( March 1986) Frank appeared fixated on the sharp bolts of lightning shooting across the night sky followed by the thunder rolling across the Florida swamp near the Gulf of Mexico. I could tell that there was something, a memory of something that caused the same far-away gaze I had seen in others. He slowly opened up to me as a cool breeze sent a chill through me.
Frank was a medic in Vietnam. He spent his tour at Lai Khe, South Vietnam in 1968, the year of the infamous TET offensive. During that time, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies carried out brutal attacks on numerous civilian and military targets in the south. For American GIs longing to fly home on a Freedom Bird, it was a tour that could not end soon enough.
Lai Khe happened to be located near an entry point for enemy soldiers coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As they entered South Vietnam, according to Frank, “They would unload on the area.”
His M.A.S.H unit, now called M.U.S.T., for Mobile Unit Self-contained Transportable, provided medical support for the First Army, the Big Red One. He worked in triage, the place where all incoming wounded are received and labeled according to their wounds.
“Those who were critical but could be saved, we took them first,” he said. “Then you had the delayed. They’re not life-threatening. You could wait on them. The minimal, or walking wounded, you bandaged them up.”
There was one other category, the one most difficult to decide. Those were the critically wounded who would in all likelihood die, but who just might, with special time-consuming care, pull through. No effort was made to save them.
“Some of them you might save if you had no other patients and had a well-equipped hospital. But over there you didn’t have the time to try, because chances are they’re gonna die anyway. And while you’re trying to save them, somebody that you could save is gonna die.”
Frank spoke softly when he talked about the young men who passed through the hospital, many with limbs missing, with wounds so grisly it made you ill just to look at them. One young man, probably just out of high school, was whatsapp web placed in the last, or no hope, category. His brain was littered with shrapnel. Set aside to die, “the boy cried out for his mom all night long”. You’d find yourself listening to him and wishing he’d go on and die and get it over with. You just felt so sorry for him.”
There were four doctors at the hospital Frank was stationed at and unlike Hawkeye and B.J., they had very little time to look for a way to relieve the tension.
“We were swamped most all the time.” He recalled. “We’d get some slack periods but there were times when those guys (doctors) were lucky if they got two hours sleep a day.”
The wounded came in dustoffs, (medical helicopters), ambulances, jeeps, and trucks. It would be nothing to get a hundred in a few hours.”
The unit also treated enemy soldiers and civilians, including children, but only after the most serious American casualties were treated first. “We’d do anything in our power to save an enemy soldier if we thought he had some valuable information.”
Frank said there was a lieutenant who drove around the base, standing up in a jeep wearing insignia that showed he was an officer. The enemy always looks to kill an officer, given the chance. Some thought he was looking for death by the enemy. The Lt. also had a relationship with a beautiful nurse at the camp and they were very much in love.
One day, out on patrol, the Lt. told the lead soldier that he would show him how to walk point. That is the man out front on a patrol. If something happens, the point man is often the first to be taken out.
The Lt. moved quickly, carelessly, along the trail. A short time later he tripped a wire and a bouncing Betty, a charge alongside the trail, exploded, throwing another charge up and it exploded, spraying metal fragments out. It took the Lt.’s head off. When they notified the nurse, she went insane.
Frank said it was not uncommon for the base to be shelled and rocketed two and three times a night.
“After a while I’d wake up and find myself automatically crawling to the bunker.”
During Frank’s last month at Lai Khe he got the “short timer shakes,” the fear that as your tour of duty winds down, something will happen and you’ll never make it out alive. Those last few weeks were spent, as much as possible, behind a bunker.
That year of tension, broken by periods of terror, made a lasting impression. Months after returning home any loud noise, especially thunder, made him crawl behind the sofa for protection. And years later, thunder brought on a sense of urgency that he should be seeking shelter somewhere.
Frank said that the memories remain as clear as ever. “Sometimes, when I hear a thunderstorm now I think about it. It’s something that stays with you.”