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The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 9

Frankie had stopped being afraid every time she walked into the OR. She was still often uncertain, but, like the turtle they’d called her on her first night, she’d developed a hard shell to protect her heart from what she saw and the confidence to move past her own fear in order to help the men—and women, and children—who ended up in the OR. It was the only way to survive.

Patty, in her last weeks at the Thirty-Sixth, made it her mission to give Frankie every skill she’d learned during her tour, and of course Barb was always ready to lend a hand in the OR, regardless of how little sleep she’d had the night before. And Ethel was there for emotional support.

Now, on a hot, rainy June day, as she assisted Jamie in surgery, she heard the whirring of choppers overhead. More than one. It didn’t even surprise her anymore, the escalating number of wounded coming through the OR, the growing number of pushes. The U.S. and ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, had pushed into the Demilitarized Zone that separated the Communist North from the American-aided South, and the fighting was brutal. She wished Patty were still here, but she’d gone home last week. With a hell of a send-off.

“Shit,” Jamie said, through his mask. He was elbow-deep in the kid’s abdomen. “His spleen’s ruptured.”

Frankie picked up a clamp and handed it to him.

Moments later, the OR doors banged open. Barb, masked and gowned, wheeled in another casualty from Pre-Op. “Doc, sucking chest wound. It’s bad.”

Jamie cursed under his breath. “I’ll get to it … we gotta get this spleen out…” He reached out, took instruments from Frankie, and handed them back, working quickly. Sweat appeared on his brow; droplets slid down to his mask. Finally, he stepped away from the table. “That’s it. You’re on your own now, McGrath.”


Jamie took off his gloves and reached for a new pair. As he started on the chest wound, he said, “You can close, McGrath. You’ve watched me do it enough. Just take nice, wide bites of fascia, put in all of the stitches, tag them, and tie the sutures with five square knots. Count ’em. Five.”

She shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Damn it, McGrath. We don’t have time for fear. You’re good enough. Do it.”

Frankie nodded, swallowed hard, moving in closer to the patient’s draped, sliced-open abdomen.

“It’s just like sewing, McGrath. Don’t all you nice sorority girls know how to sew? You can stitch.”

Frankie took a deep breath and released it. You can do this.

She took another moment to focus, to tune out the noise and mayhem, the sound of the rain hitting the roof; when she’d calmed, she gently began to close the kid’s fascia, one stitch at a time. She counted each knot, kept careful track of them.

“Good,” Jamie said, glancing over at her. “I knew you could do it.”

Frankie had never focused on anything so intently in her life. The din in the OR faded away. She felt her own heartbeat, the flicker of her pulse, the air moving through her lungs. The whole world compressed into the bloody space in this kid’s belly. By the time she’d closed the fascia, she was sweating profusely, but she kept working. Finally, she let out a long breath and closed the wound and stared down at her work: the sutures were perfect. She had never felt so proud.

This, she thought. This is who I came here to be.

“I’m done here,” Jamie said to Frankie.

“Me, too,” she said.

They both looked up at the same time. Even though he was masked, she could tell that he was smiling.

“Told you, McGrath.”

She could only nod.

“Now move,” he said. “I just heard another Dust Off land.”

In late June, monsoon season hit with a vengeance; the weather was like nothing Frankie had ever seen.

Howling winds ripped off roofs, tore away signs. Rain fell in sheets, blown sideways by the wind. The red dirt turned to a viscous, clinging mud that oozed into the OR from outside, mingling with blood on the concrete floor. It was a constant job to shovel it away. Frankie and the other nurses and the medics, and anyone else they could wrangle into picking up a shovel, spent time trying to push the mud outside.

And it was cold.

Frankie stared down at the patient in front of her, his guts split wide open, his chest covered in frag wounds. Tonight’s storm battered the Quonset like a kid continuously hitting a toy barn with a hammer.

“He’s gone,” Jamie said, then cursed under his breath.

She looked at the clock for time of death, reported it in a quiet voice.

She had been on her feet for twelve hours. Monsoon season made every part of life more difficult. Or maybe it wasn’t the weather that was bad; maybe it was the increased number of wounded that came through these doors. Last week had been mostly quiet, with lots of downtime for the nurses; not so this week. LBJ kept sending more and more troops into the fray, hoping manpower would turn the tide, while the Stars and Stripes published rah-rah-America-is-winning-the-war articles every week.

