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The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 6

The next morning, Frankie woke disoriented, uncertain where she was.

Then the smell hit: shit and fish and rotting vegetation. And the heat. She was drenched in sweat. Her sheets smelled sour.

She was in her sauna-hot hooch, in Vietnam. With a pounding headache.

She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the cot.

For a terrible minute, she thought she might vomit.

She’d had two shots of whiskey last night. Two.

And nothing to eat.

The last thing she remembered was dancing with Ethel to “Monday, Monday.” Had Frankie’s shorts fallen down at one point, pooled around her shiny new combat boots? She thought so, thought she remembered someone saying, Nice gams, Frank! and Ethel laughing as Frankie struggled to pull the shorts back up.

Oh God. Way to make a good first impression.

Where were Barb and Ethel?

Feeling shaky, dehydrated, she scratched her short hair and looked around. A large gray rat sat on the dirty wooden floor, holding a half-eaten candy bar in his pointy pink paws; at her look, he stopped nibbling and stared back at Frankie through black, oil-drop eyes.

Tomorrow morning, she’d throw something at him. Now she felt too weak to expend the effort.

Frankie got out of bed, ignoring the rat, who was now ignoring her, too, and dressed in her creased olive-green fatigues, taking care to tuck her pants into her spit-shined new boots.

The rat scurried across the wooden floor and disappeared behind the dresser.

“Okay,” Frankie said, standing in the small, crowded space. “You can do this.”

She’d eat something and drink plenty of water and report for duty. She would drink water only from the Lister bag and take her malaria and diarrhea medications on time.

Outside, she saw that the compound was a sprawling complex of buildings, all set on a mostly treeless patch of rich red earth. There were buildings and shacks and huts and tents. The Quonset huts that housed the wards looked like giant tin cans cut in half vertically and pressed into the dirt, with their entrances protected by sandbags.

She followed the center aisle, which was flanked on either side by a long covered area and rows of buildings. She passed the men’s quarters, the pharmacy, a small chapel, and the Red Cross station, the PX. In the center of the aisle, below a tall water tower, was a raised stage. Empty now.

The mess hall ran perpendicular to the stage. She paused at the open door of the long wooden building. Inside, it was divided in half; one side for officers, one side for enlisted.

She found a table set with bread, muffins, a vat of American peanut butter, and a tub of butter. She poured a cup of coffee and gulped it down, hoping it would quell her pounding headache. When she emptied the first cup, she put peanut butter on a piece of toast and downed it with eight ounces of milk.

She instantly felt sick and ran for the latrines, but made it only halfway there before she vomited at the side of the PX.

When there was nothing left to vomit, she moved cautiously back onto the walkway, made her way to Major Wendy Goldstein’s office. Inside, the chief nurse sat at a desk behind a mound of paperwork, dressed in faded, pressed fatigues.

Frankie stepped inside the office and saluted. “Second Lieutenant McGrath reporting as ordered,” she said clearly.

Major Goldstein looked up. Her face and hair were both pale and could have given the impression of fragility, but somehow the opposite felt true. “What time is it, Lieutenant McGrath?”

Frankie glanced at the black wall clock, which was protected by a black wire cage. “Oh-eight-oh-three hours, Major Goldstein.”

The major pursed her lips. “Oh good. I was afraid you couldn’t tell time. When you are told to report to me at oh-eight-hundred, I expect to see you precisely at oh-eight-hundred. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Major,” Frankie said. “I was … sick.”

“Don’t drink the water or you’ll spend your whole tour either vomiting or crapping. Didn’t someone tell you that? I think—” She stopped midsentence, drew in a sharp breath. She cocked her head to the left, listening. Then said, “Damn.”

Frankie heard the distant thwop-thwop-thwop of incoming helicopters. “Are we under attack?”

“Not in the way you think.” She closed a manila folder. “Let’s see what you’re made of, McGrath. I’ll assign you tomorrow. Be here at oh-eight-hundred sharp. For now, it’s all hands on deck. Report to Lieutenant Flint in the ER.”

