VFP Smedley Butler Brigade Chapter 9
It was a long time ago and I can barely remember, but I haven’t been able to forget either. I was not a hero. I was a coward. They drafted me and after some phony handwringing I went. Worse than that, I can’t deny a morbid curiosity. I wasn’t in combat and wasn’t even in country though I missed it by the skin of my teeth—literally a week–after a year of training to be an interpreter/interrogator. Nothing here for the making of a novel or even the equivalent of a short paragraph in Thucydides. But I saw enough—enough to teach me that whatever happened to me didn’t hold a candle to what others had to endure and most of all what I needed to do about what I had learned.
I was lucky because what I saw was enough to wisen me up but not enough to destroy me. My time in the Army was like my brief visit to Palestine—so little compared to the terror that others had to deal with on a daily basis but enough to make silence not only impossible but immoral and irresponsible.
For all practical purposes I was done with basic training, all the macho bullshit and running around yelling idiocies about killing Charlie Cong. We were out on some final multi-day FTX in the woods of Louisiana and I recall getting bitten by some kind of insect, probably a deer fly or something that takes flesh off rather than merely stings. Surely I scratched it with my filthy fingers, which I hadn’t washed well for a number of days.
Within 24 hours it began to swell and fester and I could feel the heat and pressure on the back of my hand around the middle knuckle but there was no head or opening for drainage. Reluctantly, because one doesn’t want to be harassed for being a shirker or a candy ass, I went on sick call the next morning. The doctor looked at it and felt it for warmth and sent me away with some penicillin pills. He didn’t berate me so I felt vindicated for going on sick call for a bug bite and hoped the pills would do the trick.
My hope faded quickly because it began to hurt like hell over the course of the day, and when the next morning came after little sleep I could see that the affected area had grown considerably. Shit. I was not only worried about having a serious infection but even more concerned about losing my next assignment to go to Vietnamese language school for a year of interpreter training and instead revert to my original orders to receive 8 more weeks of infantry training and get shipped out directly to the rice paddies or whatever.
I went back on sick call the next morning and after a very cursory look at my hand the doctor sent me directly to the base hospital. I don’t recall how I got there but I do recall that even though I’d never been a patient in a hospital before, the building I entered resembled nothing like any hospital I’d ever seen or imagined. In a word, it was a connection of ramshackle wooden buildings just like my barracks. The building I was assigned to had two rows of maybe 25 beds on either side of a center aisle with windows along the walls. The standard Army issue metal beds were maybe two or three feet apart and covered with the same Army issue sheets and blankets we had in the barracks. Some parts of the room might have been painted but I recall the floors were bare wood and rarely if ever seriously swept or mopped.
My first whole day in the hospital was spent without any attention to my infection, which continued spread to my wrist and grow to the point that I was barely able to bend my fingers. I kept taking the useless penicillin pills in that no one told me to stop or to take more. The next morning, the third day since my infection began, a doctor came by and quickly lanced the head of the infection and told the attending army medic to wrap up the incision. I recall his saying with something of a laugh, “This isn’t really surgery” and indeed it wasn’t but maybe should have been as subsequent developments demonstrated.
After that day and another painful and mostly sleepless night, I awoke to see the swelling extending to my forearm and red streaks from inflamed lymph veins all the way up to my shoulder. On top of that I was clearly running a fever—not that anyone ever took my temperature—and my lymph glands were swollen in my armpits. That morning another doctor considered “good” by some of the patients on the ward came by and took a closer look at my arm and apparently concluded that some more serious cutting was in order.
Thus, he spread some kind of absorbent pad under my hand and gave me a shot of some kind of local pain killer and started slicing away between my skin and muscle on the back of my hand presumably to get all the pus out. It reminded me of skinning a fish and either because the pain killer hadn’t taken effect or hadn’t been properly administered, it hurt like hell. I tried to suppress my reaction but wasn’t able to and finally just gave out a loud “Ahhhhhh!”
The guy in the bed next to me started yelling too: “Doc, you’re hurting him!” to which the doctor replied, “I don’t mean to” as he kept cutting. Well, it really hurt but I knew it wasn’t going to kill me so I just bit my tongue and before too long it was over. On the plus side I could see wads of yellow-green pus oozing out along with some release of pressure, so I was hopeful that the situation was finally turning a corner, and in spite of the throbbing in my hand I was grateful that at last I was getting some competent treatment. Either I concluded or was told that the point was to create some kind of pocket under my skin into which the pus could drain. After the doctor left, someone came by and put some gauze into the pocket to keep it open and bandaged the whole thing up. I was also put on an IV line with an antibiotic and that arm was tied to a wooden board so that I would not tear out the IV line.
