The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 4


Frankie excelled in Basic Training. Along with learning to march in formation (teamwork) and put on combat boots and a gas mask quickly (you never knew when you might be wakened at midnight for an emergency; you needed to move fast in a war zone), she’d learned how to apply a splint, debride a wound, carry a stretcher, and start an IV. She could roll bandages faster than any other recruit.

By March, she was more than ready to put her new skills to the test. She had packed and checked her large Army-issued duffel bag, which she’d crammed full with her flak jacket, steel pot helmet, combat boots, GI kit, white nursing uniform, and field jacket.

And now, at last, she was on her way. Hours after landing in Honolulu, she boarded a jet bound for Vietnam, the lone woman at the front of a line of 257 uniformed soldiers.

Unlike the men, dressed in their comfortable olive-drab fatigues, neatly bloused inside black boots, Frankie was required to travel in her class A uniform: a green jacket, slim skirt, nylons, polished black pumps, and flat garrison hat. And beneath all of that, a regulation panty girdle to keep her nylon stockings up. It had been uncomfortable when she’d left Texas and boarded the plane bound for Vietnam. Now, twenty-two hours later, it was downright painful. It seemed ridiculous to her that in this day and age she couldn’t wear pantyhose.

She tucked her new soft-sided overnight travel bag into the overhead bin and took a seat next to the window. As she sat down, a garter on her panty girdle snapped and popped her thigh like a rubber band. She struggled to get it fixed sitting down.

Soldiers filed past her, laughing and talking, shoving each other. Many of them looked to be her age or even younger. Eighteen, nineteen years old, most of them.

A captain in stained, wrinkled fatigues paused at the end of her row. “Mind if I join you, Lieutenant?”

“Of course, Captain.”

He sat down in the aisle seat. Even in fatigues, she could see how thin he was. Heavy lines creased his cheeks. His clothes had the vague, unpleasant odor of mildew.

“Norm Bronson,” he said with a tired smile.

“Frankie. McGrath. Nurse.”

“Bless your heart, Frankie. We need nurses.”

The plane rolled forward, lifted off from the runway, and rose into the clouds.

“What’s it like?” she asked. “Vietnam, I mean.”

“Words won’t help, ma’am. I could talk all day about what it’s like and you still won’t be ready. But you’ll learn fast. Just keep your head down.” He leaned back and closed his eyes.

Frankie had never seen anyone fall asleep so quickly.

She reached into her black regulation handbag, pulled out her information packet, and reread it for the thousandth time. Repetition and knowledge had always calmed her, and she was determined to be as exemplary a soldier as she’d been a student. It was the only way to prove to her parents that she’d been smart to enlist, courageous even; success mattered to them.

She had memorized all of the military command and hospital locations, had underlined them in yellow on her map of Vietnam. She had also taken the behavioral guidelines to heart. Rules for personal conduct, for security on base, for what to wear and how to deal with firearms, for always taking pride in being a soldier.

Everything made sense to her in the Army. Rules existed for a reason and you followed them to maintain order and help each other. The system was designed to force soldiers—men and women—into conformity. To build teams. It could save your life, apparently. Fitting in, being part of something larger, knowing your job, and doing it without question. She was comfortable with all of it.

As she’d told her mother repeatedly, she was going off to war, but not really, not like the men on this plane. She wouldn’t be on the front lines, wouldn’t get shot at. She was going to Vietnam to save men’s lives, not to risk her own. Military nurses worked in big bright buildings, like the huge Third Field Hospital in Saigon, which was protected by high fencing and was far from the fighting.

Frankie leaned back and closed her eyes, letting the rumble of the engines lull and calm her. She heard the buzz of men talking, laughing, the snap-hiss of colas being opened, the smell of sandwiches being handed out. She imagined Finley on the plane with her, holding her hand; for a split second, she forgot that he was gone and she smiled. Coming to meet you, she thought, and then her smile faded.

