The longest day

my ordeal

Perhaps I should call this story “the longest week.” Or maybe even “the longest month.” I can’t remember exactly how long all this went on as I was spending a lot of time concentrating on the pain and not what time it was. Later on I had a terrible fever and didn’t even know what day it was.

It all started one day when my platoon was moving thru the jungle. I noticed my feet were hurting. They were stinging with every step I took. It was bearable but very noticeable. My feet were wet, and had been for quite some time as it was the rainy season in Vietnam and it rained every day, sometimes all day and all night, and there was no dry ground anywhere. I had leech bites all over both feet and the constant wetness would not let the open sores heal. I could not get out of the rain long enough for the sores to dry up. I had probably been in the jungle for about a month at the time and the conditions were beginning to wear me down. The human body can only take so much and then bad things start to happen.

I put up with this for probably a couple of more weeks. The pain in my feet intensified every day until finally I could just about not stand it. I didn’t know what to do, though. It would have been considered unmanly if I had complained. I would have been seen as a sissy just wanting to get out of combat. So, I just bore the pain. I learned how to become a stoic and put up with agony. And it was agony. Every step I took up and down those mountain jungles was felt with exquisite pain the like of which I did not know was possible.

Finally a day came when we were told we would be going to the fire support base for a while. Our fire support base was where we kept our artillery and mortar support. All the companies of the battalion took a turn in rotation of spending a few days on the fire base as its protectors. Our turn at doing this was coming up and I was glad for it. I was in dire need of drying out and resting my feet for a while. At least I thought I was going to be able to do this.

On the day the helicopters arrived and transported us from the jungle to the fire support base, I sought out my platoon’s medic soon after we got there and finally told him about the state of my feet. He agreed they were not in good shape and went and got his medical bag and then proceeded to clean my feet and wrap them in bandages. Finally, clean feet in dry socks and nice bandages! I was looking forward to spending some dry time in my bunker just letting the leech-bite sores on my feet do some healing. It was still raining at the time. In fact, the sky had seemed to be continually pouring day and night for weeks.

I was able to get a couple of hours rest in my hammock inside the dry bunker but someone stuck their head inside the bunker entrance. It was my squad leader. He was telling me that everyone had to go on a detail to lay concertina wire around the perimeter of the base. I protested, telling him that my feet were bad and I had to stay out of the rain as much as possible so they could get healed up but he didn’t want to hear it and told me everybody had to go do it. When you’re in the U.S. Army you can’t say no so I got up on my bad feet and hobbled outside into the rain. I joined the rest of the members of my company and for the rest of the afternoon we stretched out concertina wire around the base’s perimeter. It had at the time already a barrier of concertina wire but I guess we were strengthening it to make it harder for the enemy to get thru. So, I spent the rest of the day until supper time getting my feet wet again and doing my best to bear the pain my leech-bite sores were delivering to me. They were by that time not just open sores but were also infected, with pus running out of them constantly. It wasn’t just my feet, either. I had infected sores all over my body. My arms, legs, hands, and even my ears had pus-filled sores on them. They didn’t hurt so bad but the sores on my feet were exquisite agony every time I took a step or flexed my feet in any way. You see, after being in the jungle a long time without having a chance to bathe your skin builds up dirt and dead skin cells and after a while bacteria begins to form very easily. Any little wound or injury gets infected and is running pus the next day, and there’s a lot of ways to break the skin in the jungle. One of the worsts things was thorn bushes and vines. They were everywhere. Any little thorn prick would be infected quickly, adding to the tally of already infected sores. Another source of injury was the sharp-bladed grasses, particularly elephant grass, which looked like a tall, skinny corn plant with long thin blades. The blades of this grass were very sharp and would cut like a paper cut wherever they dragged across the skin. I had them all over my arms and ears, some on my neck, any place there was exposed skin. All were infected.

