Authors: Ronald J. Glasser
TO THE MEMORY OF
HESE PAGES WERE NOT
written in desperation, nor were they written out of boredom, or even, I think, to prove a point, but rather to offset the sinking feeling we all had that some day, when the whole thing was over, there would be nothing remembered except the confusion and the politics.
There is, of course, something else to be remembered.
There was a time the Army hospitals in Japan, to one of which I was assigned, were averaging six to eight thousand patients a month. (During the Tet offensive it had been closer to eleven.) There were days and sometimes weeks when the choppers never stopped coming in, and when they couldn’t fly, the Army brought the casualties overland from the Air Force bases in ambulance buses. The surgeons seemed ready for the emergency, and even the internists. But I had been sent to Japan as a pediatrician to serve the children of the dependent military population there.
I soon realized that the troopers they were pulling off those med evac choppers were only children themselves.
Loss is a part of pediatrics. Two infants in four thousand are born with a severe congenital anomaly; fifteen percent of all prematures are mentally retarded; one out of twenty thousand children will get leukemia. The rest you struggle over: the meningitises, the pneumonias, the poisonings, and the accidents. They set the tone, for to save one child is to save the whole thing.
But to save him only to see him blown apart or blinded, to help him grow properly only to have his spinal cord transected, or to have him burned to death, puts all the effort in doubt; the vaccines, the pediatric research, the new techniques and the endless concern—suddenly it all seemed so foolish, so hopeless. To lose a child, at any time along his life, is really to lose the whole thing.
Zama, where I was assigned in September 1968, was a 700-bed hospital with a small pediatric unit of five beds and a nursery. It was the only general Army hospital in Japan. There were internists, anesthesiologists, ophthalmologists, obstetricians, gynecologists, oral surgeons, dermatologists, plastic surgeons, ENT specialists, thoracic surgeons, vascular surgeons, and even an allergist.
It was an excellent hospital. There is not, I think, a community in America that would not have been proud and happy to have had our hospital, just as it was, serving it. Literally thousands of boys were saved. But the effort had its price; after a while it all began to seem so natural, even the blind seventeen-year-olds stumbling down the hallway, or the shattered high-school football player being wheeled to physical therapy. I can remember stepping out of the pediatric clinic into a corridor filled with forty to fifty litter cases, walking past them and joking where I could, but not feeling particularly involved. At first, when it was all new, I was glad I didn’t know them; I was relieved they were your children, not mine. After a while, I changed. These kids were so brave, they endured so much, they were so uncomplaining that you couldn’t help but feel proud of them. I can remember only one boy who would not stop screaming.
In the beginning I talked to the kids just to have something to say and to get them talking. Later I came to realize they were all saying the same things—without quite saying them. They were worried, every one of them, not about the big things, not about survival, but about how they would explain away their lost legs or the weakness in their right arms. Would they embarrass their families? Would they be able to make it at parties where guys were still whole? Could they go to the beach and would their scars darken in the sun and offend the girls? Would they be able to get special cars? Above all, and underlining all their cares, would anybody love them when they got back? I would leave the head wounds with the frightening thought that some day someone might ask them what had happened to their faces.
The stories I have tried to tell here are true. Those that happened in Japan I was part of; the rest are from the boys I met. I would have liked to disbelieve some of them, and at first I did, but I was there long enough to hear the same stories again and again, and then to see part of it myself.
Initially there was no thought of putting these sketches on paper, for that is what they are—sketches, not finished stories. I did not start writing for months, and even then it was only to tell what I was seeing and being told, maybe to give something to these kids that was all theirs without doctrine or polemics, something they could use to explain what they might not be able to explain themselves. It was a brutal time for them, and in fairness I have changed the names, dates, deployments, and some unit designations.
I certainly did not see it all, and in truth I have dealt with only a small part, but I saw enough, more than enough. They all came through Japan: the 9th Division fighting in the Delta—the Riverines—the 1st Air Cav, the 101st, the 4th and the 25th, the 1st and the 173rd, the chopper pilots and the RTO’s, the forward observers, the cooks, the medics and the sergeants, the colonels and the contractors, the Special-Forces troopers and the Rangers, the heroes and the ones under military arrest, the drug addicts and the killers. Sooner or later they all came to us at Zama.
If there is more to say it will have to be said by others, though I wonder how they will do it. There is no novel in Nam, there is not enough for a plot, nor is there really any character development. If you survive 365 days without getting killed or wounded you simply go home and take up again where you left off. And then again, it is not one war but four or five. To fight in the Delta is as different from fighting in the Central Highlands as fighting in Burma was from fighting in France. The DMZ, Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam—none of them is the same.
As for me, my wish is not that I had never been in the Army, but that this book could never have been written.