As she drifted off to sleep, she thought she heard Captain Bronson mumble quietly, “Sending goddamn babies…”


When Frankie woke, the airplane cabin was quiet except for the hum of the jet engines. Most of the window shades were drawn. A few overhead lights cast a gloomy glow over the men packed into the jet.

The loud razzing, the laughter, the horseplay that had marked most of this flight from Honolulu to Saigon was gone. The air seemed heavier, harder to draw into her lungs, harder to expel in an exhalation. The new recruits—recognizable by their still-creased, green fatigues—were restless. Unsettled. Frankie saw the way they looked at each other, their smiles bright and brittle. The other soldiers, those weary-looking men in their worn fatigues, men like Captain Bronson, sat almost too still.

Beside Frankie, the captain opened his eyes; it was the only change in him from sleeping to awake, just an opening of his eyes.

Suddenly the plane lurched, or bucked, seemed to turn onto its side. Frankie smacked her head on the tray on the back of the seat in front of her as the plane nose-dived. The overhead bins opened; dozens of bags fell out into the aisle, including Frankie’s.

Captain Bronson put his rough, gnarled hand on hers as she clutched the armrest. “It’ll be okay, Lieutenant.”

The plane stalled, steadied, lurched upward into a steep climb. Frankie heard a pop and something cracked beside her.

“Is someone shooting at us?” Frankie said. “Oh my God.”

Captain Bronson chuckled. “Yeah. They love to do that. Don’t worry. We’ll just circle around for a while and try again.”

“Here? Shouldn’t we go somewhere else to land?”

“In this big bird? Nope. It’s Tan Son Nhut for us, ma’am. They’ll be waiting on the FNGs we got on board.”

“FNGs?”

“Fucking new guys.” He smiled. “And one beautiful young nurse. Our boys’ll clear the airport in no time. Not to fret.”

The plane circled until Frankie’s fingers ached from the pain of her grip on the armrests. Outside, she saw orange and red explosions and streaks of red across the dark sky.

Finally, the plane evened out, and the pilot came on the loudspeaker to say, “Okay, sports fans, let’s try this shit again. Buckle up.”

As if Frankie had ever unbuckled her seat belt.

The jet descended. Frankie’s ears popped, and the next thing she knew, they were thumping onto the runway and powering down, rolling to a stop.

“Senior officers and women disembark first,” sounded over the loudspeaker.

The officers waited for Frankie to exit first. She wished they hadn’t. She didn’t want to be first. Still, she grabbed her travel bag from the aisle and slung it—and her purse—over her left shoulder, leaving her right hand free to salute.

When she exited the aircraft, heat enveloped her. And the smell. Good Lord, what was it? Jet fuel … smoke … fish … and honestly there was a stench of something like excrement. A headache started to pulse behind her eyes. She made her way down the stairs, where a lone soldier stood in the darkness, backlit by ambient light from a distant building. She could barely make out his face.

Off to the distant left, something exploded in orange flames.

“Lieutenant McGrath?”

She could only nod. Sweat crawled down her back. Were they bombing over there?

The soldier said, “Follow me,” and led her across the bumpy, pockmarked runway, past the terminal, and to a school bus that had been painted black, even the windows, which were covered in some kind of chicken-wire mesh. “You’re the only nurse arriving today. Take a seat and wait. Don’t exit the bus, ma’am.”

The heat in the bus was sauna-like, and that smell—shit and fish—made her gag. She took a seat in the middle row of seats, by a black-painted window. It felt like being entombed.

Moments later, a Black soldier in fatigues, carrying an M16, climbed into the driver’s seat. The doors whooshed shut and the headlights came on, carving a golden wedge out of the darkness ahead.

“Not too close to the window, ma’am,” he said, and hit the gas. “Grenades.”

Grenades?

Frankie inched sideways on the bench seat. In the fetid dark, she sat perfectly upright, was bounced up and down in her seat until she thought she might vomit.

At last the bus slowed; in the headlights’ glare, she saw a set of gates manned by American MPs. One of the guards spoke to the driver, then backed away. The gates opened and they drove through.

