It is 1967 and seventeen-year-old Richie Perry, a black high school graduate from Harlem, joins the army. He has few other choices: though he is very intelligent, his single mother, abandoned by her husband years ago, cannot afford to send him to college. Rather than remain in the slums of Harlem, Richie enlists in the army amid rumors of impending peace—he thinks that the Vietnam War will end before he even has to fire a gun. While in basic training, he injures his knee playing basketball, earning him a medical profile that should keep him out of combat. However, due to a paperwork mishap, Richie’s file is not properly processed, and he is sent to Vietnam anyway. His captain assures him that the file will soon be processed and that he will be sent home without ever seeing actual combat.
On the trip over, Richie befriends Judy Duncan, an army nurse, and Harold Gates, a cocky young black soldier from Chicago whom his friends call Peewee. The plane stops overnight in Osaka, Japan, and due to another bureaucratic mishap, the soldiers are forced to pay for their own dinners and sleep on benches in the airport. Richie feels unease at these signs of what he sees as the army’s general incompetence. He buys a souvenir for his younger brother, Kenny. When he finally arrives in Vietnam, Richie is separated from Judy Duncan, but is assigned to the same barracks as Peewee. Though the sound of artillery in the distance makes him anxious, Richie is somewhat comforted by the fact that the camp in Vietnam looks exactly like his basic-training facility back in Massachusetts.
All the other guys in the neighborhood thought I was going to college. I wasn’t, and the army was the place I was going to get away from all the questions.
Lying in bed, Richie reflects that he joined the army in part to earn money to send home to Kenny, and in part to avoid tough questions about his impossible dreams for the future. Over breakfast the next morning, Peewee tells Richie that he likes the army because for the first time in his life he has exactly what everyone else has—the same clothing, shoes, food, and so on. A large African-American soldier named Rings approaches Richie and Peewee and asks them to cut their skin so that they can all become blood brothers. He explains that they need to stick together as fellow blacks. When Richie and Peewee refuse to do as Rings asks, he calls them Uncle Toms.
Later in the day, Peewee and Richie speak with an experienced soldier who further confirms the rumor of a coming truce. Richie writes a letter to Kenny, telling him that the war is going to end very soon. After killing time at the base for ten days, Richie, Peewee, and a terrified young man named Jenkins are finally assigned to a camp near Chu Lai. On the truck headed for their new squad, Peewee says he is not afraid, but Richie can tell that Peewee is just as frightened as he is. Jenkins begins crying, which calms Richie, who feels braver by comparison.
Once they arrive at the base near Chu Lai, the boys meet Johnson, an extraordinarily strong black soldier from Savannah, Georgia. Johnson takes offense when Peewee mocks Georgia, and there is tension in their relationship from the start. Jenkins reveals that he is in the army only because his father, a colonel, wants him to begin a military career. He confesses to Richie that he is convinced he is going to die, but Richie assures him that most soldiers never fire their guns.
The four soldiers finally arrive at their new base. The commanding officer tells Richie that his medical file has not yet arrived. Richie tries to write a letter home but cannot find the right words. That night, Richie, Peewee, and Jenkins go on night patrol with their squad. Simpson, the squad sergeant, warns the new soldiers not to get him killed because of their inexperience, as he is just four months away from completing his tour of duty. The patrol is more terrifying than Richie had ever expected, but goes smoothly until the very end. Just as they are reentering their camp, Jenkins steps on a land mine, and is killed instantly.