I spent the next three days or so doing the same thing. Wanting to stay out of the rain to keep my feet dry but every day being made to go out in the rain and do details or whatever chores our higher-ups thought up. I tried getting the platoon medic to get me out of these details but he only seemed interested in dressing my feet, which he did. My feet were always wet the whole time we were on the fire support base, however, with only a few hours at night to let them dry out some. But there was still night guard duty outside in the rain, which would only get my feet wet again. My plan to get some healing on my feet while on the base was not working out so well.

We had to go out into the jungle on a new mission after a short stay on the firebase. Our stays there were never long, not more than three or four days, and then it would be back out in the jungle on another two to three week mission. I was dreading it. I didn’t know how long I could resist the agony in my feet but I didn’t know what to do about it either. It was just about impossible to ask for help as anything like that was considered malingering and we even had a name for it. It was known as “sham time” as anyone asking for medical help as an excuse to get out of the jungle was considered a shammer and just making it up. In fact, any time spent in the rear area, even if legitimate, was called “sham time” by us grunts. But a lot of us grunts were envious of guys who knew how to get sham time as any day out of combat was considered another day closer to getting out of Vietnam alive. That was not my intention, however, just to get out of combat. I really and truly needed some time to heal my feet but I was not getting it and I did not know how to get it so I just suffered for a long time.

The helicopters came and transported us back to the jungle. I didn’t know where we were. I never did know where we were and I don’t know if anybody else knew either, except for the officers. I guess the officers figured one place was as good as any other in the jungle as far as us grunts were concerned. Our job was simple. Get off the helicopters and walk around in the jungle trying to stir up enemies to shoot.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as my feet hit the ground and I began walking. The same agony of open sores on my feet as I had been putting up with all along, except this time it was even worse. I did not know how long I could stand it before I would collapse and have to drag my self along just by my hands. It was beginning to get that bad.

After getting off the helicopters and walking for a considerable distance it was time to take a break. I know I was sure ready for a break. We all sat down on our helmets to have a dry place to sit as it was raining again and the ground was wet. The captain and his headquarters platoon were traveling with our platoon and I noticed the captain was resting nearby, as was his medic, the chief medic of the whole company. I quickly hatched a plan. I would take off my boots for a few minutes so the captain and his chief medic would see my bandaged feet and maybe I would get some sympathy. I took off my boots and my plan began to work immediately, even better than I had hoped. As I took my boots off the bandages on my feet had turned bright red from blood. This blood even surprised me so I took a close look to see what was wrong other than the usual runny sores. What was wrong was that leeches had worked their way down into my boots and down my socks and had managed to get in thru the wrappings of the bandages. They were sucking on the sores on my feet and the anti-coagulant of their bites was causing blood to run freely and brightly. From where the captain was sitting he saw my bloody feet and I heard him tell the chief medic to go over and take a look at me.

The medic came over and asked me what was wrong with my feet. I told him they had been screwed up and hurting me for quite some time. He took off the bandages and we picked off the leeches and then he looked my feet over and cleaned them up and rebandaged them. He then went back over to the captain and they talked for a while but I could not hear what they were saying. In a few minutes the medic came back to me and he told me that they were going to get me out of the jungle but I would have to wait for the first resupply helicopter which would be coming in three days. I sure was glad to hear this news. Although I would continue to be in agony for three more days the knowledge that I was going to get out of the jungle for a while buoyed me up and kept me going. Finally, someone was doing something to really help me!

I struggled thru the next three days the best I could. I didn’t receive any special treatment during that time. I continued to walk with the platoon and go on patrols with my squad. We didn’t stay in one place in the jungle for very long so we had to move every day and sleep in a different place every night. The company was not going to change its routine just for me. I was sure looking forward to my trip out of the jungle.

Finally the day came for me to get out of the jungle for a while. I had been hoping for this day for a long time and now it was finally happening. I did not know how long I would be away from the company as nobody had told me a time limit but even if I could get a week out of the rain it would be a big improvement for my feet.

The helicopter arrived on its resupply mission to the company and when it had dumped off its boxes and bags of supplies I got on it and it lifted up and away we went. I didn’t really know where it was going to take me so I was somewhat disappointed that it delivered me to our fire support base instead of our rear area back on the coast but anthing was better than walking in the jungle so I got off the helicopter glad to be somewhere other than slogging thru the rain with my feet in agony.

