|“The Things That They Carried”
Full Name: Tim O'Brien
Date of Birth: October 1, 1946
Place of Birth: Austin, Minnesota
Brief Life Story: Tim O'Brien moved with his family to Worthington, Minnesota when he was twelve, a place which has served as the setting in many of his stories in “The Things They Carried” as well as his other works. He got his BA from Macalester College in Political Science in 1968. In 1968 he was drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1968 to 1970. When he returned from the war, he went to graduate school at Harvard University. In 1973, he published his first book, a memoir entitled: “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” “Box Me Up” and “Ship Me Home.” In 1979, O'Brien won the National Book Award for his novel “Going After Cacciato,” but he is perhaps best known for his collection of semi-autobiographical stories “The Things They Carried.” He has written many additional novels, many focused around the Vietnam War and its aftermath upon those who served in it.
Full Title: “The Things They Carried”
Genre: War Novel
Setting: Vietnam; Minnesota; central Iowa
Historical and Literary Context
When Written: 1980s
Where Written: The United States
When Published: 1990
Literary Period: Contemporary
Related Literary Works: As a war novel written by a former soldier, “The Things They Carried” shares a great deal with other war novels of similar authorship. In 1929 the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” or, “Im Westen nichts Neues,” by Erich Marla Remarque was published in Germany. Remarque was a veteran of World War I, and the book chronicles the extreme anguish, both mentally and physically, most soldiers experienced during the war. It also explored the pervasive sense of alienation that soldiers felt from the society that sent them to war, and their inability to ever really return home. In just its first eighteen months in print, it sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five different languages. Ernest Hemingway's “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” similarly explore chaotic war experiences and the way that war has a lifelong alienating effect on soldiers. Kurt Vonnegut's “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969) uses a similar disjointed narrative as many of the stories in “The Things They Carried” to capture and portray the chaos of war.
Related Historical Events: O'Brien ardently tries to separate his storytelling from political commentary in interviews, but all of his works to date intimately deal with war: experiences of war before, during, and after the actual fighting. The entirety of “The Things They Carried” is a depiction of experiences from the Vietnam War. United States intervention in the regional conflict was an effort to prevent South Vietnam from being overtaken by communist leaders, but objectives were often not entirely clear and were particularly opaque to the soldiers in the middle of the fighting. The war led to intense debates and unrest in the United States, and produced a generation of veterans who were impacted by the war in many different ways, but all of them profoundly.
“The Things They Carried” is a collection of twenty-two stories chronicling the author, Tim O'Brien's, recollections of his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War. While O'Brien admits in the book to often blurring the line between fact and fiction, the names of the characters in the book are those of real people. Since it is a collection of stories rather than a novel, there is not a traditional narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet, the entire collection functions as a self-contained work because it is so loyal to its themes and characters.
"The Things They Carried:" This story introduces the reader to O'Brien's platoon leader, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The story travels between Cross' infatuation with a girl named Martha that he's in love with based on a single date in college, the death of the soldier Ted Lavender, and an itemized chronicle of what the men carried at war, from supplies, to tokens of luck, to emotions.
"Love:" Jimmy Cross visits Tim O'Brien long after the war has ended and they swap war stories over a bottle of gin. The topic of Martha comes up, and Cross confesses that he still loves her. He tells the story of how he saw Martha at a college reunion after the war. She had never married. Cross asks O'Brien to write a story about him that makes him appear to be the best platoon leader ever, hoping Martha would read it and find him.
"Spin:" A story of Tim O'Brien's fragmented memories from the war. Mitchell Sanders sends his body lice to his hometown draft board. Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins play checkers every night. O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen, says he should stop writing so many war stories. O'Brien recalls Kiowa teaching Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen a rain dance. Ted Lavender adopted a puppy that Azar blew up. Kiowa told O'Brien he had no choice but to kill the armed man on the path. O'Brien says he must write stories because that's all that's left when memory is gone.
"On the Rainy River:" Before going to Vietnam, Tim O'Brien decides to dodge the draft, and he drives north to Canada but stops near the border at The Tip Top Lodge, owned by an old man named Elroy Berdahl. O'Brien credits Berdahl with being "the hero of his life." O'Brien spends six days at the Lodge, trying to decide whether or not to flee. Berdahl takes him out on a boat so he's only yards away from Canadian soil. O'Brien feels forced to go to war for fear of embarrassing himself and his family, more than he fears death.
"Enemies:" Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get in a brutal fight over a stolen jackknife where Jensen breaks Strunk's nose. After Strunk returns from a few days in medical care, Jensen becomes paranoid that Strunk will retaliate by killing him. Jensen isolates himself for a week, and eventually loses it and starts shooting his gun in the air until he's out of ammo. Then he breaks his own nose with a pistol and asks Strunk if they're even. Strunk says they are.
"Friends:" Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk become friends after their fight and start doing everything in pairs. They make a pact and sign it that reads one is obligated to kill the other if one is harmed so badly in battle that they would be wheelchair bound. Later that month, Strunk gets most of his right leg blown off in combat. As the soldiers wait for a medic chopper, Strunk comes in and out of consciousness begging for Jensen not to kill him. Jensen promises he won't. Strunk dies in the chopper, and Jensen appears relieved.
"How to Tell a True War Story:" O'Brien writes that war stories have no moral, they are often not true (at least completely), and if a story is true you can tell by the kinds of questions a story gets after it's told. O'Brien tells the story of Rat Kiley's reaction to Curt Lemon's death as an example, as well as Mitchell Sanders' story about a platoon of soldiers that started having auditory hallucinations. When O'Brien tells the story of Lemon's death, usually an older woman will say it's too sad, and O'Brien resolves he has to keep telling the stories and adding to them to make them truer.
"The Dentist:" Curt Lemon, a soldier that Tim O'Brien didn't particularly because of his hyper-macho personae, is eulogized in a quick story. Lemon enjoyed combat and was known for his dangerous antics, but he was terrified of the Army dentist that all of the soldiers had to see. When the dentist touched him, Lemon fainted. When he came to, he spent the rest of the day in a stupor, cursing himself. In the night, Lemon woke the dentist and forced him to pull out a perfectly healthy tooth.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong:" O'Brien tells a story that Rat Kiley told him from when he was stationed in an isolated area. There was so little action there that one soldier, Mark Fossie, snuck his girlfriend Mary Anne Bell in by helicopter. Things don't go as Fossie planned, though, because Bell becomes infatuated with the war, leaves Fossie, and joins the Green Berets in battle.
"Stockings:" Henry Dobbins, a loveable, gentle-giant, had a peculiar ritual of wrapping his girlfriend's stockings around his neck before dangerous missions. At first Dobbins was made fun of, but then the platoon started to believe in the power of the stockings because Dobbins was never hurt in battle, even when he was standing in open fire and stepped on a mine that didn't go off. When Dobbins' girlfriend breaks up with him, he still wears the stockings and says the magic didn't leave.
"Church:" The platoon uses a pagoda where two monks live as an operations base for a week. The two monks like the soldiers, but they particularly love Henry Dobbins. Dobbins tells Kiowa he might become a monk after the war, but confesses he could never be a minister because he can't answer the hard questions about life and death. Kiowa, who always carries the New Testament, doesn't feel that it's right that they're using a church as a base. Dobbins agrees.
"The Man I Killed:" The story goes back and forth between O'Brien's memories of the corpse of the young, armed man he threw a grenade at on a path outside of My Khe and the invented history O'Brien has created of the dead man as a mathematician, scholar, and terrified soldier. Kiowa keeps insisting that O'Brien quit staring at the body and talk to him.
"Ambush:" O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen, asks him if he's ever killed anyone. He lies and says he hasn't, but then addresses the story to an adult Kathleen and promises to give the truth. He recalls the image of the young man outside of My Khe and how the memory haunts him still, but in his memories the young man keeps walking down the path and survives.
"Style:" A young Vietnamese girl dances in the charred remains of her village. Azar keeps asking why she is dancing. From where her house was, the soldiers find the corpses of the girl's family. She continues to dance. Later, when the soldiers have left the village, Azar dances like the girl in a mocking way. Henry Dobbins picks up Azar and holds him over a well, threatening to drop him if he won't stop and "dance right."
"Speaking of Courage:" Follows Norman Bowker at home after he returns from the war to the Unites States on the Fourth of July. Bowker drives repeatedly around a lake in his hometown, reminiscing about the night Kiowa died. He remembers seeing Kiowa's boot and trying to pull but Kiowa was too stuck so Bowker fled. Bowker has convinced himself he would have won the Silver Star if he had pulled Kiowa out, and that Kiowa would still be alive. Bowker feels like he has no one to talk to, and imagines telling his father that he was a coward. He imagines his father consoling him with the many medals he did win. Bowker wades into the lake and watches the fireworks.
"Notes:" A post-script for the story "Speaking of Courage." O'Brien tells the background of how "Speaking of Courage," came to be when Norman Bowker sent him a seventeen page letter, ultimately asking him to write a story about a man like him who feels he died after the war. O'Brien feels guilty and compelled to oblige, and writes a version of "Speaking of Courage" that he publishes, sends to Bowker, but is not truly proud of. Bowker doesn't react well to the story because it was doctored to fit into O'Brien's novel and lacks the truth of what happened to Kiowa in Vietnam. O'Brien hopes the story will speak to his failure to protect Kiowa and to Bowker's courage.
"In the Field:" Chronicles the search to find Kiowa buried under the muck after enemy mortar rounds killed him. The story is split between Lieutenant Jimmy Cross' guilt fueling his conviction to write Kiowa's father a letter, the young soldier (O'Brien) who feels he killed Kiowa by turning on his flashlight in the dark to show him a picture of his girlfriend, and the men of the platoon who eventually pull Kiowa out.
"Good Form:" O'Brien toys with the function of Truth in storytelling, and how there are different kinds of truth in a story, particularly a war story. There is story-truth and happening-truth. He claims he wouldn't be lying if he said he killed the young man outside of My Khe but he also wouldn't be lying if he claimed he did not kill him.
"Field Trip:" O'Brien takes his ten-year-old daughter Kathleen with him to Vietnam. With a translator, they visit the field where Kiowa died. The field looks different than O'Brien remembers. He wades out into the water and buries the pair of Kiowa's moccasins where he believes Kiowa's rucksack was found. His daughter Kathleen asks about the old farmer staring at O'Brien and thinks he looks angry, but O'Brien says that's all over.
"The Ghost Soldiers:" O'Brien recalls the two bullets he caught in Vietnam. Rat Kiley immediately treated the first bullet, while the second nearly killed him because the new medic, Bobby Jorgenson, was in shock while the platoon was under fire. O'Brien wants revenge on Jorgenson, but only Azar will help him try to scare the medic. They try to terrify Jorgensen one night by pretending to be the enemy, but Jorgenson doesn't scare and O'Brien is forced to let go of his grudge when they agree they're even.
"Night Life:" A second-hand account of how Rat Kiley shot his own foot to get out of the line of duty. The platoon had heard rumors of an imminent enemy attack, and only operated by walking at night. Everyone was affected, but Rat Kiley started to lose it. After he shot his foot, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross told the chopper that carried him away it had been an accident.
"The Lives of the Dead:" O'Brien compares his Vietnam wartime experiences with the death of his childhood sweetheart, Linda, who died of a brain tumor when she was nine. Hers was the first dead body O'Brien ever saw. He says that stories keep their subjects alive, and in this way Linda can live forever.
Mortality and Death
The threat, even expectation, of death hangs over all of the soldiers in “The Things They Carried.” Even before he reaches Vietnam, Tim O'Brien (both the author of the collection and the frequent first person narrator) meditates on the inevitability of his death after he is drafted in "On The Rainy River," and considers dodging the draft and fleeing to Canada. The collection is haunted by the deaths of O'Brien's comrades—Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and Kiowa. The thoughts of the soldiers and the narrative itself circle around and around these soldiers’ deaths, trying and failing over and over to process and understand what happened, and showing how the deaths impact the thoughts and actions of the soldiers who remain both during and after the war.
The Things They Carried depicts death during the Vietnam War as being completely arbitrary, with the difference between those who survive and those who die being nothing more than luck. Death can come at any time, from any direction, and no manner of precaution (in Ted Lavender's case, it was always carrying an extra magazine of ammo on his gun) and no amount of faith (Kiowa carried the New Testament in his backpack) could keep a man alive. Death came as a random bullet for Lavender, a hidden trap for Lemon, and unexpected mortar fire for Kiowa. The soldiers, unable to either predict when death might come or protect themselves against it, come to anticipate dying at any moment, at every moment, to the point that it drives some of them mad, such as Rat Kiley. From brushes with death (O'Brien being shot twice, nearly dying the second time), the value of life—of still being alive after battle—becomes majestically amplified.
In “The Things They Carried,” O'Brien often focuses on how the men in his stories, even if they volunteered to fight, joined the army because of the unspoken pressure to fulfill their obligations as citizens and soldiers. These social obligations range from that of wider society (government, city/town) and narrows to the nuclear (family, friends, personal reflection). After being drafted in "On the Rainy River," Tim O'Brien runs from his hometown and ends up spending six days with a reticent old stranger, Elroy Berdahl, who takes O'Brien fishing so close to the Canadian border that he could have jumped out of the boat and escaped into Canada.
O'Brien returns home, though, because he cannot bear to think of the town grumbling about his cowardice for not fulfilling his duty, nor can he handle the thought of his family believing him to be a coward. He admits that he goes to the war to avoid the embarrassment that would have resulted from thwarting this legal and social obligation. Similarly, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "In The Field" never wanted to be a commander, and only joined the reserves because his friends at college were doing it. Ultimately, O'Brien depicts how his characters did what was expected of them as men and as citizens, but how in reality they are all still so young, are still boys—just kids at war.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this theme of social obligation occurs in "Speaking of Courage," which tells the story of Norman Bowker after the war. Like the other soldiers, Bowker joined the war out of feelings of an obligation to society, and then, once in the war, he felt the pressure from popular culture (the heroism on display in movies and TV) to impress his father and his town with medals and honors. And he succeeded, receiving seven medals, nearly every medal other than the highest, the Silver Star for Valor—though the constant emphasis is that he could easily have been awarded that too. When he returns home, though, there is little fanfare, and Bowker becomes haunted by the one medal (the Silver Star) that he failed to receive. In addition, he finds that in accepting the social obligation to fight in the war he has been so changed that he is incapable of meeting the social obligations of being a citizen: holding down a job, maintaining relationships, etc. The war mandated patriotic obligation, an obligation to make one's family proud, but by the time the soldiers returned home, many discovered they could no longer operate within the norms of the society they had been charged to protect.
Within the stories in “The Things They Carried” the characters tell many stories to each other, and the question always asked of the storyteller is "What's the moral?" In "How to Tell a True War Story," Mitchell Sanders tells O'Brien about a company who has to lie dormant and watchful in the pitch-blackness over a village. They begin to have auditory hallucinations: champagne glasses clinking, music playing, and a full chamber orchestra. They aren't supposed to call in an airstrike unless they are under attack but they can no longer bear the sounds and they call in the attack and watch the city burn. Yet even after there's just scorched earth, they all can still hear the music. Sanders keeps trying to tease out a moral, and O'Brien ultimately points out that the moral never amounts to much more than a perfunctory "Oh."
