A World Apart
“Get a grip, Maggie,” I reassured myself, “you’ve seen this before, remember?” Secretly though, I knew it was a lie. I really hadn’t seen this before, not even in surgery.
“Are you Margaret Pennet?” A soft voice asked amid the shouts, bringing my attention back to the moment.
“Yes, Sir.” I replied, somewhat embarrassed. “Uh, Maggie actually, Captain. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant. You’re not afraid of blood，are you?” he remarked, casually scratching his nose with a red-streaked index finger.
“No, Sir” I whispered, but, looking around the tent, I was afraid, I really was!
My days as an Army nurse were indistinguishable, with on-duty shifts extending eighteen to twenty hours at times, allowing only brief periods for naps, coffee, and bad food. In between, the choppers of wounded kept coming, an endless supply of manpower and job security. While I grew accustomed to Da Nang’s version of medical triage, and the constant activity of bandages, IV bottles and tourniquets, the war in Viet Nam raged. There was never any time to make friends, or foster relationships, but my most precious moments were rare snatches of time reading letters, from my grandfather, in Maine. It was the only connection that I had with all that remained human, loving, and mine.
Four and a half months of duty passed so slowly, it seemed as though my sense of time moved in slow-motion. Vietnamese villagers, civilians employed by the Army, often visited the compound with their families, showing-off their children to those of us who carried handy supplies of Hershey bars and hard, candy treats. In the beginning, it was in the faces of these children that I found some beauty in Viet Nam. Tiny creatures, with black hair and puffy cheeks, squealed with delight, and giggled while tied tightly in the papoose swaddling of cloth, used to carry them on their mother’s backs, or chests. For a while, my life became a bit tolerable, and the children remained my only power of keeping my sanity and dignity, in a world filled with blood and death. Perhaps it was my own fault, for being so naive and overwhelmingly optimistic with this new life, for when tragedy came my way, in the end, I could not contain my grief, or sense of inhumanity which causes one of us to take the life of another, especially a child.
It was 1969 now, and the spring monsoon season poured torrential rains, with pounding intensity for several months. The compound, once cracked and dry, became a muddy mess, with tiny ravines of water flowing in unimportant directions. By 4 o’clock the medical staff had finished at least three incoming choppers of wounded, and equipped a hospital evacuation team to Saigon. Exhausted and hungry, I untied my green surgical mask and walked outside the tent, face upward, hoping the rains would revive me enough to enjoy a good, hot dinner.
Not surprisingly, the cool rain felt good on my face. Whatever my shame and guilt was for this dirty war, it could never be washed clean by the rain. The forgiveness would have to come from a much higher source, than the monsoon rain clouds bursting overhead.
Suddenly, through the downpour, I noticed an old mamasan from the village, pushing her way through the tree line, and lines of wounded, carrying a squalling infant in her arms. I knew her. She was Sergeant Casey’s yobo, a woman he was taking care of and sleeping with until it was time for him to return to his wife and family, in the States. Setting up housekeeping with a local mamasan was the thing to do, in Viet Nam. No one back home had to know, and no one blew the whistle. Looking back, it gave “Don’t ask, don’t tell” a whole new meaning to the military.
“Gee-I, you take –.you take,” she insisted, aggressively, reaching up quickly, pushing the child toward me. I instinctively took the baby in my arms, without thinking. I had done it a hundred times before, and it was the sort of thing that happened everyday with the villagers, who handed their children to American soldiers, hoping for their favors of Candy-rations and other treats. This time however, within a second, the old woman turned and ran back into the trees, leaving the child, still crying and kicking, in my arms.
“Hey mamas an,” I called after her, following behind, “you forgot your kid!” I didn’t need this, I really didn’t.
From across the compound, perhaps a hundred yards away, someone yelled in my direction. Turning, I recognized Captain Collins, and several other Army officers, trying to get my attention by motioning in military fashion that I was to stand to, and not move. I understood the order.
“Maggie, listen to me now,” Captain Collins directed through the rain, holding his hands up showing caution. “Ya’ alright?”
“Yea, what’s wrong?” I didn’t understand.
“Do you see that sand pit over to your right? Look now. Do you see it?”
“Throw the baby over there. Maggie listen to me! Do it now!”
“Yes, Sir, but—,” I didn’t understand. It was crazy, lunatic: not Christian. How could I kill a child? I froze, undecided.
“Maggie!” Captain Collins called again, his voice demanding; this time, more immediate.
“Throw that kid, Lieutenant! Do it! NOW! That’s an order!”
I heard nothing, neither the pounding of the rain, nor my heartbeat, or the screams of the baby in my arms. I looked at the tiny, round face with black eyes and without really understanding why, threw the infant as far to my right as I could, in the direction of the sandpit. Within moments, I was thrown into a muddy trench , as a triggered bomb exploded, sending body-parts, of a tiny, innocent Vietnamese baby, all over the compound.
Captain Collins simply said: “The old mamasans tape bombs to the inside of the kid’s legs because they know that when they wake up and move, they’ll blow you and the whole compound clear to Jesus. One less gook to worry about, anyway! Want a beer, kid?” I heard him mumble under his breath, as he walked away from me, still stunned and curled in the mud: “Stupid broad.”
“Hard ass, ain’t he?” One of the other officers remarked, as he helped me to my feet. Another corpsman just walked off, into the downpour, shaking his head: “Don’t mean anything’, just don’t mean a damn thing.”
After a few moments, I walked toward the huts, monsoon rains still pouring down, this time mixed with the smell of sulfur, smoke and blood, rippling in the water pools. For almost two hours I searched the compound for the delicate body parts of the exploded infant, as my sense of human decency directed me to do the right thing. It’s funny what goes through one’s mind at a time like this. I remember kneeling on the ground, thinking if I should dig one large hole, or several, to bury this child. In the end, I dug only one large burial plot, with my hands, and carefully placed the severed baby-parts, some still missing into their final resting-place, and marked the grave, with a piece of bamboo laying nearby. Then, I did something I had not done since I was a child. I covered my face with my hands in shame, and cried for a very long time.