There were on the fire support base a few men from my company who were there for support duties. They would get supplies arranged for the helicopters to take out to the company and do various other similar support duties. I joined up with these men and they took me in and showed me a place to sleep. My “house” was a conex container, a portable steel building which is usually used for storage but can be lived in if the need arises. At least it had a roof and was out of the rain. My “bed” was a pile of bags on the floor that contained clean laundry, clean shirts and pants that would be sent out to the company occasionally if they were going to be out in the jungle an extra long time. The bags felt like a wonderful mattress to me, though. When you live in the mud and rain all the time even simple things can seem wonderful.

I wasn’t going to have to do much of anything during the day but I was disappointed that I was going to have to pull guard duty at night. My fellow company men told me that we had the job of guarding the communications bunker, the place with all the radios, and I would be given a place in the guard rotation. I didn’t like the idea but it was only for a couple of hours at night so I didn’t protest. Besides, by that time the rain had slacked off a lot although it continued to be cloudy, foggy, and dreary.

When the time came that first night for my first turn at guard duty I picked up my weapon and headed for the communications bunker. All I had to do was walk around it for a hour making sure no enemy soldiers would sneak in and blow it up. I was not long into this first stint of guard duty before I began to notice something wrong. I did not feel well, and as the minutes passed, I began to feel even worse. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but by the time my first hour of guard duty was up, I knew that something was seriously wrong with me. When I got back to the conex container that contained my sleeping place, I could barely keep my eyes open and I felt seriously ill and realized a fever was coming on. This fever developed rapidly, so much so that by the time for my next hour of guard duty came around I knew I would not be able to do it. I talked to the other guys in my company and they could see I was not well so they split the remaining guard duty time among themselves so I could skip my stint.

The next three days were a blur. Or was it four days? I don’t know. I was out of it much of the time. I spent all the time lying on my bed of laundry unable to think straight and almost unable to even get up and walk. I suppose I got up to relieve myself and eat but I have no memory of doing so during that time. All I really remember is every morning someone from my company would come by the conex container and see how I was and urge me to go to the medic station on the firebase but I was so sick I didn’t feel like getting up so I didn’t. On about the fourth morning I was again awakened by members of my company but all of them were there that time and they all kept insisting that I get up and go see the medics. I finally dragged myself upright and agreed to go see the medics.

After I arrived at the medic station on the firebase I saw that there were several men ahead of me so I was going to have to wait until my turn came up. While I was outside the medical bunker I noticed a body bag lying there on the ground between me and the aid station. I didn’t know the guy inside the body bag but I had heard his story. Someone had told him he could get high by eating some C4 plastic explosive and he had eaten some. It had poisoned him and killed him. They were unable to evacuate him to a hospital in the rear area because the weather had been too bad and helicopters had been unable to fly at the time. I remember looking at the bag and thinking that could be me lying there. It annoyed me because the body was just lying there in its bag outside on the ground with nobody paying attention to it. Already gone and forgotten. No respect. It should have been inside somewhere and shown some respect.

The medics in the aid bunker finally got to me and asked me what was wrong. I told them about my feet and that I had had a terrible fever for several days. One of the medics took my temperature and looked at me and told me I was going to have to go to a hospital. He wired a tag to my shirt button hole and I took a look at the tag. It had the name of a hospital in Chu Lai and had my temperature on it. 103.4 degrees. Wow, I thought, that’s pretty high. No wonder I had felt so bad.

The medic told me I was going to have to get a helicopter ride out of the firebase so I could get to the hospital in Chu Lai. He told me to go to the communications bunker and get on the list to get off the firebase when the next helicopter came in. So, I went to the commo bunker and went down the steps. There were a couple of men down there operating radios. I told one of the men I was sick and needed a ride to Chu Lai and could he please get me on a chopper. The man looked at me and exploded. He said “And just who-in-the-hell do you think you are to come in here demanding a ride?” He proceeded to chew me up one side and down the other. In my feverish fog I could not think of anything to say and kept wondering why I, a terribly sick man, was having to take a tongue lashing for just asking for a helicopter ride to get to the hospital. He continued to verbally abuse me for quite a while but somehow he eventually produced a piece of paper that would give me a seat on the next Chinook to fly in to the base. He glared at me as I started walking back up the steps of the bunker to go back outside. It was a sign of things to come in what would turn out to be a very long day for me.

