The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 15

January 5, 1968

Dear Frankie,

I promised to write when I landed back in the good ole U. S. of A. I am home with my mama (for now) and sitting on my porch, sipping some sweet tea. Kids are playing kick the can in the street out front. Their laughter is something.

I miss you. I miss us. I even miss the 71st. Speaking of that, you’ll never guess who was on my Freedom bird. Coyote. Lordy, that boy has it bad for you. Showed me a picture of you two at the O Club in Saigon, but don’t you worry. He’ll find a sparkly little cowgirl in Texas.

Life here isn’t what I expected. I took a job at my local hospital and honestly, I’m bored to tears.

I need to find a new path. I’m sick of being treated like a candy striper. There’s not a lot of love for us veterans here.

I don’t know what I’ll do now. It’s hard to go from red alert sirens and saving lives to pantyhose and heels. The world might be changing, but we women are still second-class citizens. And Black women. Well. You do the math.

Life isn’t calm back here. Race riots. War protests. Dr. Spock was arrested for telling guys to resist the draft. The National Guard being called out. But it isn’t war.

I’m kind of at loose ends. Mama recommends more food and dating. Last week she bought me a used sewing machine.

I guess she thinks perfecting a blind stitch hem will revive me. I’m thinking I need a change. Maybe this little town is just too small for me now. But where would I go?

Anyway, stay safe and keep your flak jacket close.

Save some lives for me.

B


On a quiet day in mid-January of 1968, Frankie’s DEROS came in. She tacked the paper up on the plywood wall above her cot and drew a big red circle around March 15 and an X through today.

She was officially a short-timer.


At 0400 hours, on January 31, a rocket hit the Seventy-First.

Explosions ripped through the night.

The red alert siren blared.

Frankie scrambled out of bed, grabbed her flak jacket and steel pot helmet from underneath the bed, and dressed quickly.

Another rocket hit. The hooch shook. A rat ran across the floor, looking for shelter.

Frankie’s new hooch mate, Margie Sloan, sat up in bed and screamed. “What’s happening? Oh my God—”

The red alert siren sounded again, became continuous. Over the loudspeaker the words: “Attention all personnel, take cover. Security alert condition red. We are under rocket attack. Repeat: Condition red. Take cover.”

“We’ve got to get to the hospital,” Frankie yelled as she ran to the door, flung it open. Outside, the camp was filled with fire and smoke: buildings on fire, black smoke billowing, acrid-smelling. An oil drum behind the latrines burst into flames. One of the four-hundred-gallon water trailers positioned above the showers exploded; water geysered out. “Margie. Now!”

Margie moved in beside her. “We can’t go out there.”

Frankie grabbed Margie’s hand, wished there was more time to ease the young nurse into a night like this. “I know it’s scary, Margie, and I wish you weren’t so green. But one thing at a time, okay? Put on your flak and steel pot—”

“My what?”

“Your helmet. Put it on and get to the ER. Help with triage.”

“I can’t—”

“You can.”

It was all the time Frankie had. As she ran for the OR, something big exploded behind her. The Red Cross building, maybe.

Outside the OR, personnel in flak jackets and helmets, some still in pajamas or shorts and combat boots, were running to the different wards, readying for wounded, carrying sawhorses to triage. The alert warning continued to blare out.

In the OR, Frankie got the lights on, the tables ready, the supplies carted and at hand: dressing carts, crash carts, thoracostomy trays, oxygen tanks, a portable suction machine. She sure wished Hap were still here, but he’d shipped out two months ago. Their newest doc had been here a week. It was going to be a tough night for him.

She heard the first Dust Off arrive at 0430.

The first wave of casualties hit Pre-Op and the OR minutes later. Too many for the operating tables they had, for the nurses, for the medics. Wounded lay on litters set on sawhorses, prepped for surgery and waiting. She saw civilians, heard a child crying for her mother. Had the U.S. bombed another South Vietnamese village?

As Frankie scrubbed in and masked up, she could hear the constant whine and thump of shells ripping the camp apart. The Quonset hut shook, IVs rattled in their holders. Her helmet kept clanking down onto the bridge of her nose.

Another hit. Close.

In the OR, the wounded who were able rolled off their beds or litters and hit the floor, their IVs yanked out of their veins. Frankie grabbed pillows, blankets, whatever she could find to lay over the patients who were too wounded to move. It wouldn’t save them from a direct hit, but it was all she could do.

The lights went out. Total darkness. Then the generators hummed to life and brought light back.

Frankie went to the nearest operating table, saw the soldier lying there. He was barely conscious, moaning for help. His uniform had been cut off in triage, exposing the devastation of his chest wound. He was bleeding everywhere; bits of shrapnel were embedded in his neck.

“I’ve got you,” she said, putting her strength into applying pressure to the chest wound. The patient gasped, tried to breathe, panicked. He bucked up. “Calm down, soldier,” Frankie said, looking for a doctor. “We need a trach here. Stat!”

All she saw was a sea of wounded men and medics rushing in and out.

She yanked a surgical cart close. The array of silver instruments lay ready. She’d never performed a tracheotomy before, but she’d watched and assisted on dozens. Hap had shown her how to do it step-by-step.

She looked around, called again for a doctor.

In the chaos, there was no answer.

She swabbed antiseptic on the anterior aspect of the man’s throat and picked up a scalpel and made her incision, opening a direct airway in his trachea. Blood bubbled up; she blotted it away and inserted a tracheal tube.

He took a gasping breath and released it, calmed.

She taped the tube in place and grabbed some gauze and went back to his chest wound.

“Where’s a goddamn doctor?” she yelled.

The noise in the OR was deafening. IVs and bottles and instruments and carts crashed to the cement floor. The lights flickered. Wounded streamed from triage into the OR.

The new doctor skidded into the OR, slipping on the bloody floor, almost falling. He wore his flak jacket and helmet.

“Captain Morse. Mark. I need you.”

He stared at her, not seeming to comprehend.

Now,” she yelled.

He looked down at the patient’s sucking chest wound. “Holy shit.”

Frankie knew what the doctor was feeling. Unfortunately, there was no time to let him know that. This wounded soldier needed the doctor’s best, and now. “Look at his face, Doc. See him. See Specialist Glenn Short.”

The young doctor’s gaze moved slowly up to Frankie’s face; his eyes were wide with fear. She nodded in understanding, said, “See him.”

“Anesthesia,” Frankie yelled, waving the nurse-anesthetist over.

“Go on, Doc,” she said, as the patient was anesthetized. “Get scrubbed up, get your gloves on. You’ve got this,” she said. “We make little holes out of big ones, right? Go on…”


The attack went on for so long that Frankie finally took off her unwieldy flak jacket and oversized helmet and stopped even flinching at the sound of explosions or shelling.

For hours, the evac hospital overflowed with casualties; Pre-Op, the ER, the OR, the ICU, and the Vietnamese ward were all wall-to-wall beds, and there was overflow, but at last, they were nearing the end of the push. All of the casualties had been operated on. Now Frankie stood in the middle of the OR, sopping the sweat from her brow, watching Dr. Morse finish the last surgery. She knew he would fall apart soon, start shaking and be unable to stop, but he was still going. That meant he had what it took.

“McGrath,” a medic yelled from the doorway. “Someone wants you out here. STAT.”

Frankie ran out of the OR, saw Rye standing outside, covered in blood and mud. “Are you hurt?”

“It’s not my blood.” He pulled her into his arms, held her tightly. “You’re okay,” he said shakily, and then, steadier: “You’re okay.” He drew back, stared down at her. “I heard about the direct hit here and all I could think about was you. I thought…” he began. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

He let her go, but she didn’t step back. It had felt so good to be in his arms, to be comforted, even for a moment. “Just another shit day at the Seventy-First,” she said, trying to smile.

“Come on, Frankie,” he said. “I’m taking you out of here.”

“There is no out of here,” she said tiredly.

He held her hand and led her away from the OR.

The compound was a stinking, smoldering mess. Something over by the Park was on fire, lighting up a sky that would soon be darkening again.

Rye said, “I’ve never seen a night like this.”

Frankie started to say something—she had no idea what—when she heard a soldier moan in pain. She yelled, “Medic!” and ran toward the morgue overflow area, where there were rows of canvas-covered dead bodies. A pair of exhausted-looking corpsmen were managing it all, gathering the names of the dead, checking dog tags, zipping the bodies into bags.

