I’d like to call this first story “Beauty and the GI”
In the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Bien, the atmosphere was pretty easy going on the wards. The staff and the patients…i.e…usually wounded soldiers, bantered and joked around. Each day, the nursing staff would come by and do their bandage changings, listen to how the night went for the wounded soldier or just for a small visit. With an open hole in the side of my foot, each day during the bandage changing, they would pack that hole with antibiotic covered gauze thread. The idea was to keep the healing from the bottom of the hole upward, rather than have the wound heal over leaving an empty space inside the foot.
We loved all the nurses, no matter where or what they looked like, but there was one young nurse at the 24th that fit into the “so drop dead gorgeous, she took your breath away” category. We considered ourselves lucky if she was our daily nurse. One lucky day for me, she was my bandage changer. She unwrapped the bandage and started pulling out the gauze thread. She got to the end and the gauze was stuck…not a problem, the gauze got stuck in the wound nearly every day. So I told her just pull it loose, it will be fine. Only this time it wasn’t….she pulled it loose and Oh oh! Apparently, the end of the gauze was stuck to an artery because every time my heart beat, a little Old Faithful geyser of blood shot out the wound.
The pretty nurse slammed both hands over the hole in my foot and yelled for help. The blood was seeping up through her hands. The other nurse grabbed some towels and they put pressure on the wound with the towels. It didn’t work, the blood was everywhere around the bottom of the bed and all over the nurses. I was getting faint from both the situation and the loss of blood. A surgeon came running in with clamps, they pulled of the towels and he was able to clamp off the artery. He ordered a bag of blood to transfuse me then told me he was going to sew up the artery and use a local anesthetic. I was in no shape to argue.
He started with the anesthetic shots down inside the hole in my foot. To say having those shots down in the wound was painful would not do it justice. It was an excruciating dive into pure and utter agony, to say the least. I was yelling and holding on to the bar next to the bed; I ended up bending that bar. By this time, the pretty nurse was crying, but still doing her job assisting the surgeon. It didn’t take long for the artery to be fixed and pain to go away, but I was exhausted from the pain and the loss of blood.
The surgeon left after wrapping me up and making sure the transfusion was going alright. The pretty nurse stayed, sat on the bed next to me and cuddled me. After all that blood and craziness, I had entered into 21 year old GI heaven; being held by an incredibly beautiful American girl while in Vietnam. I don’t remember the young ladies’ name; if I ever really knew it, but her face is etched in my memory forever.
Story 2: The Arty guy in the next bed
One of the Facebook groups I belong to is a Vietnam Veteran only group. One of the fellows posted up a photo of a nurse on duty with a patient at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Bien in 1971; the time I was also a patient at the 24th for wounds received from a VC mortar. Actually the VC mortar label comes from my Army medical records; in reality, I am pretty sure it was an NVA mortar. But that aside, I was reminded of some of the experiences I had while in the 24th. I wasn’t there all that long, but these have really stuck with me over the years. Here is one of them…..
I arrived at the 24th with a raging case of gangrene in my leg from that mortar wound. In fact, the blood poisoning was tenfold more serious that the wound itself. As a result, it was a few days before I was in a position to even know where I was let alone talk with anyone. But when I did come around, I promptly made friends with the soldier in the next bed; always have been a friendly guy.
This soldier was an artillery guy on a firebase working with 155 Howitzers; the big ones. He was in the hospital and on the orthopedic unit for a bullet wound in his upper arm. Serious enough of a wound to have had some surgery on it. We talked about the normal stuff young men talked about in those days and at that age. After a couple of days, and after contemplating his wound, I started wonder how he had gotten shot with a rifle. Now before you old artillery guys start freaking out, I know arty guys got shot by bullets, but not near like the grunts. I seemed to me that the firebases were mortar and rocket magnets which means lots of shrapnel.
One day an officer, I assume from the hospital, came around the ward with couple other officers and nurses and presented us with our Purple Hearts. No big deal for me at that time, I was polite and accepted it just fine. The arty guy got his, he didn’t say a word just looked down; glanced at me a couple of times but just nodded his head in thanks. After they left, he was very quiet, so I asked him what was wrong. He said..”Can you keep a secret, I mean a real secret…”. I answered, “Sure, no problem”.
He started talking; it seems that he was the connection in the ville near the last firebase he served on. The Vietnamese guy from the ville would drop off the smoking dope…or dew…as we called it back then. This artillery guy would go out there; pick up the weed and leave the script money. Well, he had found that the firebase was going to be abandoned within a day; remember how fast these could be brought down and moved. So he thought…”What the hell; I’ll just pick up the dope and not leave any money since we won’t be here tomorrow.” But the ville guy came a bit early while there were still some Americans left on the base including my buddy there in the bed next to me. The Vietnamese guy went back to the ville, got a rifle, came back and shot him from just inside the jungle. Of course, all hell broke out and gunships, arty and all sorts of action, but the guy and his other buddies in his unit didn’t dare say anything knowing full well why he got shot.
So there he was…getting a Purple Heart for a bad drug deal. At the time, and with my somewhat rebellious attitude, I thought it was a poetic metaphor for the war. My views have long since changed, but it was what it was….somewhere in the U.S., there is an old grey haired soldier with a bullet hole in his arm and a Purple Heart received for a dope deal gone badly.
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