I went down to the helicopter pad to wait for the chopper to arrive. Helicopters came and went all the time, bringing in supplies and passengers and taking away passengers. The weather had cleared by that time so choppers were able to fly. The Chinook eventually arrived and after it unloaded its stuff I presented my piece of paper to the load master and got on the chopper and took a seat. I don’t remember much of the flight as I sank back into my fever again. That was to happen to me often throughout the day. At times I would be walking around passed out on my feet. Or sitting down and passing out for a while. In fact, the things I write about here are just what I remember, as I was not thinking straight for most of the day.

The Chinook finally landed and I got off, expecting to be in Chu Lai and find me a quick ride to the hospital. There were some guys in a small shed at the helicopter pad and I asked them the way to the hospital. They told me that I was not in Chu Lai. The helicopter had let me off at the firebase where brigade headquarters was. I was still 30 miles from Chu Lai where I needed to be. I was getting very tired and feverish again by then. I asked the guys in the little shack if they could get me a ride into Chu Lai. They said they could but it would not be there until 2 p.m. and I would have to wait. They set me up to get on the 2 p.m. chopper and I went back behind the shack to find some shade. It had cleared up by then and the sun was shining and hot. I told the guys I was going to lie down in the shade and might go to sleep and would they wake me up when the chopper came. They said they would so I lay down, right on the gravel, and proceeded to pretty much pass out.

I was out for quite a while and when I came to again I asked the guys in the shack how close it was to time for the helicopter to arrive. They told me I had just missed it and there would be no more helicopters to Chu Lai that day. Gee, thanks, I thought to myself and was angry about why they didn’t bother to wake me up when the helicopter came but I was too feverish and sick to argue. I asked them how I was going to to be able get to Chu Lai and they told me I would have to go down to the main gate on the highway and hitch a ride. So, they pointed out the way I should go and I went plodding on my way, wondering what else would go wrong before the day was done. I finally found my way to the highway and found a bunch of other people there also needing rides into Chu Lai. I stood with them waiting for a ride, trying hard not to pass out.

After standing around trying to stay awake for what seemed like an hour, a truck finally pulled up with lots of room. Somebody asked the driver if he would give us all a ride and he said ok. We all climbed in and sat down in the bed of the truck. I was sure glad to get to sit down for a while. I don’t remember much of the 30 mile trip to Chu Lai except drifting in and out of consciousness all the way there. The truck finally arrived in Chu Lai and let us all out at the main PX which was on the military base there. Actually it was more of a military city than a base. The headquarters of many battalions and companies were located there, as well as the headquarters of the whole division, all of these entities having separate compounds connected by roads. There were two hospitals there as well, but I didn’t know how to get to either one. I knew that my battalion compound was next door to one of the hospitals but I did not know how to get to my own rear area. I had spent so much time in the jungle since joining my company that I did not know my way around where our own rear area was. I think I had been there only twice since joining the company and both times for only a couple of days.

After I got off the truck at the PX I stood around for a while trying to figure out what to do. My mind was not working right because I was so feverish I could not think straight. I’m now telling you only the parts I remember because I was so out of it at the time I don’t remember everything.

