My last excursion out into the field with the MEDCAP team was a combined MEDEVAC with the medics of MACV, and occurred approximately two weeks before my DEROS home.
Ryan and I were in the barracks smoking a joint like we always did, and at approximately 1600 hours (4PM), the klaxons sounded at MACV for the MedEvac teams to scramble, and a few minutes later, Ryan and I were at the flight line. The small village of Trung My Tay had just been hit with VC mortars about 20 minutes ago. There were reports of several KIA’s, but these were unconfirmed. Several weeks prior to this, we had been there inoculating about 75 children that lived in the village, as was our usual rounds to do. We knew the area pretty well.
As we arrived on the tarmac, a C-47 gunship and 3 MedEvac choppers were waiting with engines running. It had started to rain, and before we got out of the
Jeep, a deluge had set in, and we were soaked to the gills. The rain smashed into our faces like rubber bullets. Puff took off first, running point, and the 3 cracker boxes followed about two klicks behind.
In 10 minutes, we arrived, and as we approached, we observed the gunship hovering, spinning slowly in place, while two door-gunners let loose several short bursts from the mini-guns, and the 10 rounds-per-second staccato sent 50 caliber full metal jackets crashing into the tree line below. The bullets cut a visible path through the heavy rain and humidity; the sound of brass shell casings hitting the diamond plate steel deck of the C-47, and bouncing off the rocks of the LZ could be heard, even above the din of the engines. With no return fire from the surrounding woods, the 3 Hueys landed in a small field adjacent to the village, under the watchful eye of Puff the Magic Dragon hovering above, slowly pivoting around its main prop.
We dismounted and paired off into six teams of two. With BAR’s and M-40’s at the ready, we spread out along the edge of the field and walked into the village through a short patch of trees perhaps 75 yards wide. As we reached the village, we learned that two civilians had been killed; their bodies taken away before we got there. About 40 or so were injured; six of them seriously enough to be taken out, team members helping them to the choppers. As we walked the pattern, several elderly women went about screaming, going around aimlessly like they were searching for something. One of several terracotta buildings was apparently hit, as its roof was totally gone, and one wall facing the center of the village, had a gaping hole in it.
The team found the ARVN patrol on the far side of the village. Eight of them were walking the far tree line for cover, and apparently the attack had come from that direction. Four of the ARVN’s were in another building, their wounds being tended to by three or four of our team. They were airlifted out five minutes after we found them. We heard each chopper as it lifted off, and headed back to Tan Son Nhut.
As Ryan and I completed our search, we came upon a small grass-covered hut. It had been set afire, and apparently extinguished by the heavy rain. As we entered, we found a small boy, about 7 or 8 years old, lying under a bamboo cot with his back to us, curled up in the fetal position. We pulled the cot away, and noticed the blood on his clothes. Gently, and with great care, we turned him over on his back, and found where he had been hurt. He wasn’t crying, and we couldn’t tell whether it was shock, or the stoicism of this little boy that kept his tears at bay. The wound was serious; a piece of flimsy metal, about 4 inches long, was stuck in his belly, about 3 inches above the naval. There was lots of blood
– dark, almost black, and the smell of bile, which meant that this kid was in very serious trouble.
We carefully pulled his little hands away from the wound; he fought us to keep them there, and I reassured him, saying: "it’s okay, boy-sahn… it’s okay…", and I started to cry, the water from my rain-soaked hat dripping on my face, hiding the tears. I cried because of the way he looked at me, and I knew; and I didn’t know if he knew that I was lying to him… that it was NOT okay… it was NOT okay. There was too much blood; his shirt and short pants soaked in blood and to me, it seemed too much for a small child to lose and still live. If he was to have any chance at all, we had to get him back to the base hospital… this was taking too long… everything seemed to happen in slow motion, even the water dripping off my hat… "Trails" from the potent marihuana we smoked not 45 minutes ago.
Ryan pulled the boy’s arms out to the side, and he winced, but didn’t cry. Kneeling, Ryan at his head, and I between his feet, we gently put our arms under him; interlocking hands to forearms in a stretcher carry. Slowly, we lifted him; his arms and legs dangling over our arms. He seemed delicate; frail, like a tuft of cotton, he weighed nothing, or so it seemed, as we carried him out into the pouring rain and across the village towards the Landing Zone. No one came up to us as we carried him, and at least I, at the moment, never thought that he may have had family here.
