Leaves rustled, and Robby Gouge, sweating in his jungle boots and Army fatigues, clutched his semiautomatic rifle tighter. He walked slightly crouched and listened intently, just as he thought his father might have done.
The 30-year-old son had come to the oak forests of central Virginia to relive his old man's war in Vietnam.
Walking behind Gouge on this hazy summer morning were a dozen men, toting gear culled from military surplus stores. Another team had fanned across the other side of the woods. A few men and women, dressed in the black pajamas of enemy fighters, waited in ambush.
Most war reenactments are staged to make history come alive for generations who know it only dimly from books. Vietnam, though, isn't quite history. To many people, it's a painfully current event.
Presidential candidates still have to explain what they did during the war, and every military action since 1975, including the conflict in Iraq, risks being compared to the failures there. Even those who stage battles from other wars question whether it is too soon to reenact Vietnam.
Most of the men and women at the Virginia event were in their thirties and forties -- too young to have experienced the action firsthand but too old to escape the war's grip. Their fathers served in Vietnam, like Gouge's, or they grew up watching it on the news.
As the 90-degree heat and his 50-pound rucksack weighed on him, Gouge conceded that spending a few weekends a summer pretending to be a U.S. soldier in the jungles was crazy. He missed his wife and two kids and wondered why he wasn't at home enjoying the air conditioning.
But this feeling of misery was what he was after. Too much war talk is wrapped up in theory and politics.
"It gives a mental picture of what our dads did," said Gouge, who teaches history at a middle school in Asheville, N.C. "I was blessed. I never had to really do this."
Road to the Past
To get to Vietnam, follow Interstate 64 to Louisa, Va., where signs point out Civil War sites. In 1864, field hospitals were set up around town as more than 1,600 men were killed or wounded when Union forces tried to shut down the Virginia Central Railroad.
Past the fast-food joints that make up the business district, the paved roads turn into gravel lanes and, finally, into dirt. Signs show the way: "To the Nam," "Phou Bai -- 2 km."
By midafternoon Friday of a reenactment weekend, a clearing on 50 acres of private property was filled with tents and cots. Water in plastic jugs was transferred to green military containers. Participants carried their ammunition in plastic bags, making it easier for others to check that they were blanks.
The communists hung their hammocks a half-mile away, past several scorched acres of forestland leveled after a neighbor sold the timber. The burned stumps added a nice touch. "Looks like it's been napalmed," one guy said.
Gouge began unpacking his gear, including replicas of his father's dog tags and patches from other veterans. His reenactment unit is named in honor of the Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the one his father served in, the one Gouge has written two books about.
"A lot of the [veterans] that I know, their own kids don't really care or don't take the time to talk to them about this," said Gouge, who sported a military buzz cut for the weekend. "I guess I'm the person for that."
On this weekend, about 20 people from North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia were doing "impressions" of Americans who fought in Vietnam. Several have military experience, including one Gulf War veteran. There are police officers, firefighters, a sheriff's deputy and a district attorney. A pediatric therapist came to play medic along with his wife. One man, a chemist, cooked meals in an antique field kitchen.
This is a fledgling endeavor, with the first units starting about five years ago. Several hundred people reenact the Vietnam War, with about a dozen units listed on the Internet. Their events generally are private affairs, and some participants say they're reluctant to tell too many outsiders for fear of stirring up the war's raw emotions.
In contrast, many Civil War reenactments are public; Gettysburg draws as many as 20,000 participants and spectators.
Most at the Virginia event know one another from other historical gatherings, chiefly for the Civil War and World War II. About four years ago, they started doing Vietnam.
They don't concern themselves with the politics of the war that still divides the United States 30 years after Saigon fell. They come as history buffs.
To them, this is a hobby, like golf or collecting model trains, but more educational. What some of them don't understand are "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fans. If they're going to dress up, one reenactor asked, why not pick a real time period?
"People, they're so weird," Patrick Hubble said. "Unlike us."
Hubble, an affable mortician and former Navy sailor from Lynchburg, Va., plays a North Vietnamese soldier because he figures somebody has to do it. This time, he was leading a band of six enemy fighters. It's always hard to find people to be the bad guys, so the U.S. soldiers say that the enemy is so elusive that most are hidden in the forest.