I eventually just started walking, hoping that I would come across something I would recognize, a sign maybe, pointing to a hospital, or a sign indicating where my battalion’s rear area was. I knew if I could get there I would be ok. I wanted to ask someone for help but since people already had not been helpful during the day I was hesitant to ask anyone anything. So, I just walked. Finally I came to a road intersection and there was a place there where I could sit down for a while and try to think. In my feverish mind I finally conceived a plan. I would go to the division headquarters, the only place which I knew the location of, and try to get help there. Surely they would have an aid station or someone I could talk to to get me going in the right direction. So, I started back-tracking my steps, having already passed division headquarters on the road I was walking on. It was a fair distance, probably a mile or more, and by then I was getting very tired and walking around in the hot tropical afternoon sun was about to cook me in my feverish state. After plodding along for quite some time I finally saw the sign in the front yard of division headquarters, letting me know I had finally arrived at some place where hopefully I could get some help.

Division headquarters had numerous buildings, all connected by boardwalks. These boardwalks were to keep the brass’s boots clean when it rained as it could get very muddy at times. I took one of the boardwalks and started walking, looking for signs of a medical aid station, or any place where I might get some help. I finally spotted an aid station but it was on the other side of headquarters compound so I started walking in that direction. As I was walking along, I saw a warrant officer approaching me coming from the other way. In Vietnam normally we did not salute officers out in the jungle or around the rear area but I figured since I was on division headquarters I had better salute just to be safe so I saluted the warrant officer as we passed and continued to the aid station, which was then getting very close.

I went inside the aid station and there was a medic in there behind the counter. I briefly told him my story and then he got a thermometer and stuck it in my mouth. After he saw the temperature he said yes, you do need to get to a hospital. He said he would call and make arrangements and then drive me there. Finally, some help!

He indicated a table where I could lie down and rest while he was calling the hospitals to see who could take me. As he was talking on the phone I pretty much passed out as soon as I lay down and drifted in and out of consciousness. I thought I heard somebody else talking but I was too out of it to notice what was going on. In a bit I realized the medic was talking to me. “Did you hear that?”, he said. He then told me that a warrant officer had walked in the door and demanded that he call the MPs because I was high on drugs and he wanted the MPs to come and arrest me. I realized that he must be talking about the warrant officer I had passed and saluted outside just a few minutes before. The warrant officer had mistaken my fever for being high on drugs. The medic said he had told the officer that he was not going to call the MPs and that I had a fever and he was going to take me to a hospital. Apparently the medic had saved me, going to bat for me and saving me from the MP’s. I don’t know what would have happened if the MPs had picked me up. They probably would have beaten my feverish head with their nightsticks and dumped me in a cage.

After the drama with the warrant officer, which I missed because I was passed out, the medic told me he would drive me to the hospital. We went out and got in his medical vehicle and he drove me to a hospital. It was the one which was next door to my battalion’s rear area but I wasn’t in shape to think about that much. The medic let me out and I thanked him for his help and he went on his way. I went inside the hospital and checked in at a desk and then was told to go sit in a chair and wait to be helped. I sat in a chair trying to stay awake and conscious for what was probably at least an hour without anyone calling me or paying attention to me. Finally someone called me over to the desk only to inform me that they did not have room in the hospital for me and I would have to go to the other hospital in Chu Lai, but that someone was going to give me a ride. After a wait of what was probably another thirty minutes a guy finally showed up and told me he was my ride to the other hospital. So, I got in his medical vehicle and we made the trip to the other hospital. He let me out in the rear of the hospital near the helicopter pad for bringing in injured and the entrance to the emergency room.