Ultimately, “The Things They Carried” suggests that, in war, the conventions of good and evil in civilized society fall by the wayside. After Rat Kiley loses his best friend, Curt Lemon, to a booby trap he tortures a baby water buffalo as everyone else looks on. No one tries to stop it. Mitchell Sanders says that in Vietnam there are new sins created that have never existed before. War re-defines morality, it changes the definition. Even the purpose of being there is lost on the soldiers when they are down in their foxholes. When O'Brien eventually returns with his daughter to Vietnam in "Field Trip" and she asks why there was a war, O'Brien says it's because "some people wanted one thing, other people wanted another thing," and all he wanted was to stay alive. “The Things They Carried” challenges the reader to think about whether or not truth exists, whether or not there is such a thing as right v. wrong, and finally whether the idea of morality is flexible based on the context (in this case, in the fields of Vietnam).
Storytelling and Memory
Storytelling in “The Things They Carried” operates on multiple levels: at the level of the book itself, the stories within stories, and the reflections on the value of these stories both in the context of the war and then post-war. "The Lives of the Dead" speaks to O'Brien's belief that stories have the power to give an entire life to those who have passed on. He refers to his childhood love Linda who passed away from a brain tumor when they were nine, and how he spent his nights inventing stories and false futures to ease his grief. O'Brien does the same thing with the man that he killed with a grenade in "The Man I Killed," which is not a story about the act of killing as much as it is inventing a past and future for the unnamed, skinny man who perished at O'Brien's hands.
The collection further explores the very role and purpose of "war stories," and how they can be told "correctly" and how to tell whether or not one is "true." There is a rhythm to war stories; there is a level of detail to be expected. O'Brien establishes rules for telling war stories, which presents a poignant irony given the fact that war exists in a space that largely lacks rules. The role of these war stories during the war was to keep the soldiers' minds off of their obligations, off of death, and after the war to give words to experiences that are unspeakable—that do not make sense to people that were not there. A war story provides an account that speaks to the bond of the men who fought and died together, while recognizing that the greatest truth of a war story is the visceral feeling it fosters in the listener/reader. O'Brien's collection argues that "stories," due to their complexity, their amorality, and their ability to give a voice to the voiceless, are the most authentic medium to accurately communicate wartime experiences—factual or not.
Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are constant and often inextricable themes in “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers felt obligated to go to war for fear of embarrassing themselves, their families, and their towns if they fled. This embarrassment is bolstered by the guilt of not being "masculine" enough—not being brave, heroic, and patriotic enough. O'Brien reflects on how he thought he had a secret reserve of bravery and heroism stored away, waiting for the moment when he would be called to war—if that day ever came—in the story "On The Rainy River," and how in reality no such reserve existed.
The feelings of shame and guilt follow the soldiers into the war as well, and make them do irrational and crazy things. In "The Dentist," Curt Lemon faints when an army dentist treats him, much to his own shame. To prove to the men in his Company, as well as to himself, that he's man enough and brave enough to see the dentist (and, by extension, fight in the war) he goes to the dentist's tent in the middle of the night and demands that he pull out some of Lemon's perfectly healthy teeth. Survivor's guilt haunts many of O'Brien's friends, as well as O'Brien himself. Norman Bowker can't shake the shame of not winning The Silver Star of Valor because he thinks that he would have won it if he had not failed to save Kiowa's in "Speaking of Courage." Shame and guilt follow Bowker with such intensity that he eventually hangs himself.
