Monday, August 20, 2012

a Vietnam medic's tale

In an earlier post, I referenced what follows -- a piece by Michael Erard, one-time American medic during the Vietnam war. Erard came home in one physical piece, but like the victims of Vatican-sponsored priest sexual abuse of children, it took decades for the wounds of the past to make themselves fully felt. Like a scream or a nightmare, the tale lacks polished edges. But what it lacks in polish and completeness, it more than makes up for in honest and heart-breaking effort. Despite its war-time environment, I think it is a very human tale.


                                By Michael C. Erard
                             Belchertown, Mass. U.S.A.

I sing of men returning from war and healing. In 1969-70 I was an E-5 combat medic assigned to 3rd Platoon Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. We were a quick reaction force -- the best fielded unit in the Army. Our mission: search and destroy,
count the bodies, pacify the indigenous population, support the South Vietnamese Army, and do it over and over and over again. Oh yeah, there was friendly fire, the dark jungle and the inevitable accidents too. I just did my job, tried to stay alive and treated the wounded. We took a lot of useless casualties in the whole bloody process. The Viet Cong didn't win, but we still lost.

The rainy season had just begun. Our company had just come back to our forward base, landing zone (LZ) Uplift after three weeks of a futile, frustrating search and destroy mission in the jungle highlands of Bao Loc. We were very tired, ragged and moldy. First, we started the drudgery of cleaning our weapons, stocking up on supplies and getting new equipment. In the mess tent over a hot meal the colonel of the battalion debriefed us and told us we were doing an outstanding job of fighting for freedom and stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

As we began shuffling away to finish our clean-up, my friend Ed came up to show me a marshmallow size infected leech bite on his leg that was all pink and puffy on his black skin. Part of that sucker was still in there. He was an African-American from Detroit. Big strong guy, six feet, who carried the heavy M-60 machine gun and ammo. He was a gung-hoparatrooper. Everyone liked him. I, too, was from the Detroit area and so we shared this common bond. He had a serious girlfriend and we shared pictures of our families. His dream was to become a boxer. "I'm going to have to do some whittling on that infected wound," I told him. Sick call was at 0700.

That evening we kicked back a little. Everyone was engaged in their own form of decompression: Jack Daniels and beer or marijuana. Inevitably, grievances, arguments, prejudices, and sometimes personality clashes would mix and sometimes came to a head with a fist fight and then it would be over.

This night, however, someone picked up his M-16 and it "went off." The round hit Ed in mid-thigh. He was brought moaning to the battalion aid station where I usually hung out with the other medics. It was chaos with a lot of blood, screaming and swearing. The aid station treatment room had two gurneys and space for about six people. Suddenly, the soldiers and MPs were pushing through the doorway arguing and hurling accusations at each other.

I took charge and yelled at the top of my lungs. ''Everyone not a medic, get the fuck out of my aid station!" Then I started to do what I was trained to do. Ed lost consciousness, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. I had seen it dozens of times; Ed was going into shock from loss of blood. Stop the bleeding. Bulky compression dressings on the entrance and exit wounds. Next, with a quick Betadine and alcohol prep, I did an IV cut-down, threaded the 6 inch long tube into the vein in his forearm and sewed it in place so the vein would not collapse. I shouted for serum albumin and Ringers solutions -- wide open and fast. With the help of the other medics, we wrestled his leg into a cumbersome metal Thomas splint to stabilize his leg sothe femur would not move around if it was fractured. Ed was responding as we carried him on the stretcher to the medivac chopper pad. Above the whining sound of the engine and the vibrations of the chopper ready to take off, Ed lifted his head, looked at his leg and cried out wildly to me, "Hey, Doc?-- Oh man, shit, shit, shit!"

I hollered back, "Listen up, you're going to be okay, ya hear!" I gave the on-board medic more fluids and sign languaged, "Keep it wide open." The medivac lifted off, nose low, tail rotor high -- red and white strobe lights blinking back at us. Because I was the senior medic
for the battalion, I couldn't leave the LZ. But damn, I wanted to go with him! He was out of my hands now. I had done everything to save his leg and his life.

When a company returned to the LZ after a mission, it was standard operating procedure to be put in a stand-down condition with one caveat -- you remained battle-ready and on alert to be choppered out to reinforce any company or reconnaissance patrol that might get
in trouble. Most of the time we were lucky and life was "good." At least we weren't in the field.
But not this time.