Over to the left, there was a single litter left on a pair of sawhorses. She saw blood dripping down from the sides and through the canvas bottom; she heard the patient moan again.

“Westley, has this soldier been given morphine?” she asked one of the corpsmen.

“Yes, ma’am. Doc Morse saw him. Said he couldn’t do any more.”

Frankie nodded and went to the man on the litter. She felt Rye come up beside her.

There was almost nothing left of a man who had been whole minutes ago. Field dressings were blood-soaked on three missing limbs. Blood and mud covered what remained of his face.

She reached for his dog tags so that she could comfort him by name. “Hey, Pri—” Her voice broke.

Private Albert Brown.

“Hey, Albert,” she said softly. “Did you come by to show me that fine ass of yours again?”

She leaned over the dying man, barely older than a boy, and placed a hand on his ruined chest.

His head lolled toward her. One eye looked at her. She knew he recognized her when his eye filled with tears.

“I’m here, Albert. You’re not alone.” She held his hand. It was all she could do for him in this moment, be the girl back home he’d never had. “I’ll bet you’re thinking about your family, Albert. In Kentucky, wasn’t it? Land of bourbon and good-looking men. I’ll write to your mama…” Frankie couldn’t remember his mother’s name. She knew it, but couldn’t remember. It felt like another loss, her not remembering. Albert tried to speak. Whatever he wanted to say, it was too much. He closed his one eye; his breathing turned as clunky as an old motor. Frankie felt his last breath expand and empty through her own lungs.

And then he was gone.

Frankie let out a heavy breath and turned to Rye. “God, I’m tired of this.”

Rye picked her up in his arms and carried her through the burning, smoking camp, past people drawn together in groups, grieving for what had been lost. The mess hall was half gone, as were the Red Cross offices. Giant smoking pits spat fire into the falling night.

The door to her hooch lay in pieces in the dirt.

Rye carried her inside and set her down on the narrow cot.

She slumped forward. “We have too many FNGs here. We needed Barb and Ethel and Hap and Jamie tonight…”

Rye sat on the cot’s edge, stroked her back. “Go to sleep, Frankie.”

She leaned against him. “His mama’s name was Shirley,” she whispered, remembering too late. “Shirley. I’ll write to her…” As exhausted and lonely as she felt, it would have been easy to turn to Rye, to reach for him, to let him hold and soothe her. Longing came with the thought. She lay down and closed her eyes, almost whispered, Stay until I’m asleep. But what would be the point?

Hours later, when she woke, he was gone.


The Stars and Stripes called it the Tet Offensive: a massive coordinated attack across the country by the North Vietnamese in the early hours of January 31, 1968, the bloodiest day of the Vietnam War so far. The attack blew the doors off the secret side of the war. Apparently, when Walter Cronkite reported on the Tet carnage, he’d said—on air—“What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war.”

Suddenly everyone in the media was asking the question: What in the hell is going on in Vietnam?

On February 2, LBJ used death as the success matrix of Tet, claiming that 10,000 North Vietnamese had died and only 249 Americans. “I can count,” the President said, implying that hearts stopped were what mattered. (He didn’t even mention the South Vietnamese casualties.)

Two hundred forty-nine American deaths.

A lie, Frankie was sure, given the number of deaths she’d witnessed at the Seventy-First alone, but who knew the truth?


The next morning, Frankie stood at the bedside of a young South Vietnamese woman who’d been brought in late the previous night, burned and in the throes of labor. The team had done everything they could to save the baby, but it hadn’t been possible.

The woman was sitting up in bed, holding her dead newborn in bandaged arms. Beneath those white gauze bandages, the skin had been charred to black, but the woman hadn’t even cried out when Frankie debrided the dead flesh. She’d made a sound only when she tried to take the baby.

Unbearable grief.

So many dead and dying and lost.

Her hooch mate, Margie, approached Frankie, offered her a hot coffee. The cup shook in her unsteady hand. “Are you okay?”

“How could any of us be okay?” Frankie answered.

“Well. You’re on your way out. Just think. You’re going home.”

Frankie nodded. She’d been looking forward to going home, longing for it, dreaming about it, but suddenly she pictured it.

Coronado Island.

Mom and Dad and the country club.

What would it actually be like, being home, living with her parents?

How could she go from red alert sirens and saving lives to butter knives and champagne glasses?

“I don’t know how we’ll manage without you,” Margie said.

Frankie turned to look at Margie, whose eyes were red from crying. The young nurse was nowhere near ready for what was to come. She would be someday—probably—but not yet.

There was no nurse here with the experience Frankie had.

How could she leave this hospital and the casualties—American and South Vietnamese—who needed her? She’d come here to make a difference, to save lives, and God knew lives still needed saving. As much as she sometimes hated the war, she loved nursing more.


February 3, 1968

Dear Mom and Dad,

This is a difficult letter to write, and I am sure it will be difficult to read. I apologize in advance. I wish I could just pick up the phone and call you, but believe me, the MARS phone is not our friend.

It sounds crazy and absurd, but I have found my calling here in Vietnam. I love what I do, and I make a real difference. As you know, the war is heating up. I know the media and the government are lying to the American people, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Tet Offensive.

More troops arrive every day, and a lot of them end up wounded.

We do our best to save them, and if they can’t be saved—like Finley—I sit with them and hold their hands and let them know they aren’t alone. I write letters to their mothers, their sisters, their wives. Can you imagine what such a letter would have meant to us?

So.

I am not coming home next month. I have signed up for another one-year tour of duty. I simply can’t leave my post when the men need me. We don’t have enough experienced staff here.

There. I can hear you screaming. If you knew me now, you’d understand. I am a combat nurse.

I love you both.

F


February 17, 1968

Dear Frances Grace,

NO. NO. NO.

Change your mind. Come home. Be safe.

You could get hurt over there. Enough. Come home NOW.

Your father is extremely unhappy with this idea, I might add.

Much love,

Your mother


March 1, 1968

Dear Frank,

Of course you’re staying. I never doubted it.

You’re as tough as dried-out rope and the men need you.

God knows it’s strange here, too. Nixon announced that he’s running for president and state troopers used tear gas to stop a protest. Holy crap. Nothing makes sense.

Still, strangely, life goes on. I’m in Veterinary School at long last and working my ass off. I’ve joined the local orchestra and am back to playing the violin. It helps a bit, although I still don’t sleep well.

Come visit me when you’re back in the world. I’m waiting with open arms. We have a new mare that is a dream for beginners. Nothing soothes the soul like a gallop in the sunshine.

Love,

Ethel


On a blisteringly hot day in early March, Frankie began her shift, tired and jittery from a lack of sleep.

The OR hadn’t been especially busy in the past week—there had been lots of time for games and movie nights and writing letters home. Frankie had even jumped on a slick ship—a Huey stripped down for transport—and gone to Qui Nhon for an afternoon of shopping. Even so, she was on edge, peevish, demanding too much from the people around her. It didn’t help that they were short-staffed. Frankie knew she should reach out to the newer nurses, especially Margie, and mentor them, but she was worn out. And lonely.

“Lieutenant McGrath.”

She turned, saw Captain Miniver, the new, by-the-book chief nurse of the Seventy-First, holding a clipboard close to her chest, her body stiffly upright. “Lieutenant McGrath?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“I’ve been informed that you have failed to take an R and R this tour. And your new tour starts in two weeks.”

“Who ratted me out?”

“Someone who cares about you, obviously. A little bird.”

“Barb.”

“Barb who?” She smiled. “Anyway, I’m ordering you to go. I have your itinerary right here. A beach hotel on Kauai sounds ideal. It’s a farther flight, but there will be fewer soldiers looking for boom-boom there.”

“I’m needed—”

“None of us is irreplaceable, McGrath. I have been watching you. Getting reports on the level of bitchiness you’ve recently achieved. It’s impressive.” Her expression softened. In it, Frankie saw understanding. “You need a break.”

“You think a little hula time will fix me?”

“It won’t hurt. Either way, you leave tomorrow. Here’s your itinerary. Go. Rest. Drink cocktails that come with umbrellas. Sleep. I could be saving your life, McGrath. Trust me. I’ve been where you are. We all can break.”

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