In "In the Field," it's revealed that O'Brien is shaken by a similar shame and guilt over Kiowa, believing that he's the one that was actually responsible for Kiowa's death. Meanwhile, the other soldiers in the company blame Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "In the Field" for stationing them in such a vulnerable position. Even Cross wavers between blaming himself (he first wants to write a letter to Kiowa's father commending how great of a soldier his son was) and blaming the cruelty of war (resolving not to write the letter). The war created impossible situations where death was inevitable, but that didn't stop those who survived from blaming themselves for the deaths of their friends—maybe if they'd just been a little braver, a little faster, a little smarter, they could have done something to save their comrade, and so they can't ever escape the guilt.
The solders even feel guilty about the deaths of the enemy. In "The Man I Killed" O'Brien throws a grenade into the path of an anonymous young man, killing him, and then tries to "un-kill" him by creating a history and future for the man—O'Brien, after seeing his own friends die, can't help but understand that the man he killed is just that, a man, just like O'Brien himself. Every story in The Things They Carried is riddled with feelings of shame and guilt. It is a feeling that no soldier in the collection, and as O'Brien insinuates, no soldier in Vietnam, was able to escape.
The Man O'Brien Killed
The young man that Tim O'Brien killed on a trail outside of My Khe is a recurring symbol throughout The Things They Carried, as O'Brien struggles to deal with being responsible for the death of another human being. The young man becomes a symbol of the meaninglessness of the categories of enemy or ally after death has taken you, as well as a symbol of O'Brien as a dead soldier. O'Brien consistently draws parallels between the young, dead man and himself—though the parallels are all conjecture. O'Brien speculates that the man was a scholar who disagreed with the war, but only fought to make his family and town proud—which is a fairly good description of O'Brien.
The Old Farmer
The old farmer is featured in the story "Field Trip," and symbolizes the mostly-buried hatchet between the Vietnamese people and the Americans. Tim O'Brien assures his daughter, Kathleen, that the man is not angry at him—that all of "that is finished." But the old farmer and O'Brien share a long stare at one another, where O'Brien half-expects the old farmer will come over and start talking about the war. When he goes back to work, directly trying to improve the land, this symbolizes a desire and a need to move on from the memory of the war and the devastation it had on the old farmer's country.
The Dancing Girl
The dancing girl is featured only in the story "Style," but serves as a poignant symbol for the chaos and meaninglessness of war. Azar is put-off by the fact that the girl keeps dancing, even though her family is dead and her village is burned to the ground—he can't find any meaning in it. This closely parallels Tim O'Brien's constant insistence that there is no moral to a war story: no right or wrong, no core point. The dancing girl is symbolic of this amorality and senselessness that pervades the soldier's feelings and actions throughout their time in Vietnam, as well as those who found difficulty finding any purpose in life after the war ended (e.g. Norman Bowker).
Tim O'Brien – The author and frequent protagonist of “The Things They Carried”. The collection serves as an account of his and his squad mates’ experiences as a soldier before, during, and after the Vietnam War.
Kiowa –Tim O'Brien's best friend in the war. Kiowa is Native American, and known for carrying around a copy of the New Testament with him in his rucksack. He dies under heavy mortar fire and is buried under what the platoon calls a "shit field."
Mitchell Sanders – Known for telling stories throughout the war. He believes there's a correct way to tell war stories, but often insists there is no meaning to them whatsoever.
Elroy Berdahl – The man that Tim O'Brien considers to be his "life hero." Berdahl takes O'Brien in after O'Brien attempts to dodge the draft and head for Canada. O'Brien stays with Berdahl for a week at The Tip Top Lodge, where Berdahl offers him money and the opportunity to flee while they're out on a boat ride.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross – The Lieutenant of the Alpha Company. He never wanted to go to war, nor did he want to have to lead men. Instead he's preoccupied with how much he's in love with a girl named Martha from home. This infatuation lasts long after the war, though they never get together.
Martha – The love interest of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They went on a single date in college. She sent him letters in the war and a pebble for good luck. After Vietnam, they see each other again at a college reunion. She never marries and spends her time during and after the war abroad, working as a nurse.