Hubble, who gave his age as "born in 1968, year of the Tet Offensive," is always on the lookout for new recruits. Several times, he visited a Vietnamese-owned grocery store to ask if he could borrow the family's elder sons for a weekend. He showed them photos of himself dressed up as a communist.
Hubble said the family always told him their sons were busy. This remark would be followed by laughter and chatter in Vietnamese. "They were probably thinking, 'What a weirdo,' " Hubble said. "But I just wanted things to be more authentic."
The enemy ranks included his only child, Meagan, a quiet 15-year-old who said she considered this quality time with her dad, and a University of Delaware history major who was as interested in Vietnamese culture as in the war.
The newest recruit was Caitlin Parker, a soft-spoken New Yorker.
Parker started looking into reenacting after she heard someone making fun of the participants. She was offended. Her father, whom she described as a sensitive intellectual, served in Vietnam as a Marine. He mentions the war occasionally, but she has never probed further, assuming the subject was taboo.
"This is kind of a way to understand him better," said Parker, 29, a producer for an audiobook company. "Maybe this will open up a conversation."
Hubble, the first person to e-mail her back, was so encouraging and empathetic that Parker decided to come for a weekend with her boyfriend, David Markowitz. They would be Viet Cong recruits to beef up the enemy forces.
The pair were among the last to arrive, driving up in a cranberry Subaru wagon, their hammocks stuffed in a Whole Foods Market grocery bag. On the way down, they worried about whether they would fit in. Neither had ever fired a gun.
In the Heat of Battle
Loud booms echoed out of the trees. Vietnamese fighters took aim at two men from Gouge's squad; the Americans fell to the ground. Gouge flopped onto his belly, firing back.
It was the second day of reenactment weekend, and Parker, crouching behind a pile of sandbags, was still rattled from the previous night's fiery battle. She knew everyone was firing blanks, but she couldn't get over how real the scenario seemed. She wondered whether her father felt this way.
After a burst of gunfire, one of her comrades collapsed. Another popped up from behind the sandbags.
"You, you in the bunker!" Gouge shouted. "You're down."
Seconds later, the man resurfaced.
"You in the bunker, with your back to me," Gouge said, raising his voice. "You're out."
It was Hubble, and he yelled back that he knew he was dead: "I've been out for the last 10 minutes!"
The reenactors try to recapture the war's fear and danger, but the biggest risk is turning the war into a game or parody. Because they rely on the honor code to determine "kills," sometimes there's a dispute over whether someone is dead. Battles often come to an abrupt end when people get tired or when weapons jam. The commanders carry walkie-talkies to tell one another where their teams are -- there's nothing worse than walking around and not finding an ambush.
Gouge admitted that it sometimes feels fun -- and he hates that. He wants to feel scared and somber. "You're remembering what they did," he said.
At his middle school, Gouge has only a few days to teach the Vietnam War at the end of the required state curriculum. At first, his students can't locate Vietnam on a map. It is as unknown to them as it was to Americans before the 1960s.
At home, Gouge keeps a "war room." Once crowded with Civil War memorabilia, the basement shelves are now filled with items that Vietnam veterans have given him: leftover C-rations, field manuals, pictures, radios and letters from home. A full dress uniform hangs in one corner.
His father lives next door, but when he visits, he avoids this room.
Jack Gouge was drafted in 1968 soon after getting married. For nine months, he drove a jeep, ferrying supplies to satellite support bases in the jungles. When he left Vietnam, he was so jumpy from memories of sniper fire, he avoided turning his back on anybody.
"When I came back, I tried to forget," said Gouge, 58, a retired phone company manager. "Can't recall it. Don't want to."
When his son wanted to join friends enlisting in the Army after high school, Gouge and his wife said no. They told him to go to college first.
They remain puzzled over his interest in the Vietnam War. Eloise Gouge wishes he had stuck with the Civil War. "Vietnam," she said, "we lived through that."
"I think he's gone too far," Jack Gouge said. Although he said he was proud to serve his country, he didn't attend reunions of his unit. He finally went to one only because his son, well known among the veterans because of his books, was asked to give a speech.
