Chapter 1 Summary
On a mountain in Vietnam named Matterhorn by the U.S. military, Second Lieutenant Mellas settles into his role as a platoon commander in Bravo Company. A college graduate, Mellas is unsure of how he should conduct himself as a Marine. He feels intimidated by the other men who have longer combat experience, and he feels driven by a desire to rise through the ranks by virtue of political maneuvering and thereby protect himself from facing actual combat. Mellas is extremely perceptive in noticing the behaviors of the popular commanders and in trying to see what it will take to raise himself in the military.
The units situated on Matterhorn have been giving the task of preparing the mountain to be a major site for artillery operations. Therefore they spend most of their days either going out on patrol or working on the mountain building fortifications and clearing the dense jungle underbrush.
Coming back from a patrol, one of Mellas’s men, Fisher, reports that he has a leech trapped inside his urethra. Leeches are a normal part of life in Vietnam, but this is a unique, dangerous situation. The leech is making it impossible for Fisher to urinate and is causing extreme pain. The medics, called squids, come down and examine Fisher, but they don’t know what to do. It is decided that Fisher should leave Matterhorn on a medic-run helicopter to go to a hospital far from the front lines, where a real doctor can work on him.
However, the day is turning toward nighttime, and the helicopter is slow in arriving. The longer it takes for the helicopter to arrive, the more dangerous it will be, given that Matterhorn is surrounded by enemy soldiers. Eventually, the medics decide to operate on Fisher before it is too late. One of the medics, Sheller, cuts into Fisher’s penis, causing a flood of blood and urine. Later, the helicopter finally arrives. As Fisher is taken in a stretcher to the waiting helicopter, Sheller tells Mellas that he doesn’t know whether Fisher will come out of this impotent or worse.
Fisher’s sudden evacuation is the cause of some dissension within the ranks. One of the African American soldiers, Mallory, has been suffering from severe headaches for weeks. Mallory has applied to the commanders for medical leave, but they don’t take his requests seriously. Mellas’s superiors, First Lieutenant Fitch and Second Lieutenant Hawke, believe Mallory to be a malingerer and a lazy soldier, so they put off his request. Many of the African American soldiers, led by their spokesman, China, see racism behind the commander’s denial of Mallory’s request.