She shivered hard, her stained, faded fatigues damp beneath her surgical gown. Her pockets bulged with cigarettes and lighters. (She always kept them on hand to give to her boys. That was how she thought of the casualties now: as her boys.) In her breast pocket she had a small flashlight and bandage scissors. A length of stretchy rubber tubing hung limply from one epaulet, just in case she needed to draw blood on the fly. A Kelly clamp hung from one belt loop. A blue surgical cap covered her shaggy hair and a mask covered her nose and mouth. All anyone could see of her was her tired eyes.

Jamie looked at her over the dead body of a kid who had probably been playing high school football six months ago. “You okay, McGrath?”

“Fine. You?”

He nodded, but she saw the truth in his eyes. He was as exhausted and dispirited as she was.

They knew each other so well now. In the past month, they’d spent more hours together than some married couples spent together in a year. All of this hardship—the rain, the damp, the cold, the mud, the wounds, the hours spent trying to save men’s lives—had bound them together, made them into more than friends. Sometimes, over here, the only way to handle the emotional pain was to laugh—or cry. Frankie rarely cried anymore, but when she did, she was probably in Jamie’s arms. He was always there for her and she was there for him. He could make her laugh in the harshest of moments.

They stood together for hours, she and Jamie, working in tandem. She knew every nuance of emotion on his face: the way he gritted his teeth in anger when he saw a child burned beyond recognition by napalm or a soldier who worried about his friends even as he was bleeding out. She knew he missed his beloved Wyoming ranch, with its cool nights and hot days, and its horses in the barn, and a field full of flowers just beyond his front porch. He missed fly-fishing and horseback riding and floating down the Snake River on an inner tube, a six-pack of beer floating with him. She knew that Sarah was a kindergarten teacher who sent him baked goods every week and worried that he didn’t write back often enough, and repeatedly asked if he was okay, and that he couldn’t write anything in answer to that question except Yes.

She fought her feelings for him, but at night, alone in her cot, she thought of him, thought, What if. It might all be a mirage, this connection between them, brought on by proximity and the horror of what they saw every day, but it felt real.

He touched her whenever he could, as casually as possible, and with a forced smile. Sometimes they found themselves standing together, or sitting side by side, just staring at each other, saying nothing, both of them feeling too much for the other and knowing that words wouldn’t ease their longing.

She peeled her gloves off and lowered her mask. Both of them had red mud in the corners of their eyes, dripping down in tears, and in their teeth. “What a day.”

“I need a drink. Maybe ten. Join me?”

Tonight, her longing for him was too sharp to hide. She needed to be away from him. “I am too tired for the O Club,” she said.

“Is that possible?” he said.

Frankie meant to smile. “Tonight it is.”

They pulled off their gowns and caps and put on their Army-issued green ponchos and walked out of the OR and into a raging rainstorm.

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse,” Jamie said.

Rain clattered on the walkway’s roof and fell in sheets on either side of them, riveting the thick red mud.

They walked past the mess hall, and Frankie realized with a shock that it was lunchtime. Time lost all meaning during a MASCAL, and when they were understaffed, as they were now, shifts seemed to go on forever. She hadn’t eaten since, when? Dinner last night? Her stomach grumbled. She didn’t signal her intention, just stumbled sideways, bumping into Jamie, pushing him aside without meaning to. Bypassing the urn of hot coffee (Shower was all she could think), she grabbed two donuts and stumbled back out of the mess, where Jamie stood waiting for her.

“Glazed,” she said, handing him one.

“My favorite.”

“I know.”

They crossed behind the stage, where a sign—MARTHA RAYE COMING NEXT WEEK—had been torn down by the wind and lay twisted and ruined in the mud. Frankie tucked her donut inside her poncho to protect it.

Jamie stopped in front of the sandbagged entrance to the O Club. Wind shoved the beads sideways, made them clatter against the wall. She smelled cigarette smoke. Music rose above the din. “Happy Together” by the Turtles.

Imagine me and you, I do …

“I do, you know,” he said.

“Do what?”

“Imagine me and you. I dream of you, McGrath.”

Frankie’s breath caught. Just now, as exhausted as she was, the will it took to pretend to feel only friendship for him was hard to summon. She couldn’t smile. All she could think of was that she loved him. God help her. “Jamie, don’t…”

“If only I’d met you first,” he said.

“You wouldn’t have looked twice at me. Big college football star and soon-to-be surgeon.”

