Saturday, October 20, 2007
Chapter 4. to the Field in Winter
Every now and then, we went on field maneuvers. Usually it was planned ahead, but not always. We had to always keep a bag of stuff packed in the closet. For example, in the Spring of 1965 when the Gulf of Tonken incident occurred in Vietnam, we suddenly went out to the field. Actually in that case, we went to a spot just outside the camp with our jeeps, ambulances, tents, helmets, and various paraphernalia. We sat there for a few hours and then went back to the camp. I guess the purpose was to show the bad guys that we were ready, or maybe it's just how generals react to any exciting news. Anyway it was brief and symbolic.
Actually when the weather is nice, field maneuvers can be somewhat pleasant if you have the right job, like being an army doctor. You get to go for a ride in a jeep to an outing in the country. I went on a field maneuver in early November. It was kind of chilly when we started out because it was it was still dark out. As the sun came up, you could see frost on the rice paddies. It was a beautiful ride up and down winding dirt roads through terraced hills dotted every now and then with small villages made up of little houses with thatched roofs. Sometimes I had the feeling that if I looked hard enough, I could see Genghis Khan riding out over the next hill. By noon we had arrived at our destination, a field next to a cemetery in a valley far from everywhere (at least far from everywhere I know). The air had warmed to a comfortable temperature. The sky was clear and stayed that way during our entire stay of a few days. Sick call was once in the morning and once in the late afternoon, and always brief in the field. The brevity was probably because the regular soldiers were too busy with their military games and, more importantly, scattered over too large an area to come in for the usual complaints. Most of the paperwork was left behind, so most of the time was spent hanging around, enjoying a few quiet days in the country. The Medical Corps enlisted men set up the tents, and even they had relatively light duties after that. The Korean houseboys and cooks also came out to the field, pitched their own tents (with portable wooden floors unlike the dirt floors in our barbarian tents) and provided us with many of our usual comforts. The main drawback was boredom, particularly since the weekend was included, preventing the usual visit to Seoul. But all in all, the field wasn't bad, a time to contemplate and enjoy the fresh country air.
The next field maneuver was in January. I was assigned to stay behind to run the infirmary at the Medical Battalion which also functioned as a kind of front line emergency room. At first I was disappointed, thinking back to my pleasant experience in November, but Major Fratelli advised me that I was fortunate to avoid living in a tent in the snow, mud, and freezing temperatures. It would not be the idyllic experience of the warmer seasons.
On the other hand staying back at the infirmary wasn't so great either. First there was terrible boredom. Hardly anyone was left behind. Then it happened by chance that a howling blizzard coincided with the maneuvers. Those bumpy, winding, primitive mountain roads were not so great in good weather, but in the snow and wind they were horrendous. Trucks and tanks were sliding off the road all over the place, but the army had to be ready for any kind of conditions, so on they went. I received a call from a frantic colonel to come out to the field and treat a soldier who was in shock after his tank had tipped over. Now when a doctor hears the word shock, he thinks of medical shock which is a life threatening condition usually secondary to trauma, illness, or blood loss where the blood pressure falls dangerously low. I forgot that a lay person usually thinks of emotional shock. Even so, I explained to the colonel that I was the only doctor in the infirmary which I could not leave unattended. Bring the soldier here. So he pulled rank. He was a colonel and he was giving an order to me, a lowly captain. Then in a moment of weakness I reasoned this way. He was a higher ranking officer giving me an order. What if the poor soldier died out there? Might I be blamed? If I give the grand gesture and he dies anyway, at least I will have done the most that I could have. My conscience will be clear. Maybe coming out with a bottle of saline and starting an I.V. will make a difference. Besides I was bored sitting in the infirmary with nothing to do.
So in that moment I made the decision, and off we went, a driver, an aid man, and I in an ambulance, sliding and slipping along one of those snowy mountain roads. Finally, we found the scene of the accident. The major casualty was a heavy set sergeant who had been sitting in the turret of the tank and because of his width had not been able to duck down into the tank fast enough when it turned over. He was completely crushed and had died instantly. The soldier "in shock" as it happened was simply emotionally overwrought by the incident and had already been taken away in a jeep somewhere. The frantic colonel was also gone from the scene. I was in a hurry to get back to the infirmary and was able to get a ride back in a jeep with some soldiers who were delighted with an opportunity to escape the winter debacle. The driver and aid man stayed behind with the ambulance in order to scoop up the remains of the poor sergeant.
When I got back to the infirmary, I had been gone about two hours. Fortunately, no great catastrophe had occurred while I had been away. The ambulance followed an hour later with the body. They laid the sergeant out on a table while waiting to have him taken to the mortuary. The sudden pressure on his spinal chord had caused his eyes to pop out so they were hanging out of their sockets. It was grotesque. The few soldiers who were there stared at him, like some curiosity. Maybe it was the lack of anything else to do. Probably it was just the way people are, this fascination with the bizarre. