I.C.U. was nothing more or less than a long single room with three beds in it. There were no windows, no television set, but, I noted as I was wheeled in, there was the ubiquitous large clock mounted on the wall over the doubled doors that had split down the center to allow my bed through. The clock ticked loud enough to hear across the room and its big second hand clicked from one second to the next. The middle bed was missing so I knew I wouldn’t have to be transferred from bed to bed, an agonizing process.
Corporal Shoot approached the side of my bed and fussed with some of the tubing still running out from both my wrists and my neck. At some point in my hazy drug state, only truly interrupted by the hour or hour and a half when the pain brought frightful clarity back into my life until the morphine deadened it again, they’d removed the I.V. that had been running in my thigh. I could move my legs again, as those restraints had been taken off, as well. Although not painful, the wrist restraints were terribly uncomfortable because I couldn’t move my torso almost at all, and just laying frozen in the same position, angled a little higher or lower by the cranking of the bed, didn’t quite give me any sense of freedom at all.
Shoot stuck a chunk of ice into my mouth without asking me if I needed it. “The cottonmouth thing is a function of the opiates in your system,” he said when he saw my frown, “and you’ve got a load of that circulating around.”
“Letter,” I got out, around the chunk of ice, which I had to attempt to manipulate around my mouth without using my hands.
“Both posted,” Shoot replied with a smile. He then quoted me about what he’d written in each letter. “I made copies of both letters but you can’t read right now, anyway. Kathy’s got one of those Xerox 813 things at the nurse’s station.”
I breathed in and out deeply, not yet needing a shot, and felt some relief from the worry I was occasionally experiencing over my situation. The fact that it did not seem that anyone really knew whether I would live or die bothered me.
If I died, then what would my new wife and even newer daughter do. Neither of us had come from wealthy families. There were no reserves, no calling the parents or any of that if the money I was earning dried up completely.
“My Marines,” I breathed out, trying to understand why there was no place to go to find out what had happened to everyone I’d left behind.
“You have to think about you for the time being,” Shoot said, “and I have to go. I’m not an I.C.U. corpsman, so I’ll see you again when they kick you back onto the floor. You’ll get more attention in here than I could give you anyway.”
Shoot walked out through the double swinging doors, leaving them gently waving as if saying the goodbye he hadn’t spoken. I wondered whether hellos and goodbyes might ever return in my life. There were no real social introductions or goodbyes in combat, and they didn’t seem to exist in the hospital where I’d ended up either. People just came and went. As I turned my thoughts to Kathy, she walked through the doors.
Kathy walked over to check out my I.V. solutions, then turned on a tiny flashlight to look into each of my eyes. She didn’t say hello, so I didn’t either.
“Your condition is critical, still,” she said, stepping back from the right side of my bed, “but your prognosis is now guarded instead of poor.”
“Both good news and bad news in that one,” Kathy went on, moving to the bottom of the bed to pull something from a holder placed somewhere that I couldn’t see.
I had no question for her, so I didn’t reply, simply staring at her and waiting.
“The good news is that you may not die after all, and the bad news is that you aren’t prognosis poor so you can’t have your wife flown here at government expense to be with you.”
“But, I didn’t know,” I breathed out, the NG tube down my nose and throat making it difficult to talk.
“No, almost nobody does, and there’s usually too little time, anyway.”
“It’s like your brother,” Kathy said.
“My brother?” I asked. “How do you know anything about my brother, much less why my wife’s not coming has anything to do with him?”
“The file was just updated here by telegram,” Kathy replied, “since he was evidently notified in the Army hospital where he’s a patient in Yokohama. It appears he’s coming to Yokosuka to see you before going home since he’s being released.”
“My question,” I got out, the pain slowly beginning to edge out from under the morphine cloud that could only contain it for short periods of time.
“Oh, yes,” Kathy said, remembering. “Your brother and you didn’t have to be in the same combat theater. The Army and Marine Corps abide by the Sullivan policy, which means you would have had to apply to the heads of those services for one of you to go home, or someplace else. They always approve those, but neither of you apparently ever applied.”