Norman Bowker – Awarded seven medals in the war. He returns from Vietnam tortured with guilt about the death of Kiowa and feels responsible. He hides this guilt under the regret that he didn't win the Silver Star. He asks O'Brien to write a story about how great of a soldier he was. He hangs himself in his hometown YMCA after the war.
Bob "Rat" Kiley – The medic of Alpha Company. He is well respected for his ability to treat wounded men incredibly well under pressure. He eventually loses his composure in the war, and intentionally shoots off his own toe so that he must be forced out of combat.
Henry Dobbins – A simple man. He admits to not being that smart, and relies on a pair of stockings that belonged to his girlfriend to keep him safe in combat. He ritualistically wraps them around his neck before dangerous missions, and manages to leave the war without a scratch.
Dave Jensen – A soldier who becomes so plagued with guilt and fear of retribution after he breaks Lee Strunk's nose during an argument, that Jensen breaks his own nose. Strunk and Jensen become friends and make a pact to kill off the other if they become wheelchair bound. When Strunk dies after losing a leg, Jensen is relieved to not have to follow through.
Ted Lavender – The first to die in Alpha Company. He took lots of tranquilizers to quell his constant terror over being at war, and carried extra ammunition. He was shot in the head while returning from a pee break.
Lee Strunk – Accuses Dave Jensen of being crazy for breaking his own nose to make them "square" after Jensen shattered Strunk's nose. Becomes close with Jensen soon after and signs a pact that promises one will kill the other if either of them is wounded enough in battle that they are wheelchair bound. Strunk dies in a medic chopper after most of his right leg is blown off. Before leaving, he begs Jensen not to kill him.
Azar – An often ruthless and unlikeable member of the Alpha Company who enjoys wreaking havoc. He blows up Ted Lavender's puppy. Azar helps pull Kiowa's body out of the muck.
Kathleen – Tim O'Brien's daughter. She constantly questions why her father insists on writing so many war stories. She joins him on a trip to Vietnam where they revisit the fields where Kiowa died.
Curt Lemon – Known for hyper-masculine behavior and dangerous antics. He enjoys combat but is terrified of dentists. When the Army dentist touches him, he faints. Later he demands the dentist pull out a healthy tooth. Lemon dies after stepping on a rigged mortar round.
Mark Fossie – A medic who was once stationed with Rat Kiley. He sneaks his girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, into his post in Vietnam.
Mary Anne Bell – The former girlfriend of Mark Fossie. She arrives in Vietnam wide-eyed and innocent, but transforms from a spectator to a fighter. Fossie is devastated by her abandonment when she chooses the war over him.
Eddie Diamond – Fossie's superior at the post. The first to jokingly suggest that the area is so peaceful a girl could be snuck in. Fossie takes the joke seriously and sneaks in his then-girlfriend Mary Anne Bell.
The Greenies (6 Green Berets) – The men that Mary Anne Bell disappear with to be a part of the combat.
Sally Kramer/Gustafson – Norman Bowker's former girlfriend, who is married when he returns from the war.
Max Arnold – Norman Bowker's childhood friend.
Billie – O'Brien's girlfriend in the picture that he was showing Kiowa right before Kiowa died.
Bobby Jorgenson – The replacement medic for Rat Kiley. He is so scared of combat that he screws up the treatment when O'Brien is shot for the second time, and O'Brien nearly dies for it.
Morty Phillips – The one who everyone says used up his luck after he disappeared for a day to go swimming in a river where the territory was hostile. He survives the swim, but because he drank some of the polluted river water he gets incredibly sick and dies.
Linda –O'Brien's sweetheart as a child. She dies of a brain tumor when she's nine years old.
Nick Veenhof – A boy who mocks Linda's cap in the classroom and rips it off—revealing the stitches in her head. From this, O'Brien learns that Linda has a brain tumor.
LZ Gator – An American soldier who got into a fight with two of his comrades, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen, over a jackknife in the story "Enemies."