green Berets, or Greenies, have their own fortified hootch (hut) at the edge of the perimeter, and they keep to themselves, gliding in and out of camp when they need to. Creepily. (There are going to be a lot of creepy things in this story, we're just warning you now.)
One night, Eddie Diamond, the ranking NCO (non-commissioned officer), suggests as a joke that the medics find a way to bring a girl into the camp (which kind of tells you exactly how slack discipline is at this place).
But one kid, Mark Fossie, takes the idea seriously. He says that if you did it right, you could fly a girl in. After all, there's no war at the compound, really.
The rest of the medics don't really pay attention to the guy.
And then his girlfriend arrives. Her name is Mary Anne Bell, and she's seventeen and has long legs, blonde hair, and blue eyes, and she's wearing a pink sweater and culottes (knee-length shorts that are wide and look like a skirt). Now that's not what we were expecting.
Turns out Mark Fossie just paid a lot of money for plane tickets to get Mary Anne to Saigon, and she hitched rides on military aircraft to get the rest of the way.
Mary Anne and Mark have been sweethearts since sixth grade, and plan to get married and live near Lake Erie and have three children. They are really in love.
Her presence helped boost the morale for the rest of the guys, too; she's bubbly and happy and interested in everything, from how Claymore mines work to the geography of the country.
She spends time with the ARVNs learning Vietnamese and insists on visiting the village of Tra Bong, despite the fact that none other than the Viet Cong controlled it. Then she swims in the Song Tra Bong, despite the possibility of ambush and snipers.
While there are parts of the story that could have been funny, Rat never treats them that way. It's a straight tragedy for him.
And he insists that Mary Anne wasn't dumb – that she was like any of them when they'd first arrived in Vietnam, young and innocent. This, he says, is a story about human nature and Vietnam.
Back to the story: Mary Anne just keeps picking things up. She helps the medics when the wounded come in, unafraid of blood. She cuts her hair short and stops wearing makeup and jewelry. She learns to use an M-16.
While she remains loving towards Mark Fossie, the details of their future plans became hazy. Marriage is no longer a given. When Mark tries to get her to go back home, she says she'd rather stay in Vietnam.
She becomes more serious and distracted. She zones out when the medics played cards at night, staring into the dark. She says she'd never been happier. (See? Creepy.)
A couple of times, she doesn't come back in until late. Then she doesn't show up at all. Fossie goes crazy looking for her, all over the compound; Rat helps. She isn't sleeping with any of the medics. Fossie assumed she was sleeping with someone.
At this point, Rat interrupts the story and asked Mitchell Sanders where he thinks Mary Anne was.
Sanders promptly guesses that she was with the Greenies, because it made narrative sense – why bring up the Greenies at the beginning of the story if they're not going to pop up later?
As it turns out, Mitchell Sanders is right, but Mary Anne isn't sleeping with any of the Greenies. Nope, she's out on ambush with them.
She comes trotting in with the Greenies just after sunrise and asks Mark to wait until she's slept to yell at her. Mark, unsurprisingly, chooses to yell at her immediately, and the two disappear to have a (serious? creepy?) talk.
When Mary Anne comes out that evening, she's dressed in a skirt and a white blouse, and she and Mark are engaged.
Anyone who's ever read a story – and certainly any of the previous stories in this book – will know that this is not the story's happy ending. The two of them seem happy from a distance, but in reality, the two of them are brittle.
Mark begins making plans for Mary Anne to go back home. Mary Anne starts to withdraw. She keeps staring at the jungle. And then she disappears, and the six Greenies disappear with her.
Three weeks later, the Greenies come back, and Mary Anne is with them. But instead of her eyes glowing blue, Rat said, they seemed to glow jungle green.
She doesn't stop to say hi to any of the medics, but goes straight to the Greenies' hootch and heads inside.
Rat interrupts himself here to tell the soldiers that while the story sounds weird, it's true, really true, and that being seduced by the Greenies happens to guys all the time, so why shouldn't it happen to a lady? Mitchell Sanders tells Rat to stop digressing and tell the story right.
Back to the story: Mark Fossie plants himself in front of the Special Forces area, waiting for Mary Anne to come out. He waits there all day.
At midnight, Rat and Eddie Diamond go to check on him. They hear crazy, atonal music coming from the hootch, and a woman singing.
Fossie recognizes the woman's voice as Mary Anne's (well, and there are no other women around anyway). The singing gets louder and crazier, and Fossie runs into the hootch. Rat and Eddie follow.
The next scene is definitely the creepiest scene in this entire book, and very possibly the creepiest scene in any book ever, so just prepare yourself. And we couldn't possibly do the creepiness of this justice, so you should really go read it right now. Still, we'll try to give a summary.
The room is dark, lit by twelve candles. There's the stench of incense and something else. There are human bones. There are dead animals. The Greenies are all lying around on hammocks or cots, and none of them move.
Mark Fossie asks for Mary Anne, and she steps forward. She's wearing her pink sweater and her culottes. Her eyes are emotionless. Horrifyingly, she's wearing a necklace made out of human tongues.
She tells Mark that he doesn't understand Vietnam, that she feels like she wants to eat the whole country, that she can never get enough of it.
Rat leads Fossie out of the hootch, telling him that Mary Anne is gone.
That's where Rat Kiley stops telling the story. Mitchell Sanders asks what happened to Mary Anne, and Rat says he isn't sure. He transferred to the Alpha Company a couple of days later, but he has some secondhand reports.
He also says that he'd loved Mary Anne. She's the only American girl he's met who really understood the war, because she'd been there.
Rat got the end of the story from Eddie Diamond, who'd gotten it from a Greenie. Here it is:
Mary Anne loves the night patrols. She starts to blend in more and more, going barefoot and not carrying a weapon. She disappears every now and then for hours or days.
Finally, she walks into the mountains, never to return. No finds a body.
Mark Fossie is sent home on medical leave. Mary Anne is reported missing.
The Greenies, though, believe that Mary Anne is still out there in the dark, gliding around, wearing her culottes, pink sweater, and necklace of human tongues.