R. J. G.
Tonight I’m with myself again
I’m talking with my mind
These last three months we’ve talked a lot
And found we’re in a bind
Not that we’re different
We don’t think we’re unique
But the answers we’re questioning
Are those we’ve heard you speak
We haven’t decided you’re wrong
For experience has a function
But my mind is at the crossroad
And I think I’m at a junction
You sent us here to join you
And to fight your distant war
We did, but even those who make it home
Carry back a scar
The answer that we question most
Is one we’ve heard you say,
“You owe it to your country, boy,
It’s the American Way”
We haven’t decided you’re really wrong
For experience has its function
But my mind is at the crossroad
And I can’t find the junction
We haven’t decided you’re wrong
For experience has its function
But you’ve thrown us out here on the backroads
And we’re gonna find the junction
U.S. Army Hospital, Zama, Japan
HY WRITE ANYTHING?” PETERSON
said. “Who wants to be reminded?”
There are no veterans’ clubs for this war, no unit reunions, no pictures on the walls. For those who haven’t been there, or are too old to go, it’s as if it doesn’t count. For those who’ve been there, and managed to get out, it’s like it never happened. Only the eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds have to worry, and since no one listens to them, it doesn’t matter.
But there we’re 6000 patients evac’ed to Japan last month. You’d think that so many wounded would be hard to ignore, but somehow, as Peterson says, they are. They’re written off each month—a wastage rate—a series of contrapuntal numbers, which seems to make it all not only acceptable, but strangely palatable as well.
Perhaps Peterson’s right. And if he is, then everything is a bit closer to what Herbert said when he woke up in the recovery room and found they’d taken off his leg: “Fuck you—fuck you one and all.”
Herbert lost his leg in Vietnam, but it was cut off here in Japan in the middle of the Kanto Plains. We remove a lot of limbs during all the seasons. This makes living here difficult, even without the factories. At one time these plains must have been a good place to be. There are woodblocks from the Mejii era that show it tranquil and lovely, nestled comfortably at the foot of the mountains. There is no beauty here now. Like the wounds, the rivers run, polluted and ugly, from a dirty green to a metallic gray; the rice and barley fields that used to be here have been replaced by square, filthy factories. Even the air stinks; every day is like living behind a Mexican bus. Still, no one is shooting at you here. There are no ambushes or hunter-killer teams.
No one sends out the LRRP’s, and at night you can’t hear them pounding in mortar tubes across the paddies. That’s something. You can see it on the faces of the troopers they carry in off the choppers. It doesn’t matter to them that the place smells or that the smoke from Yokahama and Yokuska blots out the stars. All that counts is that their war is over for a while and this time they got out alive.
We have four Army hospitals scattered about the plains—Drake, Ojiie, Kishine, and Zama. It’s hard to know what they’ve told you about Tet, but over here, the operating rooms never stopped. The internists and obstetricians did minor surgery, and the surgeons lived in the OR. But even when there are no offensives we’re busy. We don’t just get the Herberts—we get them all: the burns, the head wounds, the cords, the tumors. Medicine is always busy, too. The medical wards are full of patients with hepatitis, malaria, pneumonia, and kidney failure. It is something of an achievement that we’re able to do so much. In 1966 there was only one 90-bed Army dispensary in Japan; in fact, there was little else in the rest of Asia. When President Johnson chose to listen to his military advisers and send in ground troops, the Army had the choice of expanding the existing medical facilities here in Japan, building up those in the Philippines, or starting from scratch in Okinawa. Okinawa was too expensive—something about cost plus and American-type labor unions. The Philippines looked a bit too unstable, and so, despite Okinawa being four hours closer to Nam, and the Philippines having more available land, the Army chose Japan.
Everything was put here into the Kanto Plains and clustered around the Air Force bases at Tachikawa and Yokota. The Air Force brings our patients in over the mountains in their C-141’s. They stay at Yokota overnight at the 20th casualty staging area, where they’re stabilized. A lot of them have already been operated on—some massively—and it’s a long trip here. So they rest a while; they are checked again, and, if necessary, rehydrated. Nam’s hot, 110 degrees in the shade, and these kids were carrying sixty and seventy pounds of equipment and ammunition when they got hit. Some of them, too, have been humping it like that for days, if not weeks. They’re dehydrated, every one of them. The fluids they get at the 20th give them a bit of an edge. If they’re very critical, though, very seriously ill, and can’t wait, they’re med evac’ed by chopper as soon as they get off the C-141’s to one of our four hospitals.
There are nights when everyone is working and the dispatcher calls about another VSI coming in—type of wound unknown. All of us—the general surgeons, the orthopods, the opthalmologists, and the ear, nose, and throat specialists—go down to the landing pad and wait to see who’ll get it. It’s a strange sight to see them at two and three in the morning, standing out in the darkened field, some still in their operating clothes, talking quietly, waiting for the sound of the chopper.