Another side effect of the experience, and as turned out the most valuable one, was the beginning of a relationship with the fellow soldier who came to my aid. I think his name was Willie, but I am not absolutely sure. He was a Black E-5 (buck sergeant) about my age who hailed from a small rural town somewhere in Louisiana, which was why he eventually got evacuated to this Fort Polk hospital. I was in the hospital for two weeks but I don’t recall his getting any visitors while I was there. He had been medevaced from VN because he stepped on a mine, which blew off most of the flesh on his calves but not his entire legs. The shin bones were still intact with a little bit of muscle on them and he was in the hospital for many months to get skin grafts and physical therapy. He said that the doctors told him that with luck he could get to walking with canes. Due to the fact that his legs were virtually useless, he was to get 50% disability in perpetuity—after all he still had the use of his arms! This was going to be about $250 per month of his then $500/month pay. Lucky guy… In an interesting twist he told me that he got hit not long after a high stakes poker game with his buddies. He had something like $800 in army funny money on him and when he came to, he asked the medics to check if the money was still on him. It was gone! One of the first acts somebody committed after he got blown up was to steal his money. Eventually it was recovered but it seems he never found out who did it. The story is important not just for any disillusionment it must have created but because he had been saving as much of his $500/month as he could—apart from a small set-aside for gambling–because his hope was to go back to his little town and use the money to open a small store to make a living.
There was lots else to learn from this unassuming, funny and reflective comrade. Like many GIs he was a constant source of gallows humor. Stepped on a mine? Who asked you to go step on a mine? You brought on yourself. Dumb fucker. But being Black in the VN jungle teaches more than a sense of humor and a keen eye for landmines. Willie gave me a short course on W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of the Black Folk. Whether it’s race or war, radical solutions were needed. DuBois’ nemesis, George Washington Carver, urged Blacks to work within the system. Willie knew better now. I suspect he had read the book fairly recently, maybe now that he had lots of time on his hands lying in bed for long periods after each skin graft. In any case, he was clearly anxious to share, and I was a willing audience as I reflected on why the numbers of Blacks in the army seemed to be maybe twice that of the general population. I saw it on my very first night flying down to Fort Polk from Chicago—50% Blacks and the rest blue collar whites like me.
Willie knew the score but incredibly he was not angry or bitter, at least not about Viet Nam or the Vietnamese soldiers who laid the mine that took the use of his legs. Across the aisle from me, however, there was a very different personality. He also had limb wounds of some sort and was undergoing reconstructive surgery or follow up PT. Around his neck in the middle of his chest he wore a large heavy brass medallion spelling out the word “WAR,” presumably to set him apart from those in the “peace” camp. He never buttoned his pajama tops so the brownish medallion contrasted sharply with his white skin. Unlike Willie, Private War—I never got his name—was very loud and outspoken. He was forever going on about “the fuckin’ gooks,” presumably they were the ones who got him injured, as opposed to those who drafted him or whose flag waiving got him to enlist. His going on about “the gook bitches with their thick stringy black hair” revealed another side of the personal violence of war. He hated them like he hated all Vietnamese “but I fucked ‘em anyway.” No doubt their pain persists at least as much as his anger though unlike him they were just victims and not perpetrator as well.
That first night after they cut the pocket into the back of my hand it was pretty painful but my memory of that night was more affected by other experiences. Late on the second shift a male medic recently back from VN and waiting for his ETS came by and looked me over. His speech was a rather disconnected and he was very high strung, obviously high on something. (He told me what but I don’t remember.) He decided that based on his VN field experience my bandages were not done correctly and he proceeded to cut them all apart and re-bandage them and hang my arm from an I-V tree so that it could drain pus. I didn’t object because frankly he scared me and after that thankfully he went away. Thus, I had one arm tied down to a wooden board and the other hanging from an IV tree. My arm hurt more after that and I was so goddam lonely and frightened that I didn’t sleep a wink until about 2 a.m. when a middle-aged Black woman, the night nurse, came by and saw that I was lying there wide-eyed and totally awake. She said something like, “What’s the matter with you, honey, awake like this in the middle of the night?” I don’t think I said anything. How tender and motherly she was! I almost cried and would have hugged her but for being unable to move my arms. She looked at me a moment and then just gently touched the back of my infected hand with her fingertips and smiled and walked away. Within a minute or less I was asleep. When I awoke the next morning I remembered her vividly but I don’t think I ever saw her again maybe because I slept well after that or maybe because she was just some one-time substitute part-timer full of compassion as only such a person could be.