Two days later, a platoon of Alpha Company was ambushed in the late afternoon and were pinned down. The radio crackled for help. This time the Viet Cong wanted to fight. I was soaked to the skin before I boarded our Huey slick. As usual, my medic rucksack was unwieldly and
heavy, packed with extra supplies. We were going back to the same area that we had "secured" three weeks earlier. The landing zone was "hot." The Viet Cong opened up with their rocket propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and mortars as the first wave of six helicopters landed. I
was in the second wave. We were the real intended targets of the ambush. Mortars were exploding right where we were supposed to land! Then from the air I saw our Cobra gunships swoop in and rake the tree line until the VC bombardment lessened up. One Huey was down on
its side with white smoke spewing out from its still whining engine. The smell of aviation gas was sickening. My work was just beginning with a house call to that downed chopper. After about an hour the LZ was finally secured with sporadic firefights echoing into the LZ. The rain let up, but the wet fog was covering us with its damp, smelly, grey sheet.

I informed the Captain, "We need to medivac these three seriously wounded."

"No way, Doc; it is too dangerous! Do the best you can."

Night sealed up the fog and we dug into defensive positions. I gathered my three wounded comrades around me under a makeshift poncho tent. I tried to heat up some water in my canteen cup with heat tabs. It was going to be a long night. This was so damn useless!!

The next morning there was no contact at all with the Viet Cong; they had vanished into the jungle taking their dead and wounded with them. I had two KIA (killed in action) and three seriously wounded. The life of one of the wounded had ebbed away in my arms during the night. Unconscious, he moaned himself into death. Despite all my training andpreparedness, I just couldn't save him! By early afternoon, the clouds cleared enough for us to be evacuated.

The Medivac airlifted the wounded. I chose to ride back in a slick with the three dead soldiers at my side in body bags. On the flight back to LZ Uplift I became sick to my stomach. I was very thirsty, but water just left a metallic taste in my mouth. I was exhausted! I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep. I rested my arm on my dead comrade in the body bag. Had I done everything possible to save him? Nothing had gone right. My God, am I going to survive?

After we landed I trudged, as if in a daze, over to the aid station to ask about the condition of my friend Ed. Hopefully, I could garner some good news to lift my spirits. A medic friend shook his head and told me that he was alive, but they had to amputate his leg.

"What the fuck?!" I yelled. I couldn't believe it.

I blew up in a rage. Cursing everyone and everything about this stinking war, I ran back to the chopper pad and barked that I had an emergency at the field hospital in Phu Cat. Squirming in the bench seat during the loud, twenty minute ride, no one heard me bang andgrind the butt of my rifle into the deck of the chopper. Jumping out of the medivac even before the skids settled on the runway, my anger was at a full boil. How could they amputate Ed's leg when I had done everything to save it? I was in charge of Ed and, by God, he was going to have his leg. They fucked up my work! Someone is to blame. Someone is going to have to answer to me.

Ignoring the lax security, I stormed through the field hospital's sand--bagged entrance. I was a sweaty, angry medic just out of the field. I was filthy with bug repellant and dried blood caked on my hands and fatigues. With my medic-issued 45 revolver holstered at my right
side, I gripped my M16 in my left hand. My eyes squinted while they adjusted to the glare of the red light bulbs. I scanned the hallway from side to side shouting his name. Where would he be?

Suddenly, from out of nowhere a petite woman, maybe 5'3" blocked my path. I made out the blurry Major's oak leaf on the collar of her nurse's fatigues. I was panting -- out of breath. Our eyes met and I glared at her. Abruptly, every thing screeched into slow motion.
Then she confronted me saying,

"You better not go there." She pushed her Major hand full on my chest. "Please, you don't want to go there." With a firm voice she ordered, "Take off your weapons and put them on the floor." I unbuckled my holster and set it on top of my M16. Then she said calmly, "Come with me. I think I know why you are here."

In the nurses' station she sat me down in her chair. She took off my helmet and set it on her desk. Her manner was soothing and empathetic. I felt like an overinflated tire slowly loosing air. She talked all the while but I don't remember everything. There was something about Ed's artery torn amid the fractured femur; it was his leg or his life; he had been flown to Japan five days ago.

"You have to know we did everything possible to save his leg. If you hadn't stabilized him, he would have died. You medics in the field can only do so much. Listen, we did our best and you did your best. I have so much respect for the job you guys do." She looked kindly at me and kept trying to make eye contact. All I could do was stare straight ahead. "I know what you are going through. It's hard, but you'll be okay. Hey--you're gonna be okay." With a half smile she told me how close I had come to spending the rest of my tour in the Long Bin Jail. "All I had to do was call the MP's. It's alright now. You are okay." I couldn't say anything. I didn't even thank her. She picked up my weapons. "Here, you'll need these to protect your wounded. You need to get back to your unit." She walked me slowly back to the chopper pad -- her right hand in the small of my back. We didn't speak. Before I got in the chopper she handed back my helmet.