Not knowing really what to do, I found my way to the entrance to the emergency room and went inside. There were two operations going on side by side in the emergency room. The guys on the tables being operated on looked like enemy North Vietnamese soldiers to me from the way their hair looked and what clothes they had on. The surgical teams at both operating tables all turned to look at me but nobody said anything and they all turned back around and went back to their business. I found an examining table away from them and sat down on the table to rest and wait for something to happen, like somebody to show up to admit me or something. I sat on the table for a couple of minutes and then a fat, red-headed nurse, a major, walked into the room carrying some surgical instruments and she, in a rather rude fashion, asked me why I was there and what was wrong with me. I told her I had been on my feet all day with a bad fever trying to find a hospital and that I had been sent there by medics on the fire support base. She then got a thermometer from somewhere and stuck it in my mouth and went back to helping the surgical teams. In a bit she came back over and checked the thermometer. She didn’t say much except to tell me a medic would check me in soon but I would have to wait a while as things were busy. I was so tired by then from the fever, walking, and the heat of the day that I could no longer sit up so I lay down on the table which I was sitting on and tried to get some sleep or pass out or something, anything to rest. In a few minutes the fat, red-headed nurse major came back into the room with more surgical stuff and she rudely ordered me to sit up. I don’t know why. Maybe she just didn’t like sick men resting in her emergency room. She left the room and I lay down again, desperate to get some rest. She came back in shortly and again ordered me to sit up. I could barely pull myself back into a sitting position. This went on for several cycles, me lying down, she coming back to tell me to sit up, and me lying back down again as soon as she left. I was getting really angry at her because she was not helping me and I was a very sick man and she was treating me like a malingerer. Like I was a lazy bum just walked in off the street to find a place to sleep. Kicking me while I was down. It was getting late in the day at that time and twilight was beginning to set in and it had been a long day for me since I first awakened and set out on this odyssey and I was nearly done in, at my limit, the limit of human endurance and I still had to keep pulling up more reserve strength from somewhere just to keep going. Both my mental and physical endurance were close to being maxed out. Too much was being asked of me.

After what seemed like hours but was probably really not that long, Fat Red-headed Nurse took me into the next room where there was a counter with a medic behind it, a guy about my age. Fat Red-headed Nurse told me a doctor would get around to seeing me and to sit down and wait. While I was sitting there in a chair I told my story to the medic. He was sympathetic and understanding. I liked him. He wasn’t like the others. Eventually I got around to seeing a doctor. I actually have no memory of this event as I must have drifted into feverish unconsciousness during that time but I know I ended up getting a pill and a bottle of Phiso-hex, an anti-bacterial liquid soap which was popular at the time. Somewhere along the way I traded my clothes and money to the medic for hospital clothes and he put my money in a safe. Then he took me down a walkway and we eventually came to a ward. He said it would be my ward and he showed me a bed which was going to be mine. The wards at the hospital were quonset huts, a lot of them, connected by covered walkway. I sure was looking forward to that bed.

After the medic left I turned down the bed and got in it, looking forward to a much-needed rest after my long and stressful journey of the day. I lay back and rested and just let myself drift off into feverish but restful sleep.

I don’t know how long I slept but it wasn’t very long before a commotion awakened me. Some medics and a nurse were coming thru the front door of the quonset hut pushing a man in a metal tub on wheels. The tub was full of water and ice and the man was naked and up to his neck in it. The medics and nurse positioned the tub and the man in a place in the quonset hut which was out of the way and they left. Immediately after they left the man in the tub began moaning and cussing. “Somebody get me out of this m—-r f—-r! Oooooh! I can’t stand it!” And on and on he went, for the next hour, as I tried to get back to some much needed rest and sleep. After about an hour of the moaning and cussing and no sleep for me, I heard another commotion at the door. There were the medics and the nurse again pushing in a metal tub full of ice water with a naked man in it. Moaner number two. They positioned the man and his tub next to the first tub and left the quonset hut. The second man began moaning and wailing like the first man. They were moaning and wailing at the same time. “G-d d–m I can’t stand it! Somebody help me please!” And so it went until almost morning. The only sleep I got was when I was able to just pass out for a while. Some people came and got both men and their tubs just before first light of dawn but by then the night was almost over and I had to forget about getting any more sleep for that night.

In the morning I was able to take a look at my ward. Most of the men in it were wounded Vietnamese soldiers as we took care of both ours and theirs. Only a few Americans. I drifted in and out of a fitful sleep, napping as much as I could. I have a vague memory of a woman coming in pushing a cart with breakfast on it so I suppose I ate something but I have no memory of it.

