Medic in the Green Time

After the shooting stops, after the wounded girl is hoisted away, after we step past the bodies and the man with no head, after the RTO steps in brains, the lieutenant says,“You gonna put me in for the Purple Heart,Doc?” and I said “No.”

Here is how it happened:

In one great sudden BAANG the mines explode. The enemy shriek so long and loud we must cover our ears to mute the horror.

The survivors run past firing volleys to draw us out. All night, the wounded and maimed wail and groan until they are dead.

In the morning we recon the automatic ambush. A half dozen bodies lie bunched in a heap. A few meters on a man locked in rigor mortis sits on a tree stump, his death face intact. His corpse, all of them, is ripped and riddled by the Claymores deadly steel pellets.

The lieutenant walks forward. “Chieu hoi!” he shouts. But the old man will not surrender and lifts his AK and the lieutenant wastes him BRRRAAPP. Then everyone opens up. When the shooting stops, when the smoke clears, when the gun team does not reload, the old man is headless but the young girl next to him appears to wake from a dream.

“Doc, get up here!” shouts the lieutenant.

Flat on her back, she lifts her arm and reaches desperately for my canteen. Everyone wonders: Will he do it? Waste good water on a fucking dink? And I’m thinking: never see that GI one quart canteen again. Contaminated. Poisoned. Untouchable. Will he do it?

The girl, claymored, shot, dehydrated from lack of water, loss of blood, opens her parched lips, makes strange guttural sounds.

What to do? What?

A silent voice says,”Give it to her. Just give it.”

From behind me, “How is she, Doc?”

I tell the lieutenant both her legs are broken. From the mines or machine guns, it’s hard to tell. I tell him there’s nothing to make splints except rotted bamboo. She groans. More water. More. Everyone looks and listens as the girl glugs it down, falls back to sleep.

Snap. Someone pops yellow smoke. Purple.

“Medivac inbound in zero ten,”says RTO Mike Wilson.

When the bird arrives they kick out a litter. We strap her in, they hoist her up. Then they are gone.

There is time to scavenge for souvenirs. Watches, belt buckles, money–these are the things we crave from the dead. Diaries and family photos-these things have no worth. Why should they? The enemy is an unfeeling slippery bug to be stomped out. They are not human beings.

“Saddle up,” says the lieutenant.

An hour later he kneels, opens his mouth wide, pulls back his upper lip. The left canine incisor is cracked. A make shift paste will do.

“Doc, you gonna put me in for a Purple Heart?” he asks.

“No way, sir. You didn’t get hit. You didn’t get shot. It’s just skull fragments from the dink you killed. No fucking way.”

Later we learn that the girl lived. That hundreds of NVA had stampeded past.

Decades later I have tears for the lieutenant, for the injured girl, the headless man, for all this wars nightmare losses. For the human folly of it all. Folly and sorrow.