Still Caring for John C

The last time I saw John C he’d been hit by a nervous LOACH door gunner and was screaming bloody murder.

“Doc, get up there,” shouts the lieutenant.

I scramble up the hill, straddle John’s belly, Cobra gunship comes in, lays down rockets and 40mm grenades right over us. I mean right over us. I slap 4×4 gauze bandages on the raw gaping wounds.

“John, stop shaking and pray,” I shout over the rockets and forty mike mikes. “Come on, John. We’re gonna pray to fucking Jesus.”

Pete shoves a cigarette in John’s mouth. I stab him with morphine. Pete and Steve drag John down the hill to a 500 pound bomb crater. After a time a hovering medevac kicks out a litter. We strap John in good and tight. I hook the wench D ring to the canvas litter, put my hand to his ear.

“John, you’re gonna be alright. Everyone loves you.”

Then I fuck up. As the medevac starts to haul John in, when he’s perpendicular to the ground, in a final good bye, like an idiot, I slap his busted arm. He screams in pain, starts to swing across the huge crater, back and forth, the arc of the swing thankfully smaller and smaller, until he’s pulled inside the hovering bird, which lifts, turns, and disappears. That was half a century ago in a place called Song Be.

With the index my third platoon mate Ernie Novak created to catalog his 300 Delta 1/7 Cav flicks, I find John’s last name. I had a vague notion but never got it right. I double check it with our Morning Reports for 1970. Bingo. I enter John’s name in a look-up website. Several men by that name pop up. One, age 74, lives in Connecticut. I send him a hard copy letter. Two weeks later, while drinking coffee and reading at a local café, my cell phone rings. It’s John.

Likely from shock, or the morphine I gave him, he didn’t remember much of that time. John said after a short stay in Japan, where army doctors sought to amputate his arm—a stateside doctor advised against it, he took that advice—John spent a year at a U.S. Army hospital.

“They saved my arm,” he said, “but it’s not much use.” And his leg is not great. And other stuff. But John is feisty and upbeat.

“They didn’t think I could do it, but with one good arm I worked 30 years in construction,” he said. I could almost see him smiling.

“What about the VA?” I asked. “How have they treated you?”

I was stunned by the tale he related.

“Doc, for years I put in for total disability but the VA always denied it. Wouldn’t budge from 90 per cent. Finally, I gave up. But then I got prostate cancer, probably from Agent Orange, which boosted the rating to 100 per cent.”

I asked John about PTSD. I’m thinking LOACH nails him in the arms and leg. I’m thinking Cobra gunship with rockets and red smoke and 40 mike mike grenades. I’m thinking John yelling bloody fucking murder. I’m thinking for Christ’s sake if anyone had war stress he did.

When John said the VA never asked or told him about PTSD I nearly choked on my spit. After we said our good byes I called my friend Kim Emerling, a retired Special Forces Command Sergeant Major, and the highly respected veteran’s agent for Salem, Massachusetts, the town where I live.

“This guy was machine gunned at close range, one arm FUBAR, one leg messed up, other stuff. I was the medic who patched him up. Sergeant Major,” I said. “I cared for this guy, you know what I mean?” I paused a moment to calm down. “I care for him now. Can he put in a retroactive claim for PTSD?” ”

No can do,” said Kim. “Only option: prove VA erred in the case.”

“Are you sure?”


Maybe so, I thought, but I will look into this. Why? Because I was the medic. I will always be the medic. I will always care for third platoon.

top photo: A smiling John C takes a break on patrol. Song Be, Feb 70. photo: Ernie Novak

The friendly fire incident is re-enacted in my short film The Real Deal. See the segment titled “Hecklers” at 4.31 minutes into the video, where John is referred to as Johnny B.