“The emergency room? I’m not—”

“It’s not a cocktail party invitation, McGrath. Move.

Frankie was so confused, she forgot to salute. She couldn’t even remember if she was supposed to salute. She turned and rushed out of the admin building, followed the covered walkway to the set of Quonset huts that made up the wards. Her new boots started to hurt her feet.

At the helipad, marked by a red cross on a white circle on the ground, she saw three helicopters, each emblazoned with the Red Cross insignia, buzzing overhead. None had manned gunners at the doors. So these were the Dust Offs she’d read about. Unarmed medevac helicopters that transported injured men off the field. Two of them hovered as the third lowered.

A medic and two nurses appeared almost instantly and began off-loading men on litters.

Moments after that chopper lifted up, another lowered onto the pad. More corpsmen showed up to offload the wounded. An ambulance drove up to Pre-Op.

Frankie found the Quonset hut that housed the emergency room.

Medics ran in and out, carrying men on litters: one lay screaming, his own severed leg on his chest; another had no legs at all. Their uniforms were bloody; some of their faces were still smoking from burns the medics—or their friends—had put out. There were gaping chest wounds—one guy she could see had a broken rib sticking up. Ethel stood in the midst of the chaos like an Amazon goddess, directing traffic, positioning the casualties, pointing out what to do with the wounded. She seemed unaffected by the chaos. More men followed her commands. There were so many wounded that some had to be left outside, their litters set on sawhorses, waiting for space in the ER.

Frankie was overwhelmed by the horror of it. The screaming, the smoke, the shouting.

A medic saw Frankie standing there and shoved a boot into her arms.

She stared down at it, saw that a foot was still inside.

Frankie dropped the boot, stumbled just out of the way, and vomited. She was about to vomit a second time when she heard, “Frank. Frank McGrath.” Ethel grabbed her by the arm.

Frankie wanted to run. “I’m not trained for this.”

“We need your help.”

Frankie shook her head.

Ethel touched Frankie’s chin, made her look up. “I know,” she said, pushing her hair back with a bloody hand. “I know.”

“In Basic, they taught us how to wrap bandages and shave a man for an operation. I shouldn’t be here. I—”

“You can hold a man’s head. You can do that.”

Frankie nodded numbly.

Ethel took her by the hand and led her to the staging area in the ER. “This is triage,” Ethel said. “We assess here. We decide who gets seen and when. We treat the ones we can save first. That screen over there in the back? We put the expectants there—men who probably aren’t going to make it. We see them last. We can treat five gutshot wounds or amputations in the time it takes to handle one head injury. You understand? The walking wounded—those men over there.” She pointed to a group of soldiers who stood beside the screen with their fellow soldiers, talking, smoking, doing what they could to comfort the expectants. “They’ll be seen when we have time.”

Ethel led Frankie to a soldier lying on a litter. He was drenched in blood and one arm was just … gone. She looked quickly away.

“Keep breathing, Frank,” Ethel said calmly. “Hold his hand.”

Frankie positioned herself at the patient’s side and forced herself to look down. At first all she saw was the horror, the devastating amount of blood, the arm that had been severed at the elbow, revealing the white of bone and pink gristle and dripping blood.

Focus, Frankie.

She closed her eyes for a second, exhaled, and then opened her eyes.

She saw the soldier this time, a young Black man wearing a dirty green bandanna, who looked barely old enough to shave. Very carefully, she took hold of his hand.

“Hey, ma’am,” he said in a slurred voice, “have you seen my buddy Stevo? We were together…”

Ethel snipped the uniform off of the young man, revealing a massive abdominal wound.

Ethel looked up. Her eyes were tired. “Expectant,” she yelled out.

Two medics appeared and picked up the litter and carried it to the staging area behind the screen.

Frankie looked up at Ethel. “He’s going to die.”


Was this what Frankie had joined the Army for, to watch young men die?

“We will save plenty of lives today, Frank. But not all of them. Never all of them.”