Maybe, he conceded, all this was good for his son: "It's history."
Looking the Part
The midmorning battle ended quickly. After 10 minutes, the popcorn gunfire from the Americans' semiautomatics didn't get an answer from the communist rifles.
"Well, I think it's time to resurrect," someone called out to a downed U.S. fighter.
Markowitz grumbled that he could have done more damage if his gun hadn't jammed. Parker turned out to be tougher than her delicate features suggested. She became an expert at loading her rifle. Sprawled on the ground as "dead," she looked relaxed and managed a laugh at her boyfriend's boasts.
Gouge also allowed himself a smile. He went to an enemy bunker to check on Hubble and his daughter.
"You guys all right?" Gouge asked. "You need water?"
The battles here end nice and neat. No hard feelings.
Besides, reenacting is about more than fighting. It's about the clothes.
From the moment they arrived, they were exchanging tips on their "impressions." Several talked about losing weight so they could fit into real Army fatigues rather than reproductions. They swapped and sold gear like boys trading baseball cards.
At communist headquarters, one guy gave Parker's feet a long stare.
"Are they actually PAVN boots?" asked Rob Williams, the Delaware student, using the abbreviation for the North Vietnamese army.
Williams motioned Hubble over: "They have the actual PAVN boots in her size."
Most reenactors, Williams explained, can't fit into the smaller Vietnamese sizes. They have to settle for the model worn by French soldiers during their war in Vietnam and later adapted by the North Vietnamese. "This is the French Indochina boot," Williams said, showing Parker his footwear.
Parker didn't know what to say. But her worries about feeling out of place were fading. The group's shock that she and her boyfriend had never handled guns quickly turned into gentle ribbing.
Being one of three women wasn't a big deal, either, as Parker had feared. It was authentic: Women fought with the Viet Cong.
The guys cursed and used racial slurs about the enemy, but a couple of them apologized later. Again, it's a "period" thing.
"They're just geeks," Parker said. "They're a lot less macho than I thought. It's kind of sweet."
For her, Vietnam often had been defined by stereotypes rather than reality. She knew the war traumatized her father. He once told her he couldn't bear to attend a welcome-home party thrown by his mother. Parker said she figured it was best not to bring it up.
Gerard Parker, a retired trade show coordinator in San Francisco, said he never consciously avoided discussing Vietnam. He just thought it was something his daughter didn't care about.
When she first told him about reenacting, he worried that the war would be trivialized. But he said he's glad Vietnam is finally being treated like other wars -- and that his daughter has taken an interest.
"In the 1970s, if you said you had been in Vietnam, people would stay away from you," the 65-year-old said. "Things have gotten a bit more realistic and balanced. With the passage of time, that divisiveness is fading into history."
At the reenactment site, there was a range of opinions about the politics of war, in both Vietnam and Iraq. But most conversation steered clear. "That's not what we're here for," Robby Gouge said.
Like real soldiers, they sat around and talked about life "back home," about job promotions and families. One guy showed off photos of his two little girls. Others took turns cradling a grenade launcher. "Great toy," someone said.
The cook fretted over dinner plans. The vintage oven wasn't working, so he had to use a modern gas grill. Reality often spoils a good reenactment.
By Saturday night, 24 hours of Vietnam had become enough. Period music, the Rolling Stones, blared through the woods. But it came from the CD player in a sports car.
Parker and Markowitz left early for the long drive back to New York. Parker said she got what she came for.
"I know these people aren't actually going to kill me, but I had this very strong fear out there," she said. "My father had to deal with it for real, and I just got a vague, vague, removed idea of it."
She intends to visit her father at the end of the summer and talk with him about the war.
Gouge skipped the evening battle because he wanted to go to bed early. He had called his wife earlier; the family was at the beach, and his 4-year-old son, Jackson, saw his first crab. Gouge couldn't wait to join them.
But his sacrifice had been worth it. "You've got to think, if you've got 365 days of this and it gets worse," he said. A taste of grunt life every summer "humbles your thinking."
On Sunday, the reenactors dismantled their tents and packed up Vietnam. Just the shell casings were left, glittering on the ground.