Do you remember where you were in November 1969 when the “
Age of Aquarius” was dawning and, in Vietnam, Americans were dying? I remember. I was there…in Vietnam! As an Army nurse, I was winging my way peacefully across the Pacific to a land I knew nothing about where I would survive 12 months that I would never forget. I perused the anxious faces of the 12 other women and 100-plus men on that flight. Would all of us return as complete human beings? Which of us would leave something behind -- a limb, an eye, a close friend, our mind?
War is the stuff of which memories are made. I stored them all deep inside but ready to return to the surface when beckoned. I remember my coworkers. The doctor from New York who sported granny glasses and sandals. He missed the kosher delis. A fellow nurse, who had been my roommate at Fort Dix before we “got orders.” We corresponded at Christmas for many years. Major B, the Hot Lips Houlihan of our hospital. She created enough rumors to fill a diary. There were, also, teenage corpsmen who knew little about medicine when they arrived, but to whom I would have entrusted my life after a year of working in the emergency room. I remember the Vietnamese people -- some good, some not, and often difficult to distinguish between the two. The sad faces of the injured children brought tears to my eyes. The piercing stares and muttered abusive language of captured Viet Cong put fear and anger in my heart. As a balance, talented Vietnamese nurses, assisting with the local patients, served up broken English humor and quick smiles. How could they hide their bitterness as they saw what was happening to their families and their land?
I remember the patients; their faces are the most vivid. The twenty-ish sergeant who was conscious, despite the tourniquet on each thigh where a leg and foot had once been attached. The PFC who, while walking point, tripped a mine. We gently tried to roll him over to check for additional wounds; his chest came away, his back stayed on the canvas litter. The GI, with his head and left eye swathed in huge field bandages, whose only concern was the condition of his buddy. The green vinyl body bags which held someone who wasn’t returning as they had come.
I remember all those victims -- a sea of faces in green fatigues, turquoise scrub suits and black pajamas. In that sea, however, I frequently pause at the face of someone who was not just a face but also a name. Claude Bart Sneed was one of those names. As you might have guessed, Bart was a southern gentleman who preferred to be called by his middle name. He, like myself, was sent to this tropical non-paradise in October 1969. Unlike me, his job was far weightier. He was a lieutenant in the infantry.
Our paths crossed in the officers’ club at Long Binh where we were waiting to be flown to our assigned areas having just arrived in South Vietnam. As several of us shared beers around a formica-topped table, conversation was strained. Each wondered what lay beyond the air base. Could it possibly be this unbearably hot where I was headed? Would the training that I’d been given help save my life? Was I going to “fit in” with the others in my unit? Would I ever see these new acquaintances again?
Bart, with his easy manner and soft southern drawl, was able to bring all of our thoughts together and put them in perspective. He was quick with tall tales and numerous anecdotes. As our stay stretched from 24 hours to four days, he kept the tension at a tolerable level. Bart was like warm cookies and cold milk after a fight with the neighborhood bully.
When our flight finally arrived and assignments were completed, we found ourselves headed in the same direction. I recall stepping off that plane at Chu Lai into the monsoon rains. We shared a good luck hug and parted in separate Jeeps. A few months later, on an unusually quiet night, I glanced up at a tall lean arrival to see those familiar warm blue eyes. Bart had been on the fringes of a mortar attack and had suffered some fairly superficial wounds. After some much-needed rest and swapping war stories, he returned to his unit. I never expected to see him again. Unfortunately for him, I did.
I don’t recall the date; two, maybe three months had passed. Several GIs had been wounded, and the emergency room was buzzing. As I checked the wounds of the soldier on my litter and prepared a syringe with pain medication, I heard someone say “Is Lieutenant Graul working today?“ My hands kept moving as my heart froze. I knew that voice! Switching places with another nurse, I quickly assessed Bart’s body, which had been peppered with shrapnel. His spirits were high as always, but his injuries looked complicated. I whispered a quiet prayer as he was wheeled into surgery. Another nurse put her hand on my shoulder asking, “Did you hear Dr. S say that he might lose both legs?” For the first and only time during my year there, I had to walk away to compose myself. The others were just faces; he was a name.
Bart convinced the surgeons to not amputate his legs, and he was soon evacuated to Japan and then to Ft. Benning, Ga., near his home. We kept in contact, and I visited him after I returned in October 1970. He continued to recuperate in the hospital, had taken up the harmonica and still had his legs. His blue eyes still danced, and his drawl could melt an arctic iceberg. But he could not walk. I remember Bart and wonder if he ever did.