It was light but still very early in the morning when a man came thru the front door of the ward and began walking down the center aisle between the bed rows and taking a brief look at the people in the beds and at their medical charts hanging on the end of the bed. He was the ward-master, the sergeant who had charge of my ward. When he came to my bed he did a double-take and shouted at me. “What the hell’s wrong with you!? Don’t you have any pride!?” I asked him what was wrong and his problem with me was the whiskers on my face. It had been a few days since I had shaved but I had been too sick to bother, and out in the jungle or on the fire support base such things were not worried about. I told him I was a sick soldier and had just got to the hospital after hitch-hiking from the fire support base the day before and that I didn’t have any shaving gear with me. He continued to chew me up one side and down the other for a while. He didn’t seem to be interested in the fact that I was terribly sick. All he was concerned about were my whiskers. After chewing on me for a while he finally left my bed and continued down the aisle checking out the other men on the ward. It was a sign of things to come. I had a feeling that instead of a restful, caring hospital I was not going to like my stay there. The ward-master was a short, heavy-set man with jowls that made him look a little bit like Johnathon Winters. Bulldog jowls. I nicknamed him Bulldog but never called him that to his face. That’s the moniker I applied to him in my mind though any time he was around.

After Bulldog’s visit was over I tried to get some more sleep. It wasn’t long though before he returned carrying a small box. It was a gift box, made up by some organization like the Salvation Army or similar and among the stuff in the box was shaving supplies. I had no doubts about what he wanted me to do. So, I took the shaving supplies and went into the men’s room and had my first shave in a while. I hoped that Bulldog would now be happy and leave me alone to sleep my fever off. It wasn’t long after I had shaved however that Bulldog returned and told me that a medic would be coming in with a tub of laundry and I was to get up and help him fold it and put it away. What? I told him I was a very sick man and needed to rest. He didn’t like that. He took a look at the chart hanging on the end of my bed and told me that the doctor had indicated that I would be able to do light duty. I protested some more but he wasn’t interested in hearing what I was saying. So, instead of lying in bed getting a chance to rest and sleep off my fever I had to get up and fold sheets and pillow cases and blankets. The medic I was helping was a nice guy about my age and I liked him and it wasn’t his fault but I sure was getting to hate Bulldog more and more. Of course, all the time these things are happening my damaged feet continued to hurt but they were dry and getting somewhat better but after all I had been thru I desperately just wanted to lie down and be left alone to rest and recuperate and heal but it was getting to seem like that just wasn’t going to happen.

Although I was certainly sick nobody had actually gotten around to telling me what was wrong with me. I could have had malaria for all I knew. On my first full day at the hospital however sometime during the day when I was not shaving or doing chores I had an appointment with the doctor. He didn’t have much to say, just to ask me how I was feeling. I told him the truth. Terrible. Our conversation didn’t go on very long and was really quite short as officers(the doctor) and enlisted men(me) did not really have long conversations. The doctor didn’t tell me what was wrong with me but sometime during the short visit I was able to see that he had written in my medical record “trop. impet.” After my doctor visit I puzzled over what the abbreviations meant but I was able to pull out of my mind somehow or the other the words “tropical impetigo” and I finally knew what I had, or what they thought I had, anyway. Apparently the infected sores all over my body had finally taken their toll on my ability to fight off infection and that had been when the fever had first set in. The common name for this among us grunts was “jungle rot” and everybody who spent time in the jungle got it. I just had a case of it far worse than most.

I spent about a week at this hospital before I was finally well enough to be released. I so much hated it there that I dreamed and made plans about how to escape somehow and just find an empty bunker on the beach to stay in until I was healed up. I couldn’t figure out how to get my clothes and money back though so that stopped me. I found the hospital a hateful place to be, at least in the attitude I was getting from the higher-ups. The medics my own age there were good guys but anybody else was an asshole who treated me like dirt every chance they could get. They treated me like a bum looking for a handout rather than a war-worn soldier done in by doing his duty too long in the jungle. They had no respect for me at all. They didn’t care that I was sick. They just wanted me to shave, or sit up instead of lying down, or do chores instead of resting my fever. One of the favorite things the ward-master and the nurses liked to do was to wake me up as soon as I tried to take a nap and they would tell me to get up and go take a shower with my anti-bacterial soap. Or if it wasn’t that they would tell me to get up and drink some more koolaid. That was their treatment. Soap for the infected sores and koolaid for the fever. Rest and sleep was apparently not part of the treatment because I got very little of it while I was in the hospital. I was even beginning to look forward to going back to the jungle just to get away from the assholes there. You hear me, Bulldog? You hear me, Fat Red-headed Nurse Major? I’m talking about the two of you especially. Oh, and by the way, this was in 1970, just in case anybody is wondering if it is them. So, if you were a Bulldog or a Fat Red-headed Nurse Major at a hospital in Chu Lai in 1970, I hate you and I always will and you’re not going to get any best wishes from me.