A few days passed and the swelling and infection seemed to be going down. They removed the board and I could get up and walk around carrying the I-V bottle aloft in my hand. I was immediately told that I had to get up and go to the sinks to shave daily according to Army regulation. Above the row of sinks at the end of the ward there were hooks so that people like me could hang their I-V bottles as they shaved. The right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.
I began to be more aware of the other people around me. In the bed on my left there was a guy with some kind of skin infection or jungle rot that the doctors could not figure out. They were there one day taking pictures which they were going to send off to some journals to see if anyone else had a notion of what this guy had. One night he started to crash—they said what whatever he had was “going into his lungs”–and they put him into a wheelchair and told me that because I was ambulatory I should hook my I-V bottle up to the tree on his wheelchair and literally run him down to such and such a ward where someone was going to deal with him. So I ran behind his wheelchair pushing him as fast as I could and delivered him to where he was supposed to go. I have no idea what ever happened to him. On the way back with the empty wheelchair—it was maybe 9 or 10 o’clock–I passed a ward that a lot of screaming was coming from. I stopped to see what was going on and looked through a small reinforced glass window in the heavy locked door. The room was filled with young GIs in Army issue robes and pajamas running around and howling and screaming like something from a 19th century mental institution. I later asked some fellows on the ward what that might be and they said it must have been the psych ward, the place where they lock up VN returnees who are not able to cope at all. I recall wondering why they could not at least give them some downers so that they could at least stop running around like wild men. I reflected once more on my incredible fortune at having only a minor problem. I could still end up like them, however, and it was a sobering thought.
There were others. One night a guy a couple of beds down from me was suddenly the subject of the medical staff activity. I wasn’t sure what they were doing with him, maybe giving him some kind of injection or I-V med but I found out later it was because he had been doing heavy drugs in VN and now he was having withdrawal. To deal with it he started mainlining lighter fluid. It was the time before those disposable cigarette lighters and one had to fill lighters with Zippo lighter fluid. He apparently punctured a vein on his arm and poked the lighter fluid dispenser nozzle into the hole in his vein and started pumping away. Needless to say it didn’t do him any good. This was only the first of many examples I was to see of VN returnees doing all sorts of things because of the sudden loss of easy access to cheap drugs.
Another vivid memory was of a father suddenly turning up on the ward hollering at and threatening the medical staff due to what he considered to be improper or incompetent care of his son. He was going to call his congressman—the very same one who presumably didn’t have the courage to stand up to the war profiteers and super-nationalists who were keeping the war going. I wonder if “Support the Troops” didn’t have its roots in such incidents—finding a way to have your war and show compassion too.
Life became more or less routine. Medical staff came and went showing different levels of attention and concern. I once made a comment out loud about “lifers” and an officer nurse whom I thought was out of earshot reacted and tried to make a joke of it: “Who said something about lifers?” Then I felt a little bit bad because I thought, well, maybe she became an Army nurse to help wounded soldiers and indeed she was generally cheerful. Who was I to blame her?
It was determined that I had a staph infection and so I was given staph-specific oral antibiotics in place of my I-V and I noticed that there were some others with limbs hanging up and I-V bottles into their veins, some worse off than I. At the time I never realized that sepsis could set in and finish us off. I continued to be baffled by the fact that people like me with bacterial infections were on the same ward with people recovering from surgery, skin grafts and who knows what else, but as I recall most of them didn’t have open wounds and might have been there primarily for physical therapy between corrective surgeries. I really didn’t know but the overall lack of hygiene didn’t inspire confidence.