“He shouldn’t die alone.”

“No,” Ethel said, and gave her a tired smile. “Go, Frank. Be his sister, his wife, his mother.”


“Just hold his hand. Sometimes that’s all we can do. And then … come back here.”

When he was dead; that was what Ethel meant. Frankie felt as if a giant weight were suddenly pressing down on her as she stepped around the screen. The soldier—kid—was off by himself. She saw that he was crying.

She approached him carefully, looked down, saw his name and rank. “Private Fournette,” she said. It seemed to get quiet suddenly. She couldn’t hear the screaming of the helicopters coming and going or the nurses yelling at one another. All she could hear was this man’s labored, bubbly breathing.

She kept her gaze averted from the horrible gaping wound that showed his glossy intestines and dripping blood.

She moved in close, reached down, took hold of his cold hand.

“Private Fournette,” she said again. “I’m Frankie McGrath.”

He blinked slowly. Tears slid down his face, mixing with dirt and blood. “Have you seen Stevo? Private Grand. It was my job to keep him safe. He just got in-country two days ago. His mama and mine work at the same salon. In Baton Rouge.”

“I saw him,” Frankie said, finding it hard to speak past the lump in her throat. “He’s fine. He was asking about you.”

Private Fournette smiled, a little sloppily. “My … something hurts, ma’am. I figure that shot is wearin’ off. Man, I surely could use a cold beer.” He started to shake. His hand in hers went limp, grew colder. “Ma’am,” he said.


It was a long time before he spoke, a shivering silence. “I wish I’d a told…” He wheezed hard. Blood bubbled up from his mouth. “Loved her.”

“You’ll tell her after surgery,” Frankie said. “Right after they fix you up. I’ll help you write a letter.”

“I…” He paused, shuddered, and closed his eyes.

His hold on her hand loosened. One minute he was there, holding her hand, whispering his regret, and the next moment, he was gone.

Mass casualty. That was what they called tonight, or actually MASCAL. Apparently, since the recent influx of troops, it was beginning to happen so often that they didn’t have time to call it by its full name.

Frankie stood in the back corner of the Quonset hut that housed the ER. After nine hours on duty, she was beyond exhausted and her feet burned with blisters, but it wasn’t the ache in her bones and muscles and feet that mattered. It was shame.

How on earth had she thought she belonged here? That she had something to offer men who were grievously wounded? She’d been as much help as a candy striper.

Tonight she’d held scissors in hands that never quite stopped shaking and cut off T-shirts and flak jackets and pants, revealing wounds that she couldn’t have imagined before today. She still heard patients’ screams inside her head, even though the ward had emptied a while ago.

Casualties, she reminded herself. Back in the world, they were patients; here, they were casualties. The Army was full of terms like back in the world. That was how everyone referred to the life that they’d left behind.

Frankie sighed heavily, heard footsteps, and knew it was Ethel, coming to check up on her.

“Well, that was an ass-kicker,” Ethel said, lighting up a cigarette. “And no, not every day is like this, thank God.”

In her mind, Frankie nodded. She was pretty sure that in fact she just stood there, staring at nothing.

Ethel put an arm around her. “How are you, Frank?”

“Useless,” was all she could say.

“No one is ever ready for this. The worst part is that you’ll get used to it. Come on.”

Ethel kept her hold on Frankie, led her through the camp. Frankie felt every one of the new blisters on her feet. Outside, the night air smelled heavy, like blood on metal; there was no moon to light the way.

In the mess, she saw a few men sitting in the enlisted section, drinking coffee, and as they approached the O Club, she smelled smoke wafting through the beaded curtain. Music followed the smoke, infused it with memories of home. “I wanna hold your ha-aa-aa-and.”

In the distance, she heard the whoosh of waves rolling in and out. The sound called to her like a siren song, reinflated her youth. Nights on bicycles with Finley, riding free, their arms outstretched, stars overhead.

Finley. She’d felt his ghost beside her all night, seen his eyes in the face of every soldier whose hand she’d held.

She pulled away from Ethel and walked alongside a coil of concertina wire, a barrier of razor-sharp spikes.

In front of her: the sea. It was a glow of silver, a sense of movement, and the comforting familiarity of it, the salty tang in the air, called out to her, reminded her of home. On the beach, she sat down in the sand and closed her eyes.

She felt the salt, tasted it. The sea—

No. Not the sea.

She was crying.

“You can’t be out here alone, Frank. Not all soldiers are gentlemen.” Ethel sat down beside her.

“I’ll add that to my list of mistakes.”

“Yeah. You gotta be careful. Over here, the men lie and they die.”

Frankie had no idea what to say to that.

“So. Which is it?” Ethel finally said.

Frankie wiped her eyes and looked sideways. “What?”

“Are you out here grieving the boys we lost or your own piss-poor set of nursing skills?”


“That means you’ve got what it takes, Frank. We all went through it. Nurses back in the world are second-class citizens. And, big surprise—they’re mostly women. Men keep us in boxes, make us wear starched virgin white, and tell us that docs are gods. And the worst part is, we believe them.”

“Doctors aren’t gods here?”

“Of course they are. Just ask them.” Ethel pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket, tapped one out, offered it.

Frankie took the cigarette. She didn’t smoke—never had—but just now, it gave her something to do with her unsteady hands and blocked out the smell of blood.

“Why did you join the Army?” Ethel asked.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. It was a stupid, childish thing to do.” She turned to Ethel. “Why did you join?”

“We all have a long-story and a short-story answer to that, I guess. Long story, after I got my nursing degree, I decided I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a veterinarian. I was headed that way when the man I loved shipped out. Short story: I followed him.” Her voice softened. “His name was George. He had a laugh that fixed everything.”

“And he—”

“Died. And you?”

“My brother died over here, too. And … I wanted to make a difference.” Frankie stopped, hearing the naivete in her words.

“Yeah. That’s why I re-upped for a second tour. We all want that, Frank.”

Back in the world, when Frankie had told her friends that she’d hoped to make a difference over here, hoped to make her family proud, they’d rolled their eyes and acted impatient with patriotism; but out here, sitting beside this woman she barely knew, Frankie remembered the pride she’d felt on joining the Army.

“I’m sorry about your guy,” Frankie said. “George.”

“He was a real looker, my Georgie,” Ethel said with a sigh. “And for a while, I hated that I’d followed him here and lost him anyway, but I stuck it out, and now I’m glad I stayed. That’s what I’ve learned, Frank. I am better and stronger than I ever thought, and when I go back to my daddy’s farm in Virginia and get back into vet school, I know there’s nothing that can stop me. I want it all, Frank. A husband, a kid, a career. A big ole life that ends when I can barely get out of my rocker, with kids and animals and friends all around me. You’ll find out what you want over here, too. I promise.”

“Thanks, Ethel.”

“Now, enough seaside weeping. Do you drink, Frank?”

Frankie didn’t know how to answer that. She’d gone to fraternity mixers in college, and she’d had a few beers, and she’d had two shots of whiskey on her first night in Vietnam, but really, she was a good girl who followed the rules. She’d turned twenty-one in December—the age drinking was legal in California—but with Finley’s death and the terrible holidays last year, she hadn’t celebrated her birthday. “I have.”

“There’s plenty of it over here,” Ethel said. “Watch out. Take care of yourself. That’s my advice. I don’t drink, but I don’t judge, either. Over here it’s live and let live. Whatever gets you through the night.” She got to her feet, put a hand down for Frankie. “Get up, Lieutenant, brush yourself off, and let’s clean up and fill our bellies and then head to the O Club to blow off some steam. You just survived your first MASCAL in ’Nam.”

Frankie had never seen any human eat as fast as Ethel did. It was like watching a hyena gulp down a kill as predators closed in.

Finally, Ethel pushed her empty plate aside and said, “I feel like dancing. You?”