One day during the week of my hospital stay the full-bird colonel who ran the hospital did a tour of the entire hospital, stopping at each bed to look at and talk to the man in the bed. When he got to me I so much wanted to tell him about what I thought of Bulldog and Fat Red-headed Nurse Major but the both of them were present in the colonel’s entourage, one of them on each side of him and I was certain that if I complained they would figure out how to get even with me so I just let it go. Before the colonel left me he told his staff that he wanted cultures taken from the infected sores on my ears. Shortly after the colonel and his entourage were gone two nurses arrived with some swabs to take the cultures from my ears. They both got up real close to my face as they were taking the swabs. They were talking between themselves saying they didn’t know why the colonel wanted cultures because “it’s just jungle rot.” During the time they were taking the cultures neither woman looked me in the eye or even said a word to me. Apparently I was just a soulless object lying in a bed.

So, my routine at the hospital was to sleep and rest at night as best I could, if no moaning ice tub victims were present. By the way, I really was sympathetic to the guys in the ice tubs even if I don’t sound like it. They had high fevers too, even higher than mine was at the time, and there but for the Grace of God woulda been me lying in that ice tub. In fact, my first day at the hospital the medic I was folding clothes with told me that they had considered putting me in one of these ice tubs as well but they thought my fever was just low enough to do without it. But I guess that could very easily have been me moaning and cussing in one of those ice beds. I like to think I would have held up to the treatment better than they did but we’ll never know. I was at least spared the ice tub ordeal.

I spent a lot of time while at the hospital taking showers. The Phisohex antibacterial soap seemed to be actually working as my pus-filled sores began to dry up and heal. I was especially glad to see the sores on my feet healing up. My feet felt better as every day went by. Of course, they probably would have improved if I had done nothing but hide in a bunker and stay out of the rain, and just getting out of the jungle for a couple of weeks and staying clean helped a lot. I continued to hate the people I had learned to hate, the people who seemed to like disturbing someone whose mind is in a feverish fog and kicking them while they’re down and at their most defenseless and getting a charge out of it while doing so. I did nothing to be abused in any way other than to get sick, something I had no control over. This whole jungle-rot and fever episode had made me feel like I was considered dirt and worthless. Never in my whole life had I been so mistreated for not being able to think straight. The words of my writing cannot even come close to conveying how bad it really was. Days of feverish stupor unable to think clearly enough to even know what to do and people treating me bad for it was an almost unbearable combination.

Finally, my stay at the hospital from hell was coming to an end. I had improved enough to be released and I was looking forward to getting out of there. On the day of my release I called my company on the phone and talked to the company clerk and explained that I needed a ride. He was totally surprised and said that they had not known I was in the hospital or they would have been bringing me my mail and stopping by to check on me. I had thought someone in the hospital had surely called my company to let them know where I was but apparently the whole time I was in the hospital no one knew. I had been totally alone. It made me think that had I been healthy I could have spent the whole time AWOL in Saigon having a good time with no one the wiser, ha.

So, the company clerk drove to the hospital and picked me up and took me back to our rear area battalion headquarters. In a way it felt good to be home, away from my hospital tormentors and back among people I could consider my friends. Even the company first sergeant, who was a gruff and tough guy, was a saint compared to some of the people I had encountered throughout my painful agony and feverish hell. That was to be my last stay in a hospital during my time in Vietnam and I am sure glad I never had to endure that hell ever again.

Terry Coats

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