During the Vietnam War, I was a 1st lieutenant nurse stationed at Clark AFB hospital in the Philippines. During my tour, more than 90 percent of Vietnam casualties were routed through Clark. They were treated immediately or they were rerouted to other military establishments throughout the Continental United States to continue their care.
My first year at Clark was spent in charge of two operating rooms. They were the most bloody of all the rooms; all of the surgeries done in these rooms were performed on multiple casualties on individual men. Most days I was so glad to end my 12-hour shift,(my feet, back, hair, knuckles, brain hurt) except that this was the week before Christmas and all hands were on deck.
Christmas carols were blaring in the halls throughout the hospital. After my shift, I walked down to the huge recovery room to see if the staff needed extra help. At first, the recovery room looked empty. It WAS empty, except for one stretcher in a corner, with the sun still streaming on the face of the patient. I walked over to the Marine Captain, (his chart was at the foot of the bed.) All the recovery staff were at the nurses desk, singing White Christmas. Apparently, all The other patients were sent to the wards.
The staff had checked on my Captain within the last few minutes. At first I thought they were taking the rest of their time on duty to relax from a very busy day. As they had only one patient left, I wondered why they were all still there. They were softly singing White Christmas, all with tears in their eyes. I thought they were homesick especially since it was a holiday… I went back to the only patient they had left.
Clark Air Force Base
The Captain was lying quietly, his young and handsome face bathed in the sunlight. As I approached the head of his bed, I saw the tears. The sheets were wet with tears. Apparently the Captain had been weeping for quite a while. I read his chart. It was easy to see why this veteran marine was crying. I too, cried unabashedly.
It’s not as though this was the first patient I wept over, and he would certainly not be the last. War, disease, accidents- many reasons to cry for any nurse during his or her career, and especially at a military hospital in the middle of a war. However, the Captain’s situation was heartbreaking.
My Captain, a Father of 2 little boys, had spent 4 years in the midst of the war in Vietnam. He spent those years in the middle of the severest fighting. He was being decorated for his bravery just prior to stepping onto the plane to take him home forever.
A stray bullet from a nearby firing range on base made the Captain a quadriplegic; he would be forever paralyzed from his neck down.
The Captain never said a word while I stayed by his side until he was transferred to the ward.
And the holiday music played on…