Frankie looked down at her barely eaten Salisbury steak covered in brown gravy, and the overcooked green beans. Why had she taken so many mashed potatoes? “Dance?”

How could she dance? Her stomach kept roiling and cramping. She couldn’t shake the horror of what she’d witnessed tonight, nor could she accept her ineptitude. She was nauseated and ashamed. She pushed her chair back and stood up.

The mess hall was full of soldiers in bloody fatigues. She was surprised at how loudly they talked and how often they laughed. Frankie wondered how anyone who’d lived through a MASCAL could get over it so quickly.

She followed Ethel out of the mess. As they walked past the empty stage, Ethel told a story about the Christmas show at Di An when Bob Hope had entertained the troops. “I sent a picture of me and Bob Hope home to my dad. He said he hung it up on the bulletin board in the barn, told everyone that his girl was saving lives…”

Frankie wasn’t listening. She had never felt less like being around people. She started veering to the left, eager to escape back to her hooch.

Ethel took hold of Frankie’s arm, as if she’d read her thoughts. “Steady, Frank.”

At the O Club, Ethel pushed the beaded curtain aside; the clattering sound filled in the beat of silence between songs.

Inside, there was barely room to sit or stand. Men stood in groups, talking, smoking, drinking. A Stars and Stripes newspaper lay on the floor with the headline MCNAMARA’S LINE FORTIFIED ALONG DMZ. The air was gray with smoke.

How could they be here, as if nothing had happened, some still with blood in their hair, drinking alcohol and smoking?

“Whoa, Frank. You’re breathing like a racehorse. You don’t want to dance, I get it. Hang on.” Ethel grabbed two cold Cokes and maneuvered back through the crowd, toward the doorway.

“Hey, pretty mamas, don’t leave us!” someone yelled out.

“Was it something we said?”

“I’ll put my pants back on. Come back!”

The two women walked past the latrines and the empty shower stalls and came to the row of hooches.

Opening the door, Ethel pretty much pushed Frankie up the steps from the wood-slatted walkway and into the dank, dark, foul-smelling hooch.

She turned on the light and took Frankie by the shoulders and forced her to sit on her cot.

“I smell like blood,” Frankie said.

“And you look like hell. It’s a groovy combination.”

“I should shower.”

Ethel handed Frankie a Coca-Cola and they sat down on Frankie’s cot, side by side, shoulder to shoulder.

Frankie looked up at the horse and barn pictures tacked above Ethel’s cot and felt a pang of grief. “My brother and I rode horses a few times. I loved it.”

“I got my first horse when I was four. Chester the chestnut,” Ethel said. “Mom used to saddle him and set me on his back and garden. I still have that dream of us sometimes.”


“Gone. Breast cancer. Please don’t say you’re sorry. I know it’s true. How old are you, Frank?”


Ethel shook her head, made a whistling sound. “Twenty-one. Hell, I barely remember that age anymore. I’m twenty-five.”

“Wow,” Frankie said.

“You thought I was older, right? We age in dog years over here, Frank. And it’s my second tour. By the time I leave I’ll have chin hairs and need bifocals, you watch.”

Ethel lit up a cigarette. The gray smoke wreathed them, made Frankie suddenly homesick for her mother. She found herself softening just a little.

“Where’s Barb?”

“A kid from her hometown was brought in tonight with the crispy critters. Not good. She’s sitting with him, I bet.”

“Crispy critters?”

“Burn victims. I know, I know, we shouldn’t call them that. You’ll learn fast, Frank. We laugh so we don’t cry.”

Frankie could hardly grasp such a thing.

“I don’t think Barb likes me,” Frankie said. “Can’t say I blame her.”

“It’s not you, Frank. Barb has had a tough road.”


Ethel gave her a look. “You have noticed the color of Barb’s skin, I take it?”

