The narrator is a fictional character based on author Tim O'Brien. When he is drafted, the narrator feels fearful and unprepared; during his deployment, he participates in and witnesses acts of violence and courage, loyalty and suspicion. In the years after the war, the narrator grapples with these experiences and shares his reflections. The narrator tells some stories from his perspective and others from a third-person perspective that sometimes tends toward omniscience and at other times is focalized in another soldier's perspective. In this way the narrator presents more than a single view of the experience of war.
Among the things that Norman Bowker carries in Vietnam is his diary. A thoughtful man, Norman offers a cautionary example of what happens when stories go untold. He keeps his stories to himself, though he needs to tell them, a choice that isolates him from sympathetic listeners. It falls to the narrator to reveal how deeply Norman understood the courage required to cope with the "routine, daily stuff—just humping, just enduring."
Jimmy Cross is a college graduate thrust into the role of platoon leader. Thoughtful and imaginative, he takes his responsibilities to the platoon seriously and regrets every loss, searching himself for faults. Jimmy is not a perfect leader, as he himself admits and as the stories that involve him show. Yet his loyal care of the soldiers motivates him to sacrifice his own needs and desires so that he can better protect them and even bear their emotional burdens when possible.
Henry Dobbins is the platoon's machine gunner; his size and strength allow him to manage the 23-pound gun and 15 pounds of ammo in addition to his other gear. Superstitious like many soldiers, he wraps his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck for protection during combat. Henry is a gentle man who believes in "simplicity and directness and hard labor." Even though he is not religious, he considers becoming a minister so he can live peacefully and serve others.
Bob "Rat" Kiley is a storyteller whose wit can lighten troubled moments. But he's also a deeply emotional man who brutally takes out his anger over Curt Lemon's death on an animal and who eventually sees so many broken bodies that he can no longer function as Alpha Company's medic. The men's reaction when Rat shoots himself in the foot shows their affection for him: Jimmy Cross is willing to "vouch" that the wound was accidental, and the soldiers send Rat off with good wishes and small gifts.
Kiowa is a devout Baptist who loves life in its small details; he sleeps with a New Testament under his cheek, taking comfort in the aroma of "leather and ink and paper and glue." Kind and patient, Kiowa serves as a mentor to the narrator in particular. Kiowa's death in the field of waste deals a traumatic blow to Alpha Company and becomes emblematic of the waste of lives in war.
Mitchell Sanders is central to many stories in The Things They Carried. Alpha Company's radio/telephone operator, Mitchell is strong enough to carry the 26-pound battery with his other gear, perceptive enough to know when fellow soldiers need support, and honest enough to call out uncooperative behavior. Mitchell tells stories and comments on events, seeking "the moral" that every situation has to tell. "There it is," he says when he identifies the lesson. Mitchell serves as a wise voice amid the chaos of combat.