Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Corpsman by Kenneth Weene


The Corpsman
Kenneth Weene
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical


They called him Doc. It wasn’t his title or even his nickname, but it was what they called him. He knew if he were ever hit, killed, air-vacced out, they’d call the next guy Doc, too. Doc was better than the other name, “Medic, Medic.” That was what they called when somebody was hit, hit bad, bad enough to need him. Some nights it still woke him–in his dreams, them yelling, “Medic, Medic.” Him paralyzed, unable to help.

He is a bright guy. Career Navy, he’d worked his way up from corpsman to officer, gone to school–college. For all that education, he still didn’t have any insight, no self-awareness. Self-awareness isn’t something that comes easy with PTSD. Too busy reliving, too busy trying to keep his shit together.

Retired, going a bit to gray and pot, he and his wife were on a trip; they were staying at the same Bed and Breakfast as my wife and I. The ladies had gone to bed; so there we were: just two guys sitting in a comfortable living room in small town Arizona.

He starts out telling me that he doesn’t much like being with people, being part of a group, doesn’t really join in, stays to himself. Then he spends the evening talking. Talking and sharing and talking some more. Guess what he really doesn’t like is listening. If the other guy is talking, how can he be back there, back then, reliving?

He starts by telling me about PTSD.

I don’t interrupt–to tell him that I’m a shrink–not until he finishes telling me about what a Navy psychiatrist had explained to him–how if you take a cat, nice little cat, and put him in a backyard and start shooting at him and blowing shit up around him and then you take him back into the house, why that cat will be changed and that was how post-traumatic stress worked.

Then I told him about my background; I mentioned there was usually something else about Post Traumatic Stress–something that cats couldn’t figure–not just the being scared but the guilt that somehow you should have changed things.

That’s when he talked about the ambush.

He was supposed to go out with this patrol. They were going to do a sweep and set up an ambush, a standard night operation in Vietnam.

Bunch of kids; oldest, the corporal leading it, wasn’t any older than nineteen–kids, just kids. So this corporal tells me, “Doc, you ain’t coming with us.”

“Of course I am. You got to have a corpsman.”

“You ain’t coming,” he says again.

“Yeah, I am.”

They go back and forth a bit before the corporal tells him that the patrol isn’t going anywhere, that they’re just too damned tired so they’re going to get a little way out of camp, and hunker down for the night. Just call in like they’re really out on patrol.

Get a night’s sleep before they fall apart.

Well, he isn’t happy about not doing his job; so he decides that the least he can do is take a radio shift back at HQ, do something instead of taking the night off. At two, he takes over the CP radio. Everything’s quiet. The corporal calls in, his scheduled contact. Everything’s fine. A few seconds later, he hears hell breaking loose over that radio. First there’s a single shot. Then that patrol, the one he was supposed to be on, is screaming for help. Over the radio he hears the firing. Deep shit!

He’s one of the team that goes out for the rescue. Four medics, couple of officers, a bunch of riflemen. By the time they get to where this platoon is hunkered, every last one of those Marines has been hit. But everything is quiet, quiet as death.

“Where the hell are they?”

“Sneaky bastards.”

Then they figure it out. The corporal had called in at two, just like he was supposed to. Then he decided to check his men, make sure nothing was wrong. Damn kid forgot to put on his helmet. In Marine world after dark and no helmet, you’re the enemy. Shoot to kill. That first shot he’d heard over the radio.

Well, that shot and the other Marines had jumped up–still no helmets. More fucking shooting.

All those guys hit; all by their own friendly fire.

Friendly fire. Jesus, who could have thought. Too damned tired to know what they were…

His eyes clouded. He was someplace else. 

I should have been there. Never could figure out why I wasn’t. I should have been out there with those guys, but … but I wasn’t. Why? … Why? The thing was, he was serious. He didn’t understand why the corporal had told him to stay in camp.

“You were too valuable to waste,” I offered.

What do you mean?

“They knew they weren’t going to be fighting so why waste a corpsman’s time? Just like if they needed to dig a hole or some other grunt work, you’re not the guy to hand the shovel. Medics were too valuable to  squander that way. Why have you waste your energy when you might need it to save one of them some time?”

Shit, I must have asked a dozen doctors why; and nobody ever… He sat–quiet, nodding his head from time to time.

Thing is I came back. I was never even wounded.

“That was damn lucky. Corpsmen, you guys–only ones more likely to get it were Second Lieutenants.” I hadn’t served, but I wanted him to know that I understood. 

Yeah, butter-bars. You see a Lieutenant with a map and you knew you were in shit. Fresh from training and not knowing a thing about what they was doing.

I laughed. He smiled wanly.

When I was fresh in the field, you know maybe six weeks in, I noticed something strange. There was this snapping noise. I’d be working on a guy and suddenly I’d hear this snapping. I’d look around, but there wasn’t anything breaking–no sticks or anything –just that sound. I asked this Gunnery Sergeant, “Gunny,” I asked, “There’s something I want to ask you.”

“So ask, Doc.”

“When I’m out there and I’m working on a guy, I hear this noise, this snapping, any idea what it is?”

“Sure, Doc, that’s bullets. Those sons-ofbitches are shooting at you. When a bullet gets close enough it snaps. Most of the time you hear a whine, but when it gets close enough.”

“After that, when I was working on a guy, I’d kind of dart around.”

He acted it out, reaching for something quickly, changing direction, moving suddenly in another direction. He stopped moving, sat still and looked at me.

“It sounds awful,” I said to break the silence.

Nothing.

“You must have…”

Some, a lot didn’t make it. Some I didn’t think would, but they did. Worst one, one I saved but I didn’t think he’d make it–there was this kid. We were on patrol and all hell breaks out. I’m working on some other guy, nothing too bad, when one of the Marines comes up, says, “Doc, you got to come.”

“I’m working on this guy,” I say.

He grabs me; pulls me right away, right down to his buddy.

This grunt is leaning against a tree. His arm is broken in two; he’s holding it up, and it’s just hanging down from here. 

He gestures to show that the bottom two thirds of the guy’s left forearm is hanging down like everything inside it is broken, like it’s held on by skin.

“And his right leg is gone right to here.” He indicates the hip. “I could see his hip joint. The leg is a couple of yards away, lying on the ground like it’s waiting for him. And blood. Shit, you ain’t seen a femoral until you’ve seen a femoral. A femoral and a radial and both going at once.

He jerked his hands in different directions like they were supposed to be the spurting blood.

First thing I need is a tourniquet. I dump my pack right there on the ground, but I don’t have another one. None of the guys have one either; we’ve just used them all. So I think about it, and we’re wearing these new uniforms, not the cammies, those hadn’t come in yet, but these green nylon uniforms.

At least we were out of the cottons–sweat to death in nylon, but they dried faster. These new uni-s, they got pockets on the legs, and there are these cords sewn in to tie those pockets tight so your shit doesn’t jiggle around in there. I never put anything in those pockets, but I grab the cord from my left leg and pull until it rips free.

Again his hands are flying around.

I use the strap to tie up that stump of his. Use some stump pads and there’s all this jungle shit right in the wound, but I got it tied off … and the arm, and I say, “Call a dust off; we got to get him out of here.”

That’s when this guy–his leg gone, his arm gone–he says, “Hey, Doc, you looked down there.”

I nod yeah.

“So is it all there. Do I still got what I need?”

“Yeah,” I tell him and that son-of-a-bitch smiles back at me like there’s not a damn thing wrong in the world.

Course we’ve got that chopper all ready coming in; and he starts coming down, but then he pulls away.

“What the fuck?” I ask.

“Taking fire, can’t land,” the sergeant explains.

So we load this guy on a poncho and his leg and we carry him down to an LZ not too far off. But the chopper still can’t land. Sarge says, “They’ll lower the basket. We put him in fast, and they get the hell out of here.”

So they get about a hundred feet above us and they lower this drogue, and it starts rotating like a crazy-ass pendulum, but then that pilot–damn he’s good–he gets it under control and sets it down gentle. Somebody yells, “Get him in.”


We get that guy and his leg into the bucket and the copter takes off.

“Shit,” I yell, “We didn’t get him tied in.”

That basket is swinging around again, and we watch it gyrating as the copter pulls up and meanwhile I guess they’re pulling him in, too; but for a minute I expected to see that guy flying out of that bucket and…

Couple of months later, we get back from patrol and the shirt whose in charge of our platoon calls a meeting. “We got a letter,” he says, “from Clere. You guys remember him?”

Well, most of us–except the new guys–say yeah, and he reads the letter. How this guy’s back in the states and learning to use a prosthetic arm, one of those things that go across the back and you can move them around with your other shoulder and you can open and close these hooks.

He illustrated hunching his shoulders and clawing with two fingers of his own hand.

“They can’t do anything about a leg, too much of that was gone. But I’ll be going home and that’s what counts. So, I just wanted to let you guys know I made it out okay.”

The shirt gives us a piece of paper and a pen and tells us we should all write something back to this guy. Being I’m Navy, you know a corpsman and not a Marine, I get that piece of paper last and there isn’t much room; so I just write how most of us would give an arm and a leg to get out of Nam.


He nodded in appreciation of his own little joke. I tried to smile in response.

Didn’t hear from that guy for years. Then the VFW puts together a list of all of us members all over the country. Computers you know; they’re great. And each of us has written down his information. Forty bucks and you got a great big book to tell you where all your buddies are. It was brand new; my copy hadn’t come yet, but I was looking forward to it, maybe looking up a few of the guys.

Meanwhile, it was first day of deer hunting season and I’d spent it out in the swamps, wandering around and not seeing a single animal. I get home tired, hungry, out of sorts. Last thing I want is to talk to anyone. Just as my ass is finding my favorite chair, the phone rings. I don’t answer; but it keeps ringing, and my wife can’t stand it so she answers: You know a woman, can’t leave a crying baby or a ringing phone.

“Tell them we don’t want any.” He says it while making a cutting sign across his neck.

Don’t you hate those telemarketers? I figured nobody else would be bothering with us.

Anyway, my wife gets to talking, and I tell her again, “We don’t want any.”

Then she hands me the phone. “It’s for you.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. Ask him.”

So I kind of shout into the phone, “Who is this?”

And this deep, rough voice says, “Did you use to be in the Navy?”

“Yeah. And I still am. Who…?”

“A corpsman?”

“Yeah. But…”

“And you served in Vietnam?”

Now he was getting into some painful water, “Look, I don’t know what you’re selling, but who the hell are you?”

“Shit, Doc, now that ain’t any way to talk to a guy who gave an arm and leg to get out of Nam.”

“Clere, is that you? You know I never could find you, find out…How the hell are you? Wondered a lot of time, but couldn’t find you in any reports.”

He laughs. “That’s ‘cause my name’s not Clere, it’s Lehr.”

“So where are you? What are you doing?”

“We still live in Missouri. I work for the IRS.”

“Shit, I saved your life so you could go to work for the IRS? What the fuck?”


He looked at me and shook his head like something worried at him but that nothing mattered. We sat quiet  for a while. We both knew there were no answers, no reasons, just the randomness of war. But on that night, that one night: yeah, there had been a reason.


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2 comments:

  1. Riveting... yes... thanks goodness we can always find a reason...

    ReplyDelete