As we got to the LZ, the last of the 3 cracker boxes had taken off. Puff was sitting there, four ARVN’s aboard, and ready to lift off. Apparently, Ryan and I were the last ones out, having taken so much time with this child. As we approached the Port side of the chopper, the pilot who was a 90-day wonder by the name of Petrovik, took the main prop slightly out of zero-pitch, sending the already heavy rain down on us like shards of sharp glass. I’ll never forget that son-of-a-bitch as long as I live. This guy was an experienced pilot, and he knew the effect that the prop-wash had. He was trying to make us drop the boy, or starting to take off without us, because as we handed the boy to the ARVN’s inside, Petrovik said: "No f---in’ gook is flyin’ in my ship
– no way
– leave him!" I replied: "What?" not believing what I just heard. He replied: "I don’t take gooks in my bird
– no way!" I told him: "F--- you, pal, he’s goin’!", and I jumped in past the door-gunner, and Ryan climbed up on the outrigger. Petrovik would still not take off, saying: "Dump that little slope bastard". Ryan got in, and he looked at me out of the corner of his eye for a second. The experience was like telepathy. Then he turned to Petrovik, and "narrowly looked upon him", as the
Bible says in Isaiah 14. I unholstered the 9.62mm automatic pistol I had, and with the most intense anger and rage I’ve ever experienced, jerked the slide back, ejecting an already chambered round onto the cockpit’s steel deck, replacing it with a fresh one from the clip to make a point. I jammed the weapon into Petrovik’s ear, pushing his headset earpiece onto his face. Ryan held the co-pilot at gunpoint with his .45.
"He’s a f---in’ gook, man! Probably a VC", Petrovik said. I replied: "He’s a human being… a little kid. Fly or die scumbag!" Ryan added: "I’ll do it, mother-f---er! Dump you in a f---in' rice patch and report you as an MIA!". "who’s gonna’ fly this…" Petrovik started. Ryan cut in: "I’ll fly this shit-box myself! I ain’t playin’!"
My hand was beginning to shake, and anyone in his right mind knows that fear and anger, and guns in combination, usually end up with somebody dead. Petrovik was an asshole, but he was no dummy. He put his headset back in place slowly, pitched the rotors and took off.
Ryan then took over for me, as one of the ARVNs and I tended to the boy. The Vietnamese soldier tried to talk to him, but the boy never spoke a word. The pot I smoked just before we left base was starting to wear off. I looked at the wound; a nasty, ragged entry, still oozing blood. I dared not touch it; I could not tell how deep inside him the shard of metal went. The shrapnel was thin, like a shard from a tin roof. I hit him in the thigh with half an ampoule of Morphine; seconds later, the look of pain and terror faded from his face. I tried his pulse
– wrist and jugular
– I couldn’t find it, perhaps because mine was racing. I packed wet gauze around the wound trying to immobilize the metal fragment as much as possible. I started the traditional IV’s, having to use the femoral veins, because there were no veins visible anywhere else on his body.
"My God, Candy", I said to Ryan, "there’s too much blood… too much f---in’ blood!", as the steel deck was covered in dark crimson, mixing with the terrible deluge being blown in by the prop-wash.
I felt like hugging him… no, covering him with my body… to protect him, keep him warm, make him safe
– I don’t know. He reached up as if he read my mind, and his eyes… wonderful, trusting, deep black eyes, pleading with me to save him… or thanking me for taking away the pain, I couldn’t tell. I took his little outstretched hand and placed it between my hands. Our eyes were locked together. At that moment, I wouldn’t have hesitated to trade my life for his. In a few minutes, we landed at the field hospital on Tan Son Nhut.
Ryan and I carefully placed the boy on a stretcher, and two medics from the hospital carried him inside. They took him to the Operating Room, where the doctors cut away his blood-soaked clothes. Ryan and I were standing on either side, in the way, but too emotionally attached to be persuaded to leave. Each of the doctors told us in turn "You guys get out’a here!" In one ear and out the other. We held the boy’s hands as is the Vietnamese custom for friends to do, as the nurses washed him head-to toe with PhisoHex, more IV’s, more IV’s were piggybacked into the ones already in place, and a number of tests all done simultaneously.