Even though I was reassured that I would recover and the red streaks up my arm were beginning to fade, there was plenty to be unnerved about. I worried about ending up in the infantry (though as it turned out my interpreter/interrogator MOS was not going to be better—“You’re nothing but a gook-speaking grunt” because interpreters were sent out into the boonies with infantry to interrogate prisoners on the spot) and I was cut off from communication with my fiancé. My closest encounters were with Willie and the middle-aged nurse who comforted me in the middle of the night. Then surprisingly and unexpectedly when I getting close to getting out of the hospital two of my basic training comrades came to visit me. I was astounded as much as I was moved because all of us had known each other for barely 6 weeks. (Well, I was something of a known quantity because I spoke up to the drill sergeants and was elected to be the platoon rep.) They brought accumulated letters from my fiancé and the news that I was going to be able to be finished with basic training in spite of missing the last week or two. I was much relieved. Maybe by the time I finished the language program I could get lucky again and be too short on time for my 2-year draft to get shipped out.
As it turned out I did get lucky but even more important for the remainder of my time in the Army and indeed my whole life, this time in the hospital—what I saw and the people I met—put me on a course of ever more questioning, challenging power, and developing my own values. I certainly learned the most from Willie. Of course, I eventually read Souls of the Black Folk but even without reading it I imbibed his lessons about the interaction of race and class. Just as much I was so impressed how he took me under his wing—a young White kid—and treated me like one of his infantry comrades even though I was nothing but a uninitiated lowly FNG (fucking new guy). I don’t think I had that experience anywhere else in the Army. So it was the totality of his wisdom, his experience, and his generous accepting personality. Where that last quality came from, I could only guess.
There was no difficulty understanding where Private War’s hate and anger came from. Why Willie didn’t have it was the harder thing to comprehend. I didn’t want to end up like Private War but I also learned from Willie that I didn’t have to. In fact, on the ward there was another VN returnee medic who was neither a druggie nor an embittered survivor. He said that he was back state-side before the end of his tour because “Sir Charles did me a job.” He didn’t say what that was but he seemed to have all his limbs and his sanity so maybe he went to the brink but didn’t go over the cliff like Private War or the people in the psych ward.
The largest category on the ward were the survivors. They were just wanting to get through the day even if it meant trying to mainline lighter fluid. It reminded me of Camus’ The Plague. Some fought the plague, some tried to escape, but most just hang on hoping for the best. The human condition, but what gets us into one category or the other?
I’m not sure where I got my attitudes or values from but something was there from the beginning. It started on the first day at the reception station in Chicago—a huge building downtown that we had to report to, alone and lonely, at 6 a.m. on the day of our induction. After the final physical exam and swearing in, we were all assigned jobs for the day before we were to fly out late that night for Fort Polk. I was assigned to go to some room and was told to feed these strings of punched tape into some machine. Before long I realized that the documents being spit out at the other end were induction notices for the next batch of cannon fodder. Shit. I wanted no part of that. So in very short order I told the person in charge that I had to pee and proceeded to get myself lost in that huge maze of a building for the rest of the day until they collected us and put us on busses to run us out to the airport. And so it started.
However, it would not have lasted but for wisdom, example and inspiration from people like Willie and the support from my fellow travelers, whom there was no shortage of all along the way. I would continue to read, learn, reflect and actively resist with clarity and strength but also, as much as possible, without self-destructive anger. By the end I could smirk and tell officers “No” right to their faces. I was no longer a coward, but I could never have done it alone.
Letter to the WALL
A few days ago as I was culling through old photographs, I chanced upon one of myself standing before this very wall. I was pointing at one panel, at one name, that of my great Uncle Emil’s son Kenneth’s name, bearing a last name that is the same as mine. I remember finding his name when a traveling “Viet Nam Memorial Wall” display was set up on the campus at University of Maine at Farmington. It came as a shock to me, as my dad had never mentioned the loss.
How many other deaths, how much pain is such that it cannot be expressed? What about the limbs, the body parts lost? Or the loss of integrity? Of hope? Lately it is the moral injury from that war, and all wars, that weighs on my mind and on my soul.
We Americans, for the most part, no longer trust our government. This has been true for some time. Certainly it was true during the time of the US military presence in Viet Nam, while for years we were being told repeatedly that the US was winning, and that the war would soon end.
This story never changes. I will use this Memorial Day weekend to speak of peace, to work toward peaceful negotiations in the countless places around the world which bear the burden of the US military and its loathsome approach to solving problems. Working toward peace is the absolute only thing that makes sense.