The whine of the engine grew louder then changed to a slap ... slap .. slap as the rotors adjusted their pitch for take off and became so loud that even if I wanted to speak, I wouldn't have been heard. Everything was in slow motion again as I turned slowly and looked out at her, face-on, for the first time. Still, I couldn't say a damn thing. I lifted off, and in the swirling muddy puddles, she stood there with her eyes closed, head turned away, loose hairs swirlingabout her face, hands in her pockets, as the down-wash buffeted her.


Within days of returning home from VietNam in 1970, I began a civilian program to become a Physician Assistant. The world was still hurting itself and I had become comfortable around suffering. For the next 33 years I have worked in trauma, the operating room, orthopedics and
pediatrics. I loved my work; it wasn't as chaotic as Nam and there were
thank-you's. Without missing a beat I had become a civilian medical provider and continued to help heal others. There had been no time to decompress; I didn't need it -- I had a loving wife, family and job. I was still treating the injured, but without the futile danger of war. VietNam was just pictures, letters and a country that was probably going to become communist. No one seemed to want to
talk about the war - certainly I didn't. The war was all in the past. Just forget about it.


About ten years ago things began unraveling. At first it was small stuff: The Memorial Day speech made me sad because I had survived. One particular time loneliness suddenly chilled the little celebration my wife had planned for the anniversary of my return from VietNam. No longer could I watch a violent movie. "Platoon" had made me feel anxious then depressed. Even the embedded news reports about troops in Iraq made me feel like I was in VietNam again. For no good reason I began to swing between melancholy and anger. I had always thought of myself as a pretty stable, happy person. My anger would let loose over the smallest things. Increasingly hard liquor helped numb my edginess. I knew that being a perfectionist was my persona and anger was the catalyst that helped me accomplish tasks. But now, my anger was different. I lashed out at the people I loved and hurt them. My anger wanted to control. What? Everything! People, situations, outcomes.

One incident finally unnerved me. My wife and I were visiting our son at a hotel where he worked. On Sunday morning I borrowed the New York Times to read the news -- the lead story was the massacre of children and teachers in Beslan, Russia. I sat frozen.

"What's wrong, Dad?"

"I can't believe what happened in Russia. Chechen terrorists, with no mercy, had executed the children."

A sudden shroud of grief engulfed me. I ran up the stairs to our room to get away. I began to cry, then sobbed uncontrollably. After about 15 minutes, my worried son walked me slowly back down the stairs and out to the rocky seaside hill overlooking the Atlantic. He hugged me tight, then kept vigil over me until I composed myself.

Why had I lost control? A wave of sorrow had swallowed me up and I couldn't breathe. I had lost my bearings. Even after ten minutes my body was still shaking. Suddenly, I felt relief like the dark silence after a firefight when you realize that you had survived. Could
it be that once you have lived through violence, it can suck you back in when you least expect it? Was this how it feels when you are first able to respond compassionately to the victims of violence; when you
see killing for what it really is? You have a totally new perspective. I was that person killed. I was the father or mother holding my dead child. I am even that desperate Chechen rebel with the AK47.


Four years later when I retired, I had the motivation and time to digitize the slides that I had taken in VietNam. Gradually, I let myself recall more and more about the people and places and
what had happened. I kept these remembrances to myself Some photos brought back pleasant memories; some brought back sorrowful memories. Did it really happen as I remembered? I was hesitant to talk about the events for fear that they might not be "true." I've heard skeptics say that war's recounted memories are subjective, unreliable and lack corroborating evidence and it's best to just let them rest overnight like a hangover; forget them or you'll end up like some crazy Nam vet you've seen in the movies. I asked myself: "Doesn't time heal trauma and you forget? Why are these memories causing me such strong emotional responses after all these years? Is there something wrong with me?" I'm not a macho kind of guy, but I feared that admitting this as the cause of my anger would be seen by others as sign of weakness.

