The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 17

On the way back to Pleiku, in a helicopter, flying over the Central Highlands, Frankie heard the familiar pop-pop-pop of gunfire. The chopper swooped and swerved, leaned so far to the left, she slid into Rye. He put an arm around her, held her close. “Hold on, baby. Charlie doesn’t like our bird,” he yelled to be heard over the noise. He took his helmet out of his bag and put it on her, tightening the straps beneath her chin.

She grinned at him. “Oh, that will save my life.”

He laughed. “Let me be a hero, willya?”

Later, as the helicopter descended toward the helipad, Rye pulled Frankie close and kissed her.

Frankie unhooked his helmet and handed it back to him. With one last look that seared his smile into her memory, she grabbed her travel bag and jumped off the helicopter and stood on the helipad, looking up. “Be safe, Riot!”

Rye took a seat in the open door by the gunner, smiling at her as the helicopter lifted into the air.

He yelled something she couldn’t hear. Waved goodbye.

The helicopter veered sharply sideways, headed north, and swooped down close to the jungle canopy.

Pop-pop-pop.

She saw sparks of light hit the Huey’s broadside. The gunner shot back as the bird veered sharply away.

Another shot. Sparks. The ra-ta-ta-tat of the gunner shooting back. The Huey maneuvered swiftly. Orange bits streaked through the sky.

The shooting stopped, leaving silence in the jungle and the softening sound of the helicopter’s rotors as it flew away.

Safe.

This time.

From now on, until she and Rye both landed safely back in the U.S., she knew there would always be a piece of her that was afraid.


April 10, 1968

Dear Frankie,

I don’t know how to write this. My brother, Will, was killed by the Oakland police this week. A shoot-out with the Black Panthers. He was shot ten times, even though he’d surrendered.

I’m devastated.

Heartbroken.

Pissed off.

I need my best friend here with me to keep me steady.

Love you,

B


April 24, 1968

Dear Barb,

I know your grief. Losing a brother is losing a piece of yourself, your history.

I’m sorry is a shitty, useless, not-enough thing to say, but what else is there?

If I still believed in a benevolent God, I’d send you prayers.

Stay strong for your mom.

Find a way to honor and remember him.

Love,

F


June 16, 1968

Dear Mom and Dad,

I can’t believe that another Kennedy has been assassinated. What is wrong with the world? Things are getting worse over here, too. Morale among the troops is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Between the assassination of MLK and Robert Kennedy and the protests back home, everyone is mad as hell. If you wonder how we can lose a war, imagine how the guys fighting it feel. And LBJ just sends more and more untrained kids to fight. The ORs here are always full. The sound of Dust Offs landing is becoming constant. We used to have days off, times the OR was quiet. Not so many anymore. Don’t believe everything you read—our boys are dying every day. I see more and more soldiers stumbling in from the boonies, their minds broken, their nerves shot to hell. They walk through the bush, snipers everywhere, and step on hidden mines and blow up five feet away from their buddies. It’s awful. And yeah, a few of them are high. Heroin is its own horror. So is the way they look when they find their way to the hospital. I can’t fix them all. No one can. But I’m doing my best, I want you to know that. I am making a difference and helping to save lives.

Thanks for all the letters and for the care packages. I really needed more film. And who knew you’d miss Twinkies and Pop-Tarts in a war?

Love you,

F


On a still, sweltering evening on the Fourth of July of 1968, Frankie stood beneath the bright lights in the OR, stitching up a minor abdominal wound. Sweat dampened her mask and cap, slid down her back. The temperature today had gone past 102 degrees. When she finished, she peeled off her bloody gloves and dropped them into a garbage can.

Two soldiers stumbled into the OR on bare, bloody feet, carrying a man on a litter between them. The men looked sucked dry, hollowed-out. Sunken eyes, sunken cheeks, the thousand-mile death stare that Frankie had begun to recognize as the look of men who’d been out in the boonies too long, trekking, trying to avoid land mines, looking for Charlie in every shadow and bush. Constant fear turned a man inside out.

Frankie grabbed some masks and handed them to the men.

“We carried him thirty miles,” one of the men said. “We broke out … too late.”

So. Prisoners of war. No wonder they looked so beaten, both physically and mentally. Word was that the NVA kept American POWs in cages too small for them to stand up in. And that they tortured them. “How long were you prisoners?”

“Three months,” the other one said. He was wearing a necklace made of amputated fingers and ears strung on a leather cord. Trophies, probably, taken from their North Vietnamese captors when they escaped. It was the kind of thing she’d seen more of in the past few months, as the fighting had heated up. It was profoundly disturbing. Sickening. A terrible sign that the soldiers’ minds were being as broken by war as their bodies.

She couldn’t imagine what they’d been through or what they’d done to escape, or how hard it had been to carry this wounded man for thirty miles through the booby-trapped jungle on bare feet.

The man on the litter had an infected bullet wound in his chest that oozed pus. Frankie didn’t need to touch his forehead to diagnose a raging fever. She could see it in his eyes, smell it on him. Frag wounds had torn up his arms and neck. He could barely breathe, kept gasping. Something must be swollen or lodged in his airway.

He was going to die, and soon.

Frankie called out to Dr. Morse, who came over, took one look at the kid on the litter, and said, “Expectant, McGrath.”

“Put a trach in, Doc,” she said. “Let him breathe easy, at least.”

“Waste of time, McGrath. Go find someone you can save.”

One of the soldiers said, “Wait. We just humped through the boonies for a week with Fred—”

Frankie knew that the doc was right. This kid wasn’t going to make it, and the OR was crowded with casualties they could save, but she couldn’t turn her back on these men and what they’d suffered.

She pointed to an empty table. “Set him there, boys.”

“What are you doing, McGrath?” Dr. Morse asked.

“Letting him say goodbye to his friends and die in peace.”

“Be quick. I’ve got a sucking chest wound that needed you ten minutes ago.”

The men set the wounded soldier on the table. Frankie cut off what was left of his fatigues. Yanking her cart close, she changed into clean gloves and wiped his neck with antiseptic solution. Holding her scalpel, she took a breath to steady herself, then made a small cut between the thyroid and cricoid cartilages and inserted a breathing tube.

The dying man took a deep, wheezing breath; Frankie saw relief come into his eyes. How long had he been fighting just to breathe?

“We got out, Fred,” one of his buddies said. “Took five of those fuckers with us.”

Frankie took hold of Fred’s hand, held it in hers, and leaned close, whispering, “You must be a good man. Your friends are here.”

His buddies kept talking—about his girl, the baby waiting for him back home, how he had saved their lives in that hellhole.

Frankie saw Fred take his last breath; felt the way he went still.

“He’s gone,” she said tiredly, looking at the two bloodied, dirtied men in front of her. “You gave him a chance, though.”

She wouldn’t be surprised if those death stares would be a part of them forever now. Men staring into a world they no longer were a part of, no longer comprehended, a world where the ground beneath your feet exploded. Another kind of casualty. She thought of other men who had grabbed her hand over the past few months, begged her to answer the question, Who will want me like this?, and it struck her that it wasn’t just physical wounds that soldiers would take home from Vietnam. From now on, all of them would have a deep understanding of both man’s cruelty and his heroism.

A medic shoved through the OR doors and yelled, “Forty-five Vietnamese villagers coming in. Napalm,” and left again.

Napalm.

“Go to the mess,” she said to the two soldiers as she stripped out of her gloves. “Get some chow. Take a shower. And get rid of that damned necklace.”

She yelled for someone to take the dead man away. Then she found Margie and together they pushed the few OR patients to one side and gathered empty beds to turn the OR into an overflow burn unit.

Two minutes later, a flood of villagers hit the OR, most of whom had been burned beyond recognition. Frankie knew it was the same scene in the ICU and Pre-Op and on the wards.

Napalm—a jellied firebomb used in flamethrowers by the U.S. to clear out foxholes and trenches, and dropped in bombs by U.S. planes—had become common in these first few months of her second tour. More and more of its victims were coming into the OR; most of them were villagers.

Tomorrow they’d be flown to the Third Field—a real burn unit—but few would survive until then. The few who did would wish they’d died. These burns were like nothing else on earth. The gel-fueled firebomb mixture stuck to its target and didn’t stop burning until nothing was left.

Frankie moved from bed to bed, applying topical ointments and debriding dead tissue, but there was so little she could do here to help them heal, and nothing to ease their tremendous pain.

By 1000 hours, she was exhausted, and the burn victims were still arriving. She could hear Margie and Dr. Morse and some medics talking to each other, rolling carts, yelling for ointment.

The next bed held a woman—impossible to tell if she was young or old; her body was burned from head to toe. The black, charred flesh still smoked.

Beside her, tucked protectively against her body, was a baby.

Frankie stopped. For a split second, the horror overwhelmed her. She had to take a deep, steadying breath.

The infant was still alive.

“Dear God,” Frankie said under her breath. How could that be?

With care, she picked up the infant, who couldn’t be much older than three months. “Hey, little one,” Frankie said, her voice breaking. Thin white ribs shone through the gaping wounds and burns on her chest.

She found a chair and sat down. The OR was a cacophony of screaming, moaning, crying casualties, and shouting medics and nurses and doctors. The sound of wheels rolling on concrete, of new gloves being snapped on. But for a moment, Frankie heard nothing except this one infant’s struggle to breathe.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” Frankie said.

The baby drew in an uneven breath and exhaled slowly and then went still.

Frankie held the dead baby, overwhelmed by this loss, unable to move, unable to stand.

No one would ever know who this child was or even that she had lived and died. How could this be done, even in the name of war?

“McGrath! I need you.”

It was Dr. Morse.

Ignoring him and the melee of the OR, she carried the infant to the morgue, where body bags lay stacked along the walls.

Private Juan Martinez, a kid from Chula Vista who’d been drafted right out of high school, stood in the center of the morgue. He looked as exhausted as she felt. “Rough night,” he said.

She glanced down at the baby in her arms. “And now this.”

Martinez stared down at the baby. “Jesus,” he said softly, moving closer. He placed a black-gloved hand on the baby’s body, covering the entire ruined rib cage. “He will hold you in heaven.”

Frankie was surprised to hear that bit of faith from a man who stood in the morgue all day, cataloging the dead, zipping up body bags. Then again, maybe you couldn’t do this job otherwise.

Martinez found a cardboard box and an old T-shirt. Frankie wrapped the baby in the soft khaki cotton and laid her in the box.

She and Martinez stood there for a moment, the box and the baby between them.

Neither spoke.

Then Frankie left the morgue. As she shut the door, she heard the incoming choppers and felt something ugly take root inside of her: a dark anger. She was so tired of pulling green canvas over young men’s faces, and now this baby.

With a sigh, she headed back to the OR, grabbed a gown, and went back to work.


“Get out of here, McGrath,” Dr. Morse said at 0200. “You’re dead on your feet.”

“We all are,” she said. The OR was so full of burn victims that many lay three to a bed.

“Yeah, but you look it.”

“Har har. A beauty joke. Perfect.”

He touched her shoulder, gave it a squeeze. “Go. If you don’t, I will.”

Frankie pulled off her blue surgical cap. “Thanks, Doc. My tank really does feel empty.”

“Get some sleep.”

She looked around. “After this?”

He gave her a look of commiseration. They both knew sleep was unlikely. There wasn’t enough pot or alcohol on-site to make her forget that baby dying in her arms.

She thanked Doc and headed for her hooch. As she passed the new admin building, she ducked in, found Talkback on the radio.

“Hey, Talkback, could I make a MARS call? Short, I promise.”

He glanced left to right, looking for a superior who might disagree. The Military Auxiliary Radio System phones were not for personal use. “Short.”

She settled into a chair and picked up the handset. “Call to Vung Tau HAL-3. Lieutenant Commander Joseph Ryerson Walsh. Over.”

Frankie tapped her foot impatiently, listening to static.

“Who is calling? Over.”

“Lieutenant McGrath. Seventy-First Evac. Over.”

“Emergency, ma’am? Over.”

“Yes. Emergency. Over.”

“Hold. Over.”

Frankie knew she shouldn’t be doing this, calling him and saying it was an emergency. But they hadn’t seen each other in more than a month, and she needed him.

“Frankie?” Rye’s voice broke through the static. “Are you okay, over?”

“Hey,” she said, her voice quaking. “Over.”

“What happened? Over.”

“Napalm. Over.”

In the staticky silence, she knew they were both seeing the suffering of tonight.

“Sorry I woke you. I just needed to hear your voice. Over,” she said.

“I get it, babe. I’m sorry. Over.”

“I miss you. Over.”

“Hang tough. Over.”

“Copy that. Over and out.” She hung up. “Thanks, Talkback.”

She headed back to her hooch. The Park was empty now, but she knew that wouldn’t last. When tonight’s push was over, folks would need to unwind. A faint beat of music pulsed through the open door. She almost recognized the song, but not quite. Mostly, she heard the beat of American music, the soundtrack of home.

She took a quick shower, then passed a soldier tossing things into a burn barrel that gave off the stench of charred flesh and human excrement.

In her hooch, she peeled out of her fatigues, shoved them in the laundry bag hanging off the end of her cot. Laundering them wouldn’t remove the blood, but it would soften the smell. She climbed into bed. Knowing she wouldn’t sleep, she picked up her latest letter to Ethel and started to add to it.

Rough night in the OR. Could have used someone with your kick-ass skills, but Margie has really come into her own, and that young doc—Morse—is getting good.

There was a baby, tonight.

Napalm

She put down her pen, unable to write about it. She set the letter aside. Did Ethel need to read this? Turning off the lights, she stretched out, closed her eyes.

She was still awake at 0400 when Margie came home and climbed into bed.

She was still awake at 0524, listening to her hooch mate’s snoring, when she heard the whine of a helicopter nearing the hospital.

Only one.

Releasing a breath, she closed her eyes again. Please, God, let me sleep.

A knock at the door surprised her.

She sat up.

The door opened.

Rye moved into the small hooch, seeming to take up a lot of space. Stepping carefully so as not to waken Margie, he moved to the cot, sat down, and took off his boots.

Frankie still hadn’t spoken. She was afraid that if she did, she’d cry.

He took her in his arms and held her. They barely fit together on the narrow cot. She snuggled up against him, kissed his neck.

“I got here as soon as I could,” he said.

She started to answer, but before she could speak, she was asleep.


For once, the Seventy-First was quiet. On this hot, dry early November day, not long after Nixon won the election back home, and eight months into her second tour, Frankie sat in a beach chair in the Park, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and her worn huarache sandals. A hot breeze ruffled the drying banana leaves. After a long, wet, muddy monsoon season, the dry air and dust were a welcome relief. At least she didn’t smell like mildew anymore. She kept her boonie hat pulled low to shield her eyes from the sun and wore a pair of big round sunglasses. A warm TaB sat on the ground beside her. Behind her, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” blasted through the speakers at the tiki bar. She could hear people talking, laughing, singing along. It had been a particularly tough week, but at this moment in the late afternoon, while a bright sun shone down on them without baking them into submission, the Seventy-First wasn’t a bad place to be.

Men played volleyball on the flat red pad of dirt. The Red Cross Donut Dollies were handing out mail and snacks from a cart. Frankie had also brought some letters to reread, while she ate the Pretzel Stix Ethel had sent in her latest care package. Barb and Ethel had both continued to write and send goodies every month. Margie sat in a chair beside Frankie, her hair in pink curlers, reading Rosemary’s Baby.

Frankie took a drink of her warm TaB, then leaned back and closed her eyes.

“Ma’am?” someone said a few moments later.

Frankie sat up. The Park was empty; no men playing volleyball, no Donut Dollies. Had she actually fallen asleep?

The new radio operator—she couldn’t remember the kid’s name—stood there. “There’s an emergency in the mess hall, ma’am. Dr. Morse needs you.”

Frankie got up and followed the kid to the mess hall.

At the closed door, he stopped, allowed her to go in first.

Frankie opened the door and stepped into the mess. A banner hung over the bulletin board wall: CONGRATS 1ST LIEUTENANT MCGRATH!

“Congratulations!”

It took Frankie a second to process. No heart attack. No emergency. A party.

For her.

Major Goldstein from the Thirty-Sixth stepped forward, with Captain Miniver beside her. “This promotion is late in coming, but nothing happens on time in the Army,” Major Goldstein said. “We all know that. Congratulations, Frankie. You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Captain Miniver added, “Thank you for staying. There are men back home because of it.”

“Toast! Toast!” someone yelled.

Ryan Dardis, the new surgeon they called Hollywood because of his good looks, stepped forward with a bottle of gin. “We know how much you love your gin, McGrath. What we wanted to make sure is that you know how much we dig you, too. Even though you can’t dance for shit, and your dancing makes your singing look good.” He held up a bottle of gin and there was a roar of approval.

Someone cranked up the music. Behind her, the doors banged open.

Frankie felt herself being picked up, spun around.

“Sorry I’m late, babe.” Rye grinned, tilted back his black Seawolves cap. “Traffic was a bitch.”

The music changed to “Born to Be Wild,” and people started pushing chairs aside.

Frankie grabbed Rye’s hand and pulled him onto the makeshift dance floor.

“You sure you want to dance with me in public?” he teased.

“I’m the one with two left feet,” she said, smiling up at him.

Sometime later, Margie found them on the dance floor and hip-bumped Frankie. Her face was flushed and dewy from dancing. “I’m going to bunk with Helen tonight,” she said breathlessly. “Or maybe with Jeff. He’s looking better every second.”

“Thanks, Margie,” Frankie said.

Rye took Frankie by the hand and led her out of the party, which was in such full, chaotic swing that no one noticed them leave. They hadn’t seen each other in almost a month.

“I really needed this,” Frankie said, leaning against him as they walked through the compound.

He put an arm around her. “I’ve missed you, too. Another orphanage was bombed last week. St. Anne’s in Saigon.”

Frankie nodded. “I heard rumors of something bad up near My Lai, too,” she said.

“There are a lot of bad stories coming through.”

Outside her hooch, she turned to him, looked up into his eyes, saw his sadness; it was the same look she had seen in her own eyes. The last thing she wanted to talk about was the war. “Love me,” she whispered, pressing up onto her toes.

The kiss was everything: coming home, taking flight, a dream for tomorrow.

When he drew back, she saw something in his eyes that frightened her. Then he said, “I’m afraid I’ll love you till I die, Frankie.”

Love.

How long had she wanted to hear that word from him? It felt like forever, because time in Vietnam moved in strange ways—sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow. “I love you, too, Rye.”

It wasn’t until hours later, when they lay pressed together on her narrow cot, exhausted by lovemaking, that Frankie realized what he’d said and how he’d said it—I’m afraid I’ll love you till I die—and the promise planted a small and terrible seed in her heart.

I’m afraid.

Till I die.

They were the wrong words for wartime, a gauntlet thrown to an uncaring God.

She wanted to have the moment to do over, to make him say I love you in a different way.

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