He touched her cheek in a swift caress. Her skin felt colder without his touch. “You have no idea how beautiful you are, McGrath.”

Frankie was afraid that in one more second of standing here looking at him, in this secret world where rain fell all around them, they—she—would lose this battle. If one leaned forward, the other might, too. She had never wanted to kiss a man more. The love she felt for him caused a physical ache in her chest. She had to force herself to step back. She wanted to say something clever, but nothing came to her. Flipping up her hood, she angled forward to keep the rain from sluicing down her back and ran for the nurses’ showers.

They were empty, probably because of the storm. Rain battered the elevated four-hundred-gallon water trailer, called a Water Buffalo, that fed the showers. Frankie stripped and hung up her fatigues and poncho. In the cold air, the shower water felt warm. She didn’t need to look down to see red water coming off—red blood, red mud, red sweat. Geckos climbed the wooden walls of the shower, hid behind the crossbeams.

She washed her hair and body. Without even bothering to dry off, she stepped back into her damp, dirty clothes and boots, flung the slick wet poncho back over her body, and ducked back into the rain. At the plank bridge that ran over a gushing river of mud and water, she paused, slowed enough to check her balance so she didn’t fall into the coiled concertina wire on either side, and then she was back under the covered walkway.

The hooch was rattled by the rain; water sluiced down the wooden sides, created an ankle-deep puddle of red mud outside the door. She opened it slowly, stepped inside, bringing the mud and rain with her. There was no way to avoid it. In this season of wind and rain, the hooch always smelled of mildew and mold and the floor was always muddy.

On the small dresser by her bed, Frankie saw a brown-paper-wrapped, multi-stamped box beneath a blue airmail letter. Mail!

She hung up her wet poncho, made herself a cup of coffee, peeled out of her damp fatigues, and stored her boots in her footlocker. Dry boots made a world of difference over here. She put on the pajamas her mother had sent her last week, dabbed some perfume on her throat, and climbed into bed.

She opened the box, saw a bag of homemade cookies, a box of See’s chocolates, and some Twinkies inside, and smiled. When she tore open the envelope, a newspaper clipping fell out. In it, a crowd of protesters were burning the American flag.

July 5, 1967

Dearest Frances Grace,

I only want to write with good news, but the world has gone insane. The hippies aren’t so peaceful anymore, I can tell you.

Thousands of war protesters. Boys burning their draft cards and women burning their bras. Race riots. Good Lord. Our annual party was a rather diminished affair, I must say. All anyone talks about is the war. You remember Donna Van Dorn, from Sunday school? At bridge club last week, I heard that she started dropping the acid and left college to join a folk band. Supposedly, she is living in some commune and making candles. For goodness’ sake, she’s a DAR member and a sorority girl.

People at the club are starting to wonder if the war in Vietnam is wrong. Apparently, some International War Crimes Tribunal found the U.S. guilty of bombing civilian targets, including schools—SCHOOLS, Frankie!—and churches and even a leper colony. Who knew there were even lepers left in the world?

Stay safe, Frances, and write soon. I miss you.


Your mother

Frankie found an almost-dry sheet of thin blue airmail stationery so she could write back. In this humidity, the ink smeared through to the other side.

July 18, 1967

Dear Mom,

Thank you so much for the treats. I can’t tell you how much they lift everyone’s spirits in this terrible monsoon season.

The weather is tough to describe and tougher to endure. The only thing worse than the rain is that my friend Ethel’s DEROS came in. That’s Army-speak for the date eligible to return overseas. In other words, her date for going home.

(You remember me telling you about Ethel—the one who plays the violin and wants to be a big-animal veterinarian?) Anyway, in September, she’ll be leaving Vietnam. Going home.

I can’t imagine doing this without her.

But I will, I guess.

Over here

Frankie heard the sound of incoming choppers and put down her pen.

Sighing, she stowed the unfinished letter and most of the treats in her makeshift nightstand and dressed in her still-damp fatigues and put her boots back on.

Her shift was over, but what did that matter, as understaffed as they were? There were wounded incoming and nurses would be needed. Slipping the still-wet poncho over her clothes, she headed for the OR and saw a pair of ambulances drive up to the Pre-Op door, just off the helipad.

Jamie was already in the OR, in his surgical cap and gown. “No rest for the wicked, eh, McGrath?”

She handed him a Twinkie. “None at all.”