A crisis was on the horizon but I couldn't see it coming. However, my wife saw my repeated anxiety. She was in training to become a psychotherapist and was becoming alarmed at my frequent angry outbursts. I wanted her to follow my directions exactly, take my
advice, be careful, be over prepared. If she didn't, I found myself insisting:

"Because in Nam if you didn't do as you were told, you could get yourself killed!" I was hurting and I had no outlet to express myself. One Sunday afternoon after a particularly insensitive, angry outburst, my wife sat me down; she had something to say to me:

"Michael you have been helping everyone else heal; you have not understood the need for your own healing." She was right, but it was difficult to admit. I couldn't see that I was crying out for help. I wasn't willing to ask for help. And even if I were ready, where
could I get help?


I found it, of all places, at my 50th high school reunion. One of my old classmates lay dying in a nearby rehab hospital in Cincinnati, close to where the reunion was being held. Since he was not expected to live out the week, my friend Paul and I visited him. When he closed his eyes, we said our goodbyes. Quietly leaving the room we were somber and sad. While waiting for the elevator, we walked over to the nurses' station and thanked them.

Suddenly, we heard some commotion coming from the corner of the nurses' station where a woman sunk deep in a big wheelchair was trying to break free from the nurse who was pushing her. Her right leg had been recently amputated. Her grey hair was combed neatly around her face. Her complexion was sallow. She rolled to an abrupt stop in front of me and looked up at me with a quizzical, penetrating stare. After a moment she said in a loud voice,

"I know you. I know you. You were in the military, the Army. You were in VietNam." She smiled, "I know you." Then motioning for us to come closer and so only Paul and I could hear, she looked at me and said softly, "You are a good man. You are honest, but you have something
to hide."

I reached out and touched her arm asking, "What is your name? Do I know you?"

"Helen Jab .. lon ... ski," she replied, though I didn't quite understand her last name. A goodbye smile came across her face.

When the elevator doors opened Paul and I stepped inside. It all happened so fast. That was that. The elevator doors closed. Paul paused, turned to me and asked,

"What was that all about?"

I thought to myself that this woman, whoever she was, was totally with it. She seemed adamant that she recognized me. Her conviction was compelling; everyone stopped what they were doing to listen. The baffled expression on Paul's face continued to ask whether I had any idea what she was talking about. Had I ever met her before?

Paul pushed the down button and we jolted into a fast descent. I became a bit light-headed and felt myself sinking into a forgotten memory that swirled around me like a hot, humid breeze. I was back VietNam. I continued to talk as we walked out to the car and sat there as I told him the story about Ed, the fire-fight and the nurse in the field hospital; something I hadn't recalled in forty years.

Whatever or whomever this event pointed to, I felt that something mysterious had just happened. It didn't matter that the nurses had nervously tried to scoot the woman along, apologizing to me. It could only make sense to me if she really was the same woman who had confronted me in that field hospital in VietNam. Yes, I believe she was. I wanted to believe it for me to begin to heal. Was "Helen" trying to tell me again what my wife had urged me to realize? I needed to heal and I didn't know it.

All of a sudden now, I felt that I was being called to begin a pilgrimage to find out what "Helen" had meant by her enigmatic phrase: "You have something to hide." I went to a psychotherapist and he listened intently to my story. He acknowledged it was certainly amazing and mysterious. He told me that I had to tell this story to as many people as I could trust and listen to their reactions. The therapist that my wife and I went to said that I should not be afraid of my strong emotions; it just shows that I am human. VietNam was a lifechanging event. I am so thankful to have survived.

How was I to know that stressful memories of war have a life of their own and some become too powerful to ignore? Other veterans testify to the fact that these demons have a hair trigger that sometimes goes off for any one of many possible reasons. I have learned that the stressful
memories of war and violence live somewhere in one's psyche. It's always an unexpected scare when they do come back unannounced. It's like they are smugly saying: "Didn't you know we'd be coming back?" They can be like that smirking bully in 7th grade who may or may not be waiting to beat you up after school. But I say, "I choose to be here. I'm not afraid of you any more. You can't hurt me."

No, I don't have a Purple Heart to wear on my chest. Yes, I wear an invisible purple heart on my soul. I have been unwilling to admit that my soul was wounded and I have been hiding that fact behind my anger for too long. Now my wound is feeling more and more like a scar; it doesn't hurt to touch the feelings of helplessness and frustration that I experienced in VietNam. I did my best as an U.S. Army medic and cannot change anything about that experience. I am not ashamed. My memories of war are now in a different chapter of my life. I realizethat I am not perfect and I cannot control other people's actions and words. I'm not afraid of my emotions. I am beginning a search to find my true self I have soul work to do. I'm writing another chapter of my life; I'm moving forward. Finally, I no longer feel like I am unraveling.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for sharing your story, it moved me deeply. May you continue to find more pieces of peace.