illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 20 Summary

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The twentieth story in The Things They Carried is “The Ghost Soldiers.” Here, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains how he was shot twice. The first shot hit him in the side and Rat Kiley was there to take care of him. Even though the platoon was caught in a firefight, Kiley returned to check on O’Brien several times. When O'Brien returned to the platoon, Kiley was injured and had been replaced by Bobby Jorgenson. Jorgenson is so green that when O'Brien is shot again, this time in the buttocks, the medic leaves O’Brien wounded for ten minutes before he works up the nerve to check up on him. Even then he forgets to check for shock. O’Brien is sent to the hospital and as he lies on his stomach, his wound festering, he thinks about how he will get revenge on Bobby Jorgenson. When he recovers from the second wound, O’Brien is sent to the rear. He spends his days doing regular duty, loading choppers with supplies, and drinking beer at night.

Alpha Squad comes to the rear on a brief leave from the front in March. They and O’Brien spend the next few days drinking beers together. Bowker and Azar tell him about how Morty Phillips wasted his luck. On a hot day, Phillips sneaked out of the platoon, humped alone to a river, and went swimming. He was not shot, but when he returned he got very sick from a bug they think he picked up in the river. When O’Brien asks about Jorgenson, the members of his old platoon tell him to be cool and they point out that the medic did a fine job of taking care of Phillips. They remind O’Brien how green Jorgenson was when he joined their platoon, but O’Brien is stubborn. Jorgenson is with them now, the soldiers explain, and the reality is that O’Brien is not. Later, Jorgenson actually tries to apologize, explaining that he was too scared to move when he saw O’Brien get shot. However, O’Brien finds himself hating Jorgenson for making him not hate the medic. He resolves to get revenge, but no one in the platoon will help him except Azar.

Azar and O’Brien wait until Jorgenson is on guard alone at night. O’Brien explains how the soldiers come to believe that the Vietnamese soldiers are ghosts, a superstition that the soldier cannot help but believe in when sitting alone in a bunker at night. The two men attach ammo cartridges to rope which they drag along the ground to "spook" Jorgenson. Azar enjoys making Jorgenson feel spooked, but O’Brien soon finds himself remembering the fear that he felt when he was shot. They pull the ropes at two different points during the night and after that O’Brien tries to call off the prank. Azar will not let him, and he calls O’Brien pitiful. When they carry out the third part of the prank, O’Brien has a flashback and hears himself wimper in fear. Jorgenson, meanwhile, decides that it is a prank, leaves the bunker and walks out. He shouts O’Brien’s name.

The next day, O’Brien and Jorgenson decide that they are even.

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Chapter 21 Summary