“But I didn’t know,” I said again, shocked to my core about how little I had understood, and still didn’t understand, about going off to war.
“Yes,” Kathy replied. “I’ve figured out, in my time here, that such things are not taught in any training school you might have attended, but they sure as hell should have been.”
I didn’t want Kathy to leave, but I wasn’t sure I could take any more painful revelations about the stuff I had not gotten or lost because I was so ignorant about it.
“They’re both unconscious,” I said, trying to look back and forth, over at my companions in the room, surprised that the drapes, capable of going around each bed and suspended down with small chains and hooks, were not isolating each one of us in the unit.
“Induced comas,” Kathy responded, “they’ll be out in a few days, but at least you’ll get to see their fathers again if they live. Both fathers are good guys.”
I’d never heard of Marine generals referred to in such casual and familiar terms before and my opinion about Kathy continued along on its steady rise.
I wondered how long I’d be in the I.C.U. and how long it would be before my brother showed up at the hospital, and how long it would be until my next morphine shot. The pain was growing again, like a rising King Cobra in the jungle, with a bite that hurt like hell but didn’t mercifully kill you.
“Too bad they won’t be part of the Marine Corps Board of Inquiry coming here,” Kathy said, checking my I.V. flows, the bag I now wore on the outside of my stomach, and the tube running into my lower body part to take care of my ‘flow’ as she described it.
The phrase she’d mentioned, seemingly in passing, had taken a moment to penetrate through my drug-induced mind. A Board of Inquiry in the Marine Corps was a board to investigate a circumstance or Marine Officer facing less than honorable discharge. It was a court, in reality, but not having as many tools or punishments a court-martial process might entail.
I desperately wanted to ask Kathy about who the board was meeting about and when, but could not get myself together enough to put the right words together before she was gone, sweeping through the double doors as Shoot had done before her.
I didn’t know where my glasses were. All through Marine training, I’d been able to wear contact lenses but the conditions out in the field in Vietnam, especially down in a place so miserable in every physical way, as the A Shau Valley was, had forced me to dig out my emergency pair of regular glasses. Where they were now was probably anybody’s guess. I wasn’t going to watch television anyway – not under the circumstances. If the board of inquiry was for or about me then I wanted to see what was going on, not simply try to make out fuzzy shaped creatures across the room. I could see fine, but only up close and maybe out to ten feet out in front of me without my glasses. I pushed the red button I’d been given in case I needed something.
Kathy appeared through the doors in seconds.
“Anything wrong?’ she asked.
“I need to talk to Corporal Shoot, and I need my glasses,” I said.
“He works on the ward, not down here,” she replied, moving close to the side of my bed, and pulling a drawer out of a small table I could only hear from where I lay.
“I need to see him about something personal, not related to his duties,” I said, after a few seconds.
“Personal?” Kathy said, placing my folded glasses into my left hand. “You just got here, and you’ve been loaded on morphine. How could you have anything personal to discuss with a corpsman?”
I didn’t answer, slowly taking my glasses shakily between my bandaged bad hand and my nearly equally bandaged good hand.
Kathy pulled the glasses gently from my grasp and placed them carefully on my head. She stepped back a few paces, spread her arms out, and said “Voila, how do I look?”
I realized, for the first time, that she was a remarkably beautiful woman.
“You look good,” I replied.
“Well, hell, that doesn’t seem like much, but then good is the best report anyone can get on their condition and prognosis, so I’ll take it.”
She waited for a few seconds, before putting her arms down. I could literally see her facial expression changing, as she realized I was not answering her question about Shoot.
“I’ll get word to the ward, about the corporal,” she finally said, before flitting through the doors once more.
Seemingly hours later, a Marine Corps General, wearing greens and sporting two silver stars on each shoulder, stepped carefully through the double doors.
He walked to the bottom of the bed to my left. He had to be General Masters, I figured.
“How you doing son?” he asked across the short distance to the bed to his unconscious son, his voice low, soft, and not commanding at all.
The general’s son said nothing, of course, the breathing apparatus pushing air in and out of his lungs through long plastic tubes, in both Puller’s and Master’s situations, puffing and swishing to make the only sounds in the room.
“There’s a card, tucked into a small envelope at the bottom of your son’s bed, sir,” I said to the general. “I was condition critical and prognosis poor but just got upgraded to prognosis guarded. You might want to read that card if Kathy hasn’t told you anything for a while.”
“I see,” the general said, looking over at me, and then taking a few steps toward the corner of his son’s bed.
“Condition critical, prognosis fair,” he read, before putting it back. “Fair must be pretty good compared to poor. That’s a relief. Thank you.”
The general walked over to the side of my bed. “You’re new,” he said, “what happened to the guy before you?”
“Shipped out, they said, sir,” I replied, looking at the general’s chest full of ribbons, some that I couldn’t even recognize.
“Hmmm,” the general replied. “Tell me about yourself and what happened over there.”
I tried to give a good account of myself but the pain was beginning to slowly overpower my ability to speak. Kathy came through the doors while I was talking about my family.
“Okay, that’s enough for him,” she said briskly, acting more like the general than the general himself.
“Anything I can do for you, just let me know,” General Masters said, patting my left shoulder lightly. “I’ll be back every day until he’s out of here.”
“Pain shot,” I replied, grimacing, meaning the words for Kathy.
“She’ll do that, won’t you Kathy?” the general said, this time using his general’s voice while turning to face her directly.
“Yes, sir,” Kathy replied, responding as formally to the man as he’d been to her.
“I’ll take my leave,” he said, bowing slightly toward me before turning and walking through the doors.
“You take orders pretty well,” I got out between the waves of pain that were building at my very center and radiating outward to even the tips of my fingers and feet.
“Not too difficult,” Kathy said, with a half-laugh. “especially when properly equipped.”
She held up the syringe she’d been carrying all along in her left hand. She grabbed my right arm I.V. tube, punched the needle through the plastic, and pushed the yellow liquid into me.
I felt the drug entering my system almost instantaneously, knowing however that the full effect of its magical presence would not be felt for several minutes. Absolutely knowing that relief was coming was a form of relief all in of itself.
“Corporal Shoot’s outside,” Kathy said, discarding the syringe in her usual manner.
“Junior,” Shoot said, his head the only part of his body sticking through the doors.
“Need a minute of your time, alone,” I got out, still waiting for the drug to allow me to be fully communicative again.
“I’m gone,” Kathy said, going out as Shoot was coming in.
“What is it?” Shoot asked, his brow wrinkled and real curiosity in the tone of his voice.
“Board of Inquiry,” I said, my voice rough.
“Yeah, they’re waiting to talk to you. It’s the buzz of the whole hospital. They flew all the way from Da Nang, apparently. They sure want to talk to you. What happened in that valley you talk of, anyway?”
“What ranks are they?”
“Bird Colonels, three of them, a female staff sergeant carrying equipment and a major probably along for the ride.”
“Court recorder, the woman,” I said more clearly, the drug beginning to do its work. I’d asked for the board officer ranks in hope that one or more of the officers was a lieutenant, but that wasn’t to be. A board of inquiry to dishonorably discharge would not be formed and implemented without having officers all senior to the rank of the person being investigated for discharge. The major would be the reporter, or prosecutor if it had been civilian, so his rank didn’t matter.
“I can have an advocate,” I said, knowing that I could do at least that.
I could demand an attorney when the hearing started if it was a hearing about what I thought it was about.
“I need somebody tough and smart but I don’t know anybody here like that.”
“I sure do,” Shoot said, “and you got it. You have been through hell, you’re still in hell, and this is the last piss poor thing you need to have to put up with right now. I can’t be there but you won’t be alone.”
“When are they coming?” I asked, preparing myself to talk to Kathy so that I would not be in my last hour of the morphine wearing off when they came.
“Doctor’s cleared you for one twenty-minute session,” Shoot said. “As soon as I leave here I’ll get your advocate and have her scoot over here. And, don’t ever forget something sir,” Shoot went on, backing slightly away from the foot of my bed. “It don’t mean nuttin,”
Shoot left without saying another word.
“She?” I whispered to the waving doors, the drug fully taking away the pain and allowing me to seemingly float a little over the top of the mattress I was on.