Not much later, the bus stopped again. “Here you go, ma’am.”

Frankie was sweating so profusely she had to wipe her eyes. “Huh?”

“You get out here, ma’am.”

“What? Oh.”

She realized suddenly that she hadn’t gone to baggage claim, hadn’t retrieved her duffel. “My bag—”

“It will be delivered, ma’am.”

Frankie gathered up her purse and travel bag and went to the door.

A nurse stood in the mud, dressed in a white uniform, cap to shoes, waiting for her. How on earth could that uniform be kept clean? Behind her was the entrance to a huge hospital.

“You need to exit the bus, ma’am,” the driver said.

“Oh yes.” Frankie stepped down into the thick mud and started to salute.

The nurse grabbed her wrist, stopped the salute. “Not here. Charlie loves to kill officers.” She pointed to a waiting jeep. “He’ll take you to your temporary quarters. Report to admin for in-processing tomorrow at oh-seven-hundred.”

Frankie had too many questions to pick just one, and her throat hurt. Clutching her travel bag and purse, she walked over to the jeep and climbed up into the backseat.

The driver hit the gas so hard Frankie was thrown back in her seat; a jagged metal spring poked her in the butt. The nighttime traffic on base was stop-and-go. In snatches of light, she saw barbed wire and sandbags built up around wooden buildings, armed guards standing on towers. Soldiers walking the streets in fatigues, holding guns. A large water-tank truck pulled up next to them, rumbling, and rolled past. Horns honked constantly, and men shouted at one another.

Another checkpoint—this one looked haphazardly thrown together with metal drums and coils of barbed wire and a tall chain-link fence. The guard waved them through.

Finally, they came to another fence, this one topped in coils of concertina wire.

The jeep braked to a stop. The driver leaned over, shoved the door open. “Your stop, ma’am.”

Frankie frowned. It took time to maneuver out of the jeep in her tight skirt. “In that building, ma’am. Second floor, 8A.”

Behind the tall ironwork fence, she saw what looked like an abandoned prison. Windows were boarded up with plywood and big chunks of the walls were missing. Before Frankie could ask where to go, the jeep was backing up, honking at something, and speeding away.

Frankie went to the gate, which creaked loudly upon opening, and stepped into a weedy front yard, where scrawny children played with a half-deflated ball. An old Vietnamese woman squatted by the side of the fence, tending to something cooking over an open fire.

Frankie followed a broken path to the front door and entered the building. Inside, a few gas lanterns flickered light against the walls. There was a woman in fatigues waiting for her in the shadowy entry. “Lieutenant McGrath?”

Thank God. “Yes.”

“I’ll show you to your room. Follow me.” The woman led the way past a hallway filled with cots, and up a set of sagging stairs to a second-floor room—cubicle, really. A room barely big enough to hold the set of bunk beds in it, with a single dresser. Maybe the building had once been a convent or a school. “In-processing tomorrow at oh-seven-hundred hours. Report to admin.”

“But—”

The soldier walked away, shut the door behind her.

Darkness.

Frankie felt around for a light switch, found and flipped it.

Nothing.

She opened the door again, grateful for the bit of ambient light coming from gas lanterns in the hallway. She went in search of a bathroom, found one with a rust-stained sink and toilet. She turned on the faucet, got a weak flow of tepid water, and washed her face, then took a drink.

A woman in an Army-green T-shirt and shorts walked in, saw Frankie, and frowned. “You’ll be sorry about that, Lieutenant. Never drink the water.”

“Oh. I’m new … in-country.”

“Yeah,” the woman said, eyeing Frankie in her skirt uniform. “No shit.”


Frankie woke in the middle of the night with cramping in her stomach. She ran down the hall to the toilet and slammed the door shut behind her. She’d never had diarrhea like this in her life. It felt as if everything she’d eaten in the past month came rushing out of her, and when there was nothing left, the cramping went on.

