The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
No matter the question,
War is never the answer
By Christina Fritz
There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890–1969
I retired from nursing and reside in Downeast Maine where I live a peaceful, blessed life with my husband of 31 years. We have two sons who live in California and New York, and I am grateful that they have never experienced war.
I am able to write this piece about this year of my life only because of counseling I received from Mary James, a therapist at COVER, a Community outreach agency for Vietnam vets and their families in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mary listened to me and probed my memory as she encouraged me to feel the emotions I had buried for twenty years. She loved and supported me for the ten years it took me to work through the trauma of that year. I am writing this for me because it helps me to heal, and I dedicate it to all of the veterans who were there and saw firsthand the results of war. This is for us, and for our children who need to hear our stories.
After flying for 25 hours I had to force my swollen feet into my shoes. We were landing. Finally. The TWA stewardess opened the airplane door and looked at us with such pity, it took my breath away. “Good luck . . . good luck . . . good luck” she kept repeating to each person like a mantra. Once off the plane, I heard someone say, “walk quickly and keep your heads down.” What hit me full force was the heat and humidity and the putrid diesel smell. The seriousness of the situation became obvious as we hurried past bunkers into the tent to process ‘in country. I was officially in Vietnam. I was 22, and it was December of 1967, and the war raged on.
We nurses hurried to get finished with the paperwork, and I felt embarrassed by my new fatigues that announced my unseasoned status. I was struck by the silence as guys smoked and waited by their duffel bags for flights. And I saw the ‘thousand yard stare’ in the eyes of the soldiers. Their vacant stares and the quiet made everything about the place feel heavy.
My friend Pat and I met at Travis Air Force Base in Oakland, California, as we waited to fly to Viet nam. We had formed a bond in the way that happens between military buddies, and she felt like a sister to me. We hoped to be assigned to the same hospital, but the Army had other plans. We were to be split up immediately. I would go to Qui Nhon and she to Bien Hoa. Five long months would pass before we would work at the same hospital together at the 95th Evacuation hospital in Da Nang. In those five months, we had changed from naive girls to women who had seen firsthand the reality of war. We both felt old, and we were not even half way through the assignment.
In those first few months I learned that counting the days until one went home was a way of moving through the experience. Another was to never mention how quiet it was at work. People in a war zone are superstitious; as soon as someone mentioned how slow it was in the Emergency Receiving area where I worked, all hell would break loose. An endless stream of fresh casualties from the field would fill our ward with men who needed the best care we could give. The Med Evac helicopters would land just outside our Quonset hut, and the wounds we treated were frequently just minutes old. The injured soldiers, still in shock, had no idea what had happened. There had not been time for them to process any of it.
I learned to shut down my feelings, so that I could be totally present for each patient. It led to a schizophrenic split between reality and denial. With a sea of stretchers before me, I knew to waste no time as our team did our best to save them. We worked fast. We nurses would cut off the fatigues that hid the wounds, and start IV’s, while moving down the line of stretchers, calming those who begged us to care for their buddy first. “He’s hurt much worse than me, take care of him first” was often the first thing we heard as they tried to get up off the stretcher to let their buddy take their place. I never heard anyone beg for help first, and the bravery I witnessed many times every day has stayed with me.
Over and over, I heard “Where are you from round eye?” in reference to our Caucasian eyes. The question felt out of place, coming at me in spite of the situation, as if we were meeting in a park or a bar. I found that any tenderness, like a touch on the arm, made all of the difference in the world to the injured soldiers. We instantly became mother, sister, girlfriend and wife to them, taking the place of loved ones they desperately missed, and they were grateful for any sign of kindness and concern, making it an honor to care for them.
The hardest part was in not knowing how it turned out. Some days we had time to try to find our patients on the units where they had gone after we had treated them, and some were shipped out right away to Japan for longer term care. After a while I quit looking, and this lack of closure and not knowing how they had fared left a huge hole in my heart.
The very badly injured patients, who were not going to make it, were put in the back of the Quonset hut, and when we had a break in the action, we held their hands and talked about home, comforting them and staying present, so that they did not die alone.
I never cried, and I never saw any of the other nurses or doctors cry. Some of the patients cried out of grief for a friend or because of fear or pain, but no medical person I worked with did that. We had to shut down; to keep it inside. It was the only way we managed to do our job. And later, when we had time to let loose, we drank too much and laughed too hard and slept whenever we got the chance. Our goal was to make it through the year, one day at a time.
The country, wildly overgrown with green foliage contrasted by the white sandy beaches, felt sinister and strange, the loveliness marred by military outposts, jeeps and trucks and that smell of diesel that permeated everything. During the dry season the dust which blew from the beach covered our beds, and after working all night, we shook an inch of it off our bed covers before falling into an exhausted sleep.
After working all night the heat woke us at noon, and we moved to the beach to try to get more sleep. With the twelve hour shifts and the lack of rest, we moved like sleepwalkers through the days. Some relief came in the fall and winter months with the monsoon rains, which turned everything to mud, but they also brought cooler temperatures and some blessed relief from the heat.
The local women from the villages nearby were called Mamasans, a Vietnamese term we adopted. They were hired to do our laundry, and to clean our rooms, and we listened to their singsong language as they worked. We learned that no one could be trusted, and that even the smiling friendly women we saw every day could be giving information to the enemy. Between this distrust and the language barrier, we made little move to get to know them. The beauty of the people was lost on us.
I understand why veterans of that war return to Vietnam. That year stood out as the best and the worst of my life, and I imagine others who were there feel the same way. I lived that year knowing in my heart that I was making a difference to the patients, and the proficiency of my nursing skills was at an all time high. The friendships I formed with my fellow caregivers were unlike any I have experienced since then. And an awareness of how precious life is from moment to moment has stayed with me, as the year spent with the injured and dying young men taught me to treasure each day. They taught me about bravery and about loving others, and in my dreams I still see some of their faces. I will carry the memory of them for as long as I live. They are a part of me, like the marrow in my bones.
The country, beautiful and lush, became a battleground where too many died. It calls to those of us who were there to come and see it at its best, to be awed by the beauty of its mountains, beaches and lovely blue seas. Sometimes I am curious about how it would look to me now, forty two years later, and at other times I have no desire to see it again, feeling the place has been forever changed because of what occurred there. I wonder if the sadness lingers, almost tangibly, like it does in some other battlefields I have visited, where beauty and pain coexist. While the best it has to offer pleases the eye, the worst lives on in the memories of those who remember it during wartime.
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