In late July, on a day with no incoming casualties expected, Barb organized a MEDCAP trip and the three nurses and Jamie headed for the helipad, where a stripped-down Huey waited for them. Today they were catching a ride to St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage, which was housed in an old stone church not far away.

Holding her olive-green boonie hat on her head, Frankie angled forward and ran for the helicopter and jumped aboard. For the first time, she didn’t move to the back. She didn’t want to be afraid anymore, didn’t want to think of Finley every time she climbed into a helicopter.

Instead, she sat carefully on the floor near one of the gunners, whose machine gun pointed down at the land below. She cautiously swung one leg over the edge, then the other. Barb sat in the other open door. Ethel and Jamie sat in the back. When the chopper lifted, Frankie’s breath caught.

And then they were up, flying over the countryside.

Frankie had never felt so free, so fearless. Wind whipped across her face. The green landscape below was stunningly beautiful; she saw the thread of sand along the turquoise South China Sea.

The helicopter banked hard, turned inland, and swooped low over some rice paddies. Frankie saw a red dirt road that sliced through a dense swath of elephant grass; there, the chopper paused, hovered, the rotors thwopping loudly, the grass flattened by the wash. Slowly, the bird lowered to the ground and touched down just long enough to let the MEDCAP team get out, and then flew away, headed north.

As the medical team approached the orphanage, the doors banged open and children in ragged clothing surged forward, waving their hands, jostling each other in excitement. They knew the Americans brought candy to hand out to the children. Behind them, Vietnamese nuns, dressed in black habits, wearing conical straw hats, looked on wearily.

The nurses were swarmed by a group of young girls, all reaching out, wanting to touch them. Beside Frankie, Barb dropped to her knees, let the children touch her hair as she handed out suckers. Then she lined the kids up for vaccinations.

For the next four hours, the nurses administered vaccines and gave out vitamins, tended to rat bites and treated malaria. Jamie stitched up wounds and even pulled a few rotten teeth.

They were packing up to go when a petite, pretty young Vietnamese nun came forward. She walked up to Frankie, looking hesitant. “Uh … madame?” she said in French-accented English.

“Yes?” Frankie said, wiping the sweat from her brow, resettling the bag of her medical supplies over her shoulder.

“You could please follow me?”

Frankie followed the nun into the cool interior of the orphanage. Each room had been turned into a dormitory, with straw mats on the floor for sleeping. One room held a dozen or more cribs, where babies slept and cried. It broke Frankie’s heart to think of how many orphans were being made by this war. Who would care for these children and babies when it ended?

At last, they turned a corner and stepped into an oblong room. Burned-down candles sat on windowsills and along the floor—so, no electricity.

There was only one child in here, a toddler, a girl, on a mat with her knees tucked up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her bent legs. She seemed to be making herself as small as physically possible. Frankie looked questioningly at the nun.

“A heat in her forehead,” the nun said, touching her own forehead to communicate clearly.

Frankie knelt on the hard stone floor beside the mat. Up close, she could see that the girl was a little older than she’d thought, but her body had been pared down by malnutrition.

“She will not eat,” the nun said.

“Hey, little one,” Frankie said, stroking the girl’s messy black hair.

The girl didn’t move or respond, just gazed at Frankie through sad brown eyes. Her snarled hair obscured an ugly burn that puckered the skin along her jaw.

“What’s your name?” Frankie asked, touching the child’s forehead, studying the burn, which didn’t look to be infected.

Fever, but not a bad one.

“We do not know her name,” the nun said quietly, kneeling down to stroke the girl’s back. “Her village was bombed. She was found by one of your medics, hiding in a ditch.” She paused. “In her dead mother’s arms.”

Frankie felt a heaviness in her heart, a sorrow that she knew would stay with her. There was no defense against a thing like this. No matter how hard a shell she’d built up to protect herself, some pains couldn’t be forgotten. This girl would be one of them, one of the faces she would see in her sleep. Or on the nights she couldn’t sleep.

“We are calling her Mai. We do not know if she understands us. Some … of them … are too broken…”

Frankie wanted to take the child in her arms and tell her that it would be all right, but would it be all right for a girl like this?

Frankie dug in her bag for some baby aspirin and antibiotics. “These should control her fever. And I’ll give you an ointment for her burn. It will help with scarring.”

Then Frankie reached back into her medical bag and pulled out a cherry sucker, which she offered to the girl.

The girl just stared at it.

Frankie unwrapped the sucker, licked it and smiled, then offered it again.