Frankie felt her cheeks burn. There had been no Black girls at St. Bernadette’s, no Black families at St. Michael’s Church or on Ocean Boulevard. None in her sorority or her nursing program. Why was that? “Of course. But—”

“But nothing, Frank. Let’s just say Barb is sick and tired, and leave it at that. She’s also one of the best surgical nurses you’ll ever meet.” Ethel put an arm around Frankie. “Look, Frank. I know how you feel right now. We all do. We’ve been there. You’re thinking you screwed up by signing up for ’Nam, thinking you don’t belong. But let me tell you, kid, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or how you grew up or what god you believe in, if you’re here, you’re among friends. We’ve got you.”

Frankie lay on her cot, her hair still damp from a lukewarm shower, and stared up at the ceiling. Hours had passed this way; she couldn’t sleep.

Her feet throbbed with the pain of new blisters. Barb’s snores filled the small hooch, sounded like the ocean rolling in. Far away, there was the sound of gunfire popping. Ethel tossed and turned, her cot squeaking at every movement.

Images from tonight’s MASCAL ran through Frankie’s mind, a kaleidoscope of horror. Torn limbs, blank stares, gushing bleeds, sucking chest wounds. One young man screaming for his mother.

She needed to use the restroom. Should she waken one of her roommates to go with her?

No. Not after the night they’d had.

She threw the covers off and got out of bed, stood there in the dark. She heard something scurry across the floor and already she didn’t care. What were rats to her after tonight?

She dressed in her fatigues and slipped her stockinged feet into her boots, immediately feeling the raw blisters that had formed.

Outside, the compound was relatively quiet. Some distant gunfire, an engine humming—a generator, maybe—a faraway beat of music. Someone somewhere was listening to a transistor radio.

She shouldn’t go out. She knew that. It could be dangerous. Not all soldiers are gentlemen, Ethel had said, reminding Frankie that the Army at war wasn’t so different from the world.

Still. She couldn’t breathe in here, couldn’t sleep, and her bladder ached with the need to be emptied. The horrible images she’d seen wouldn’t let her go and the heat was giving her a headache.

She stepped down onto the hard-packed dirt and walked toward the latrines. Off to the left, a shadowy figure stood at a burn barrel, throwing things into the fire. The stench wafted this way.

A narrow walkway spread over a ditch, with coils of spiked wire on either side. She walked cautiously over the makeshift bridge and ducked into the women’s latrines.

When she exited the building, she smelled cigarette smoke and stopped.

A lone orange-gold light shone down from a post overhead, revealing a man standing not far away, smoking.

She turned away quickly, stepped on something that cracked.

He turned.

The chest cutter. Jamie.

In the ghoulish light, his handsome face looked drawn, even as he tried to smile at her.

“I’m sorry. You want to be alone,” she said. “I’ll go—”

“Don’t,” he said. “Please.”

Frankie bit her lip, remembered Ethel’s warning about men. This was a lonely place, hidden. She glanced back toward the relative safety of her hooch.

“You’re safe with me, McGrath.” He held out a hand. She saw that it was shaking. “Hell of a thing, for a surgeon’s hand to shake,” he said.

Frankie moved toward him but remained out of reach.

“You caught me on a bad night,” he said.

Frankie didn’t know how to respond.

“A friend from high school came through today. We played football together. He said, Save me, JC.” His voice broke. “I haven’t been JC in a long time. And I couldn’t save him.”

Frankie could have said the kind of thing she’d heard at Finley’s funeral, the empty, shiny words of a stranger. Instead, she said, “You were with him when he died. You can tell his family that he wasn’t alone. That will mean a lot to them. I know, believe me. My brother died over here and all we got back was another man’s boots.”

Jamie looked at her for a long time, as if her words had surprised him. Then he tossed down his cigarette, ground it out with his heel. “Come on, McGrath. It’s late. I’ll walk you back to your hooch.”

He moved toward her. She fell into step beside him. On the makeshift bridge, he let her go first, and at the closed door of her hooch, he stopped.

“Thanks,” he said.

“For what?”

“Just being here, I guess. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to save a man in ’Nam.”

On that, he gave her a false, fleeting smile, and walked away.


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