However, a mixture of inertia and resigned indifference had carried him to the recruiting office to report for duty instead. It just seemed to him that it would be easier to go for that Nobel Prize if he weren't a fugitive.
All he had to do was survive. So far, so good. He'd made it 1/6th of the way. Just ten more months to go. Hopefully they'd be ten months of patrols like this one, he thought. Long, uneventful walks along nameless dirt roads looking for weapons or bunkers or ammunition stashes or any other signs of Viet Cong in the area. All while trying not to get lost.
Not that this current patrol was lost, of course. Certainly not. They were just on an unmarked path that didn't quite match the platoon leader's map for the time being.
Howard took a final drag from his cigarette and tossed it onto the ground, stomping out the smoking ember. He nudged the stub into a patch of tall grass with his toe and was about to bury it in the soft dirt when he noticed a curious shape amongst the blades of grass. It was a roundish metal nub, covered in rust and dirt, with some tiny wires protruding from the top.
In short, it was every soldier's worst nightmare.
"Sergeant," he shouted. "We got a Bouncing Betty!"
"Shit! It's a minefield," shouted the sergeant. "Everybody freeze!"
This command had been largely gratuitous. The entire patrol had frozen like living statues the moment Howard had uttered the words "Bouncing Betty." Howard had learned about them in basic training.
The Schrapnellmine was an old weapon, a very crude leftover from the Second World War that had found a new life in this new war. It was an especially cruel anti-personnel weapon. It contained two charges: one to launch the mine off the ground to approximately chest height, and a second to launch a lethal dose of shrapnel into anyone in the vicinity.
"Everybody turn around, slowly," said the sergeant, "and retrace your steps. Let's take it real slow and we'll get out of this alive."
Howard scoured the ground looking for his previous footstep - there were a number of bootprints in the ground in front of him. He slowly put his right foot down in the middle of the one that looked like his, breathing a sigh of relief as he put his weight down and didn't explode. He then began looking for his next step.