How could I ever return home or to the USA with a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge on my record? Would I even have to give the Purple Heart back? My wife wouldn’t care, I knew, but I was also sure that everyone else who found out sure would, especially when it came to getting a job, and for the rest of my life. Worse than the future, however, was trying my best not to review over and over in my head the number of times I had committed bad conduct or acted dishonorably. The discharge, if the board found against me, would be unbearably painful but it wouldn’t be unjust.
“She?” I asked myself again. Who might the ‘she’ be?
The door opened and the Marine Staff Sergeant entered, pushing a cart with electronic equipment atop it before her. Shoot came in after her carrying a stack of folding chairs.
I breathed in and out deeply as if preparing for another charge of the North Vietnamese Army or getting ready to launch one on our own. I wondered as I waited, whether I would ever come out from under experiencing one terrifying event after another. The morphine helped reduce more than the physical pain, I realized. Although I was breathing deeply in preparation for coming combat, I was not feeling the core constricting terror I’d so often experienced down inside the A Shau Valley. The morphine would only allow me to feel fear. It blocked the stupefying terror that combat demanded, however.
The three Colonels walked through the double doors and Shoot departed. He turned slightly as he left, giving me a thumbs up with his right fist held close to his side and winking with one eye. Shoot was telling me that it would all be okay, but I couldn’t find any foundation for his having such a belief.
The colonels were all bird colonels, as he’d described. They sat down, arranging their three chairs in a straight line against the wall just out from Master’s bed. The Staff Sergeant sat on the other side of the doors, between my bed and that of Puller. I watched her bend down and plug a cord in. I realized she was there, away from the colonels, because of where the only plug outlet was located.
I looked at the colonels, but none of them would look back at me. Another bad sign, I thought. I wondered if they would start with a reading of the charges, and tried to think of the specifics of things I’d done that might be the ones that they would use. The major entered last, after everyone else, bringing his own folding chair and carrying a thick briefcase. He placed the chair exactly in front of the swinging doors and then sat down on it. There would be no interference while the supposed twenty-minute hearing was taking place. He placed the briefcase down by his right side and then opened it to pull a thick file out and set it across his lap.
I looked up at the clock on the wall, memorizing the time. Twenty minutes of more hell, I thought. “Can I do twenty minutes?” I whispered to myself.
“Lieutenant?” the major asked, looking up from what I presumed to be my file.
I shook my head, afraid to say anything. I wouldn’t whisper to myself I instructed myself, knowing that even having such thoughts was a function of the drug I was on. How could they hold a hearing and convict me when I was so totally out of it, I had no idea, but I was still a Marine and by God, I would go out like one.
There was a push against the double doors, jarring the reading major, and when the doors did not immediately open, a hard, insistent knocking against the wall behind where the three colonels sat.
The major came to his feet and moved his briefcase and chair before easing the doors open a bit.
A tall woman piled right into him, physically moving the major before stepping to the bottom of my bed, and then turning to face the tribunal.
I recognized the woman and was shocked.
“Alright, let’s get something straight here,” she said loudly, pointing over at the three colonels. “I’m this patient’s advocate and that pulls a lot of weight in this Navy facility. If I determine, for any reason, that the patient cannot or will not continue then this hearing is over. Does everyone understand?”
There was a silence in the room, only the respirators swishing away, as before.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” the colonel on the left side of the three replied, keeping his own voice much softer and lower than the woman’s. “You have no authority here.”
“My husband is in command of this entire facility,” the woman said. “He’s waiting by his phone. If I call him, then, without delay, all of you will be holding your so-called hearing in some Japanese restaurant in downtown Yokosuka.”
The colonel swallowed once and then looked at his fellow colonels, who did not look back at him.
“Out of consideration for your current position, we’re going to make an exception, off the record, ma’am.” The colonel pointed toward the Staff Sergeant and then slashed one finger across his neck. “We’ll begin this meeting, from the beginning, when the sergeant is ready.”
I waited, while everyone else waited, for the sergeant to get her machine ready.
Somehow, I felt better, even though I knew I was probably steaming full ahead into very rough and dangerous seas.