The girl reached out slowly, took hold of the slim white stick. Staring at Frankie, she brought the sucker to her mouth, licked it.

And licked it again.

And again.

Frankie waited for a smile that never appeared. She wished she were surprised, but she understood this child’s trauma all too well. More and more villages were being burned or bombed. More Vietnamese were dying, leaving their children alone in the world. The tragedy of it all was overwhelming.

She started to get to her feet.

The girl reached out, touched her ankle.

Frankie sat back down.

Tears glistened in the girl’s eyes.

Frankie took the child in her arms, rocked her gently, hummed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” until the girl fell asleep. Frankie stared down at the wounded child in her arms, this girl who was too small for her age and scarred for life and probably all alone in the world, and her heart ached for Mai and the children like her, devastated by this war. She stroked the girl’s hot forehead and kept singing, holding back tears one breath at a time.

“McGrath? The chopper’s on its way back. We need to go.”

Frankie turned, saw Jamie standing in the doorway.

She put the sleeping child on her mat and leaned down to kiss her scarred cheek. “Sleep well, Mai,” she said in a taut voice.

Her balance felt off as she stood up. Her feet were tingling.

Jamie was there instantly, holding her steady. She reached for his hand, held it, not daring to look at him.


She couldn’t help herself. She turned to him, and he took her in his arms and held her. She felt the tears gather in her eyes, burn, and fall; they were lost in the cotton field of his T-shirt.

He didn’t say anything, just held her until she was strong enough to pull away.

“Thanks,” she said at last, not looking at him, wiping away her tears.

“She’ll remember your kindness,” he said. “That little girl. Probably for all of her life. And she will run and play and grow up.”

The words meant so much to Frankie that she could only nod. How had he known exactly what she needed to hear?

They walked out into the sunshine. In the ratty yard, the children were playing with a ball the team had brought them, were kicking it back and forth and laughing. Not far away, the helicopter landed on the dirt road, its rotors flattening the elephant grass and stirring up the red dirt.

The medical team ran for the chopper and jumped aboard. Frankie sat in the open door, her legs hanging over the side. Every now and then, she pulled her Polaroid camera out of her bag and snapped a picture and pulled the ghostly print from the camera, waving it to dry until the image appeared, but her heart wasn’t really in it.

In the distance, another helicopter flew low over the jungle, spraying herbicide.

They landed back at the Thirty-Sixth with ease, where it was quiet.

Amazingly, there were no people running from the ER to Pre-Op to the OR, no patients in triage, no ambulances rumbling into the compound, no rain falling in sheets, no lakes of mud to wade through. She and Ethel and Barb and Jamie walked to the mess hall, where the women grabbed some sandwiches and TaBs and Jamie got a beer.

On the beach, a dozen shirtless men played volleyball. Music blared out from a set of speakers, and the sound of hammering rang out—more buildings being erected. In the distant hills, mortar rounds exploded, made a sound like popping corn. Jamie wrenched off his shirt and kicked off his shoes and joined the men at the volleyball net.

The women dragged three beach chairs out onto the sand and sat there, eating their sandwiches, staring at the white sand and blue water. And at the bare-chested men. Tonight, a movie screen would be set up out here. Rumor was that someone had gotten a print of The Great Escape.

Behind them, someone cranked up the music as loud as it would go. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” got people singing along. A pair of female Red Cross volunteers—called Donut Dollies—dressed in their skirted uniforms, pushed a cart full of drinks and cookies out to the beach. Their nickname might sound soft, but those girls were tough as nails. They traveled all over Vietnam, by whatever transport was necessary, to boost morale among the troops.

“What’s wrong?” Barb asked Frankie.

Frankie wasn’t surprised by the question. They were more than best friends, she and Barb and Ethel. The radical, the farm girl, and the good girl; back in the world they might never have met each other, might never have become friends, but this war had made them sisters. “There was this little girl at the orphanage,” Frankie said. “She’d been burned. Our medics found her by the side of the road—in her dead mother’s arms.”

Ethel gave a tired sigh.

Frankie couldn’t stop thinking about Mai, lying in a ditch, burned, still held in her dead mother’s arms. “Her village had been bombed.”

War was one thing; bombing villages full of women and children was something else. God knew there were no stories about it in the Stars and Stripes. Why weren’t they reporting that truth?

A silence fell between them; in it lay the ugly truth that none of them wanted to face. The village was in South Vietnam.

And only the Americans had bombs.


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