Dawn brought no relief from the pain. She checked the time, rolled into a ball, and went back to sleep. At 0630 hours, she got up, stood on shaky legs, barely able to button her uniform. The panty girdle was torture.

Outside, the weedy yard was full of skinny-armed Vietnamese children, who eyed her silently. A laundry line held dozens of green fatigues.

She pushed past the gate and walked through the huge, busy base, which was a haphazard collection of buildings and tents and shacks and roads, without a tree anywhere that she could see. They’d obviously created the place with bulldozers. There were pedicycles with whole families on them, old cars pulled by water buffalo, and dozens of Army vehicles vying to get somewhere fast. A jeep splashed past her, the driver honking at the children on the side of the road, at the water buffalo roaming alongside.

No one looked twice at the woman in her Class As, walking carefully, hoping not to vomit.

It took Frankie nearly an hour to find the administration building, which was situated near Ward A of the sprawling Third Field Hospital, where nurses in starched white moved in groups, sometimes running, and announcements blared through black speakers.

She knocked on the closed admin door, heard, “Come in,” and did as she was told.

Inside the office, she saluted to the thin female colonel seated at the desk in front of her.

The woman looked up, lifted her chin in a sharp, birdlike motion that upset the perfect perch of her cat’s-eye glasses. The way she sighed at Frankie’s entrance was hardly encouraging. “And you are?”

“Second Lieutenant Frances McGrath, Colonel.”

The colonel rifled through the paperwork. “You’re assigned to the Thirty-Sixth Evac Hospital. Follow me.” She rose sharply and walked past Frankie to the door.

Frankie struggled to keep up, hoping she wasn’t going to have another bout of diarrhea.

The colonel led the way through the throng of personnel toward a round white helipad with a red cross painted on it, where a helicopter waited. The colonel gave a thumbs-up to the pilot, who immediately started the engine. The huge rotors rotated slowly, became a blur that blasted hot air at her.

“I have … questions, Colonel,” Frankie stuttered.

“Not for me, Lieutenant. Go. He doesn’t have all day.”

The colonel forced Frankie to bend forward and pushed her toward the whirring helicopter.

At the open side, a soldier grabbed her by the hand and swung her inside and then shoved her toward a canvas seat in the back of the aircraft.

“Hang on, ma’am,” the soldier yelled as the helicopter immediately lifted into the air, dipped its nose, and then soared forward, flying over the huge American base, and then above the chaos of Saigon.

Frankie’s stomach rebelled at the movement.

This did not seem safe. And where were their guns? How could they shoot back at the enemy if necessary? She heard an explosion somewhere; it rattled the helicopter, which swooped sideways. She clamped a hand over her mouth and prayed that she wouldn’t vomit.

Another explosion. A rattle of gunfire. The helicopter shook hard, clattered like a thousand bolts in a metal box.

Frankie survived the terrifying flight one breath at a time. It was often all she could do not to scream. And then, miraculously, they were descending, lowering toward a helipad.

When they touched down, the copilot looked back at Frankie. “Ma’am?”

“What?” Frankie yelled.

“You gotta get out.”

“Oh. Right.”

She couldn’t make herself move.

The soldier who’d helped her aboard—a medic—yanked her out of her seat and hauled her toward the open door. A female first lieutenant in stained fatigues stood nearby, holding on to her canvas hat, staring up.

The medic threw Frankie’s bag out of the helicopter. It landed at the first lieutenant’s feet.

“Ma’am?” he said impatiently.

Jump, Frankie.

In heels.

She hit the ground hard enough to buckle her knees. She dropped her purse and bent quickly to pick it up. Taking a deep breath, ignoring the pain, she slowly straightened and started to salute. “Lieutenant McGrath, reporting for duty.”

“Not here,” the first lieutenant said. “I like being alive. I’m Patty Perkins. Surgical nurse.” She held on to Frankie for just a moment, steadying her, and then abruptly let go and started walking.

“Welcome to the Thirty-Sixth. We are a four-hundred-bed evac hospital on the coast about sixty miles from Saigon. You are one of nine female nurses on staff, in addition to male nurses and medics. We keep this place running,” the first lieutenant yelled back at her. “It’s considered one of the safer posts. The DMZ is up north, so fighting here is minimal. We provide care for the VSI who are medevaced—”

Frankie struggled to keep up. “VSI?”

“Very seriously injured. Here you’ll see everything from leprosy to amputations to rat bites to what’s left of a soldier after a land mine. Most wounds require delayed primary closures—DPCs—which means we clear and debride wounds but don’t close. That will be your biggest job. Most casualties are here three days or less. From here, the lucky ones go to the Third Field Hospital in Saigon, for more specialized treatment; the unlucky ones go back to their units; and the really unlucky ones go home in a box. Keep up, Lieutenant.” The woman led the way past a series of Quonset huts. “That’s the ER, Pre-Op, the two ORs, Post-Op, the ICU, and Neuro.” She kept going. “That’s the mess hall. Officers on the right side. Report to Major Goldstein in admin tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred. She’s chief nurse.” She came to an abrupt halt in front of a row of identical wooden buildings whose lower halves were protected by stacked sandbags. “This is your hooch. Showers and latrines are over there. Shower quickly, the flyboys like to hover over and watch.” Patty smiled, then offered two bottles of pills. “Malaria and diarrhea. Take them religiously. Don’t drink the water unless it’s out of a Lister bag or jerry can. If you want, I’ll show you—”

Patty stopped midsentence, cocked her head, listening. A moment later, Frankie heard the sound of helicopters.

“Crap,” Patty said. “Incoming. I guess you’re on your own, McGrath. Get settled in.” With an encouraging smile, she patted Frankie’s shoulder and hurried away. Frankie heard the thud of dozens of booted feet running on the wooden ramps throughout the camp.

Frankie felt abandoned.

“Buck up, McGrath,” she said aloud. Reaching for the door to her hooch, she stepped up the single step and entered a dark, musty, buggy room, about fifteen feet by thirty feet, that was divided into three separate cubicle-like spaces, each with its own green canvas-and-metal cot, a makeshift bedside table, and a lamp. Olive-green netting hung in swoops over the ugly plywood walls. Above one cot, color photographs were tacked to the wall: a couple, standing in front of a red horse barn, a man with close-cropped hair, leaning against the hood of a Chevrolet truck, that same man standing between a little red-haired girl and a huge black horse. Above the other cot were posters of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. The third cot—hers, presumably—had nothing tacked onto the wall, but the plywood was full of tack holes and torn bits of paper from posters that had been put up and ripped down. Her duffel bag was on the floor.

There was a small fridge in one corner, and someone had built a bookcase out of old slats and filled the shelves with worn paperbacks. It was stiflingly hot and there was neither a fan nor a window. A layer of red dirt coated the floor.

Closing the door behind her, she sat down on the narrow cot and opened her overnight bag. A brand-new Polaroid camera lay on top of the carefully wrapped stack of framed photographs she’d brought from home. She reached for the top one, unwrapped it, held it on her lap. The picture had been taken at Disneyland. In it, Frankie and Finley stood in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, holding hands. A split second before the camera lens clicked, Finley had grabbed the ticket booklet from Mom and ripped out the E tickets, saying, Me and Frankie are goin’ straight to the Rocket to the Moon. And then to the Submarine. And Mom had said quietly, I hope they serve drinks at one of those kiosks, Connor.

Frankie felt the sting of tears. There was no one here to see, or to care, so she didn’t bother dashing them away. She stared at the image of her brother, with his protruding teeth and spit-shined hair and freckled face, and thought: What have I done?

Next, she unwrapped a picture of her parents, taken at one of their famous Fourth of July parties, both of them smiling, a table draped in patriotic bunting behind them.

They had been right. She had no business being so far away from home—at war—without Finley. How would she last a year?

At that, her stomach roiled again.

She ran for the latrines.

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