The Unspoken Language


Everyone is familiar with spoken language as a means of communicating with our fellowman, but there is another way by which we convey our thoughts and feelings perhaps even more effectively than with words—our actions. An unspoken language, they often portray our innermost selves far more candidly than do our words.

I was made aware of the power of unspoken language through a young Vietnamese boy named Ho Van My. He had been an enemy soldier until he was captured by American troops in the recent Vietnam war. As a prisoner of war he had three alternatives available to him. He could spend the rest of the war in a prison camp, he could be repatriated and farm the land under government supervision, or he could work for the Americans as a scout. Ho Van My chose the latter and was assigned to my unit.

I first met him when he arrived by helicopter at our base camp in the mountains. Understandably there was a great deal of suspicion among the men of the unit, for we were asked to accept a man who had worn the uniform of our enemy a few short months before. There began a period of adjustment, during which I learned to appreciate the unspoken language, for Ho Van My spoke no English and I spoke no Vietnamese.

Our new scout had been with us for a week. He stayed apart from the men of the unit. He did not attempt to make friends, and our own attitude toward him was less than affable. There was talk of sending him back to the prison camp. Yet, I felt that Ho Van My could play an important part in the efficient operation of the unit. He could talk to the villagers we met. He could interrogate the prisoners we captured. And he knew, by experience, the way the enemy soldier would act and react. How could I use this man’s talents best?

Ho Van My carried only a backpack for food and personal belongings. Because of our mistrust of him, he was not issued a rifle. One of the men of the unit owned a small caliber rifle that had been altered to resemble a pistol. As an effective weapon, it was practically useless. I persuaded the man to give the rifle to me. Ho Van My was sitting a short distance from the others as I approached. I extended the rifle and bullets toward him. He took them, aimed at a nearby tree trunk, fired, and missed. As he turned around, a smile lit his face and he shook his head emphatically up and down in approval. No words were exchanged, but a feeling of trust was communicated far better than words would ever have been able to express. Ho Van My became a part of the unit.

He never learned to speak English and I never learned to speak Vietnamese, but we continued to speak to each other through our actions. There was a time when I noticed the way he watched as the men of the unit inflated their air mattresses to sleep on. Ho Van My slept on the ground. I radioed the supply officer and the next resupply helicopter brought a new air mattress for our scout.

One day, as I sat looking at pictures of my wife and son, Ho Van My walked over and extended his hand. I gave the pictures to him, and he smiled and nodded his head in approval; then he took pictures of his family from his pocket for me to see. By this act we told each other of the pride and love we had for our families and of the loneliness of separation from them. Though not a word passed between us, we became friends.

One afternoon, as we patrolled a section of jungle bordering the ricelands, we surprised the rear guard of an enemy force. I took a portion of my unit, and we maneuvered for position. Because I was overzealous to press the fight, I forgot caution and unknowingly stepped into the sights of an enemy machine gun. Ho Van My saw the danger I was in. He dropped his own weapon and, running at full speed, knocked me from the path of fire. I remember him running, knocking me to the side, the sound of the machine gun firing, and the sound of the bullets as they slammed into his chest. Then it was over. As I lay on the ground, wounded and unable to move because of continuous fire from the enemy, I looked at the lifeless body of my friend lying nearby and I knew that without saying a word he had told me something of great and lasting value.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

Brother Jamison, a law enforcement major at Brigham Young University, served with the U.S. Army for six years, including two tours of duty in Vietnam.