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March 11, 2007

Getting to a stateside military hospital like Walter Reed from a distant battleground can be a gamble. First you have to survive the trip to a field hospital. In Vietnam, the Army way of doing things could make that a bizarre experience.

General Ulysses S. Grant would have felt at home at the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang—a tidy complex of olive drab tents plopped in a dusty field. Only this wasn’t 1863 and the American Civil War, but 1963. Our modern day Army deployed modern medicine, not harried surgeons sawing off mangled arms and legs on makeshift tables. We had helicopters and airplanes to whisk the wounded from battlefields, not lumbering farm wagons. Instead of volunteer civilians tending the wounded, we had—me.

When I least expected it, with no training beyond the Boy Scout first aid merit badge, I was pressed into service as a medic. In the blink of the eye, I was expected to transform from a greenhorn buck private to a savior of a badly injured soldier on a stretcher. Transferred from a helicopter to one of our bush-pilot planes, the casualty was a Special Forces sergeant with more years in the military than I had been out of diapers. Now I was in charge of figuring out how to keep him from going into shock or freezing to death as the plane climbed from tropical heat to the chill air at cruising altitude. All I had to cover him with was my flight jacket. All I had to give him to ease the pain was my garbled banter over the airplane engine’s rivet-rattling roar.


The helicopter came flapping in
from the south, flared...
hit the tarmac
and four of us ducked
under the chopper blades,
grabbed the stretcher
and ran hard across thirty yards
of broiling afternoon
to a waiting bush plane,
the crew chief and I jumping in
and tying the stretcher down
as the Otter swung,
roared onto the runway
and popped into the sky.

Emergency medical run
from a distant airfield to Nha Trang
with a casualty brought by chopper
from somewhere in the Delta:
a Special Forces master sergeant
strapped in the stretcher
on the metal floor.

“Hit the only damn thing...
sticking up for miles,”
he rasps over the engine roar,
drawing me face to face to hear.

“Smacked right into a pagoda.
Broke about every bone I got.”
The leathery old paratrooper
snares me eye-to-eye and winks,
as though we’re old buddies
sharing Asia’s absurdities.

“How long’s this lift, Mac?”
he asks in a sandpaper rasp.
Hazel eyes lock mine in a
searching, scorching embrace,
a bronze mask of agony on his face.

The chopper had flown
a ways to link up with us.
We’re four hours out still
from our field hospital.
I don’t know what to do
to make it easier to endure
except throw a thumbs-up sign
with a dumb, Gunga-din grin.

Conditions were not all that much better at the field hospital. Soldiers were expected to carry pain around like another piece of gear. Sometime after this incident, I broke a collarbone in a crash on a motorbike one night while bar-hopping. I tramped to the emergency room tent in great pain about midnight and was told to go back to my unit and report to sick call formation in the morning. It was a long, sleepless night. The treatment choices I was given the next day for the broken collarbone were surgery or a body cast with the arm propped out at angle. I chose the cast, which did nothing to ease the pain, and wore it in tropical heat and humidity for six weeks.

I don’t remember what happened to the Special Forces sergeant. Like others who were badly injured, he was probably put on another, larger airplane and flown to a military hospital in the Philippines. Hundreds of miles away, in the Mekong Delta his parachute was likely still tangled up in the peaked roof of a pagoda.

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