A doctor, gave him another shot of morphine, and he looked up at Ryan and I and I said, "Numbah one, GI, beacoup big-time numbah one". I squeezed his tiny hand gently, and Ryan said the words for me:
"Numbah one boy sanh, numbah one!" In the slang of the Vietnamese children,"numbah one" was a high compliment; a loose translation would be "the best." If you were "beaucoup big-time numbah one", then well, you’re one step short of being canonized as a saint. A blood transfusion was finally started, and rain-soaked as we were, cold in the air-conditioned trailers, we were both touched and warmed by this little soul, as we exchanged to both thumbs up sign, as he was taken away to the x-ray lab, he smiled, with a wonderful look in those deep black puppy dog eyes, and knew that he made to new friends.
Ryan and I left the hospital, and we headed to the VNAF club to get a drink and something to eat. I needed a joint, and it reached into my shirt pocket, and found mud, pot mud. "Damn!" Ryan said," You look like shit
– like somebody flung shit and didn’t miss". "Look who’s talking", I responded, both of us were a mess, soaked, blood all over us, our 16’s draped over our backs, condoms stretched over flash suppressors. Like they are really going to let us in the officers club like this! We decided to go get cleaned up. It was still raining, and as we walked down the street, we were confronted by a 2nd lieutenant, who compared to us, looked like he just stepped out
of a Macy’s store window. He started to reprimand us for our weapons, and our clothes. Tan Son Nhut AB was not what you might expect in the middle of a war zone. It was in R&R base, and you were supposed to be in proper attire. No weapons were carried except by the MPs and us. The
Lieutenant was really upset at the big peace symbol embroidered on my jungle hat. In the middle of his tirade, Ryan interrupted, flipped him "the bird", and said "Sss’key’ooozze me… but fuuu--k you!" to which the reply was, "what did you say, BOY?"Ryan calmly replied "F--- you… SIR!" and we both turned our backs to him and walked away. We agreed that one dipshit today, (Petrovik) was more than enough, and that two in a row was approaching the limit of human tolerance. We also agreed they’d never let us into the officers club, looking like we did, so it went back to the barracks and got washed up first.
We sat at the bar drinking Tiger beer and wolfed down a few burgers. We talked for what seemed like hours, but were only 20 minutes at best, about what we were going to do if Petrovik tried to have is court-martialed. He seemed like the sort of rat bastard, who would file charges. Ryan said "he wouldn’t dare… he was ordered to fly the mission, man, that’s all… fly the god damned mission. It wasn’t his decision to make
who got lifted out. He says a f---ing word, and I’ll frag the son of a bitch. "F---in", Aye!" I said, and we did the soul- brother handshake thing, and downed another Red Tiger beer.
After awhile, we headed back to the field hospital. We were supposed to file a report with the commanding officer, and most of all we wanted to check on our little friend and see how he was doing. When we arrived, a few members of our team were still there, sitting in the corridor, ’16’s propped up against the wall in a corner. When they saw us, they told us that they had spoken to the four ARVN’s in Petrovik’s chopper, through one of the interpreters. They told us they’d be our witnesses, if anything like a court-martial ever came of the incident.
We waited with them for awhile, until the surgeon walked out of the hall from one of OR’s. He came up to us, pulled the white surgical cap off his head and said "sorry guys, but
your little friend did make it. Shrapnel tore his spleen and intestines up pretty bad. There was nothing we could do… nothing more we could do." The metal fragment was a flattened piece of steel from a makeshift roofs constructed out of cans or scrap metal. "The x-rays", the doctor said, "showed the fragment was bent inside him. It was too well-integrated to remove. We tried… it was no use."
Ryan and I turned around in unison, and walked the short length of the corridor and out into the street. I guess we didn’t want the others to see how the news affected us. We were both at the brink of tears. We never found out the kid’s name, didn’t really know where he came from, or who his parents were, or even If they were still alive.
Ryan put his big hand around the back of my neck, squeezed hard, then looked at me for moment, blinking the tears from his eyes and said "Oh, man!"… He didn’t have to say another word. We slung our 16’s over our backs, put our arms around each others’ shoulders, and walked away slowly, following the base perimeter fence around to the age of the airfield. We walked along the dirt road used by the MP’s to patrol the base perimeter, following the inside airfield fence for about 3 miles, until we came to our barracks at the other side of the base. The walk took about an hour, and we didn’t say a word to each other the whole time, and after we learned that the boy’s body had been taken back to the village for burial, we never mentioned it again. Two weeks later, I was back home in the States. The rest of my life from the moment I got off that plane, I lived the ultimate DEROS fantasy. It was real!