2nd Surgical Hospital, Chu Lai: May 8, 1968
My thoughts were wildly conflicted as I sprinted through the maze of screened wooden hooches of 2nd Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai. Delta Company had made contact and the wounded and dead were on the way. I waited uneasily at the pad for Dust-off to arrive. My heart pounded in my ears and my lungs sucked in the heavy night air. The medic was a casualty, and Fred was the medic with Delta Company. In the distant darkness the familiar cadence of slapping blades in the dank night air worked its way into my anxieties. I watched with heavy despair as the chopper approached.
Four months earlier, in what could only be a cruel twist of fate; Fred was involved in a friendly fire incident. The circumstances of that moment shift with each person who was there to witness, but the facts were simply this: Fred’s M-16 discharged, striking Dave Perkett in the chest. Just eighteen years old, Dave died in a Dust-Off chopper on his way to the hospital in Chu Lai.
As if war wasn’t brutal enough, Fred and Dave had somehow become entangled in Death’s ruthless and pitiless grip and made to suffer one more inhumanity for its private enjoyment. It was a senseless death, the consequence of careless play.
Fred was devastated; you could see it in his eyes and feel it in his presence. He was changed. No longer the smiling mirthful spirit we knew, he carried this heavy hearted burden on his shoulders like a coffin; his personal albatross.
Dust-off set down at 2nd Surgical in Chu Lai and off loaded the wounded. Doing my work, I went from litter to litter taking names and assessing wounds while my eyes frantically searched for Fred. But he was not among them. One of the wounded told me that “doc was hit” but could tell me nothing more. I fought the thought of where he could be and struggled with the persistent gnawing fear as I made my way out of the ER and down the darkened road to Graves Registration. I had done this so many times before and I knew he was there, but I would not say it; I dare not think it.
The reefer room was dimly lit and cool. Over time I had come to appreciate this room and the macabre opportunity to escape the hot and oppressive air outside its walls. It was an insufferable crypt, but time and countless visits had kindly dulled my senses. But this night, May 8th, the room would not willingly receive me. Struggling against my desire to turn and walk away, I made my way to the desk and asked about the recent delivery. The attendant led me to a drawer, pulled it open and unzipped the body bag.
There he was.
I stepped back as the sudden despair of this death rushed past me; looked me in the eyes and moved on.
“GSW to the back of the head ...” the attendant reported with blank indifference, turned and went about his business; his own senses long ago numbed.
Fred lay there … asleep. A knotted pressure began building in my chest and my head ached as I looked on the lifeless body of my friend. His face was unshaven and sweat streaked … and warm still to the touch. I gently lifted his head and located the entry wound. No exit. I wept silently and openly for my friend; his life gone. Gone! I had seen so many already, and many more would follow, but this one was personal. I turned and walked away, out from the cool and into the humid night.
I screamed at God as I made my way up the road. I could not control my anger or my tears. I did not want to. I was tiring of this goddamned daily bloody mayhem and I wanted the forces of Heaven to explain this to me. But the Heavens were silent. The urgent staccato chatter of choppers was the only reply I heard that night as I made my way back to the ER.
On our way to Vietnam, sitting on the deck of the USS Gordon discussing our coming fate, Fred shared with us what was to become an eerie epitaph:
“If I die ..." he quietly pronounced, “I want to die for a cause -- not because.”
He never got his wish.
OUR STOLEN YOUTH
Copyright 2006 RRaitano
Our youth was tested
All those many years ago.
When the boys we were
Faced the mortality
Of the men we were to be.
In the chaos that lurked
Just beyond the wire,
The mayhem of wretched torment
Waited in ambush,
Calling for us by name …
Beckoning for our very souls.
Deaths’ Black Angel
Would pass in a rush of cold,
Its icy fingers reaching for the
Warmth of life itself.
Our youthful spirits forever wounded
By the vulgar stench of war.
Time has become entangled
In the oppressive barbed wire silence.
Stilled by the need for penance,
It tortures the heart and spirit…
Wanting only the peaceful refuge
Of holy absolution.
Let our sorrows and tears
Fall upon their granite names,
Those many faces that we knew.
Friends made …
God Shed His Grace on Thee.
This was our stolen youth
Those many years ago.
When the men we were
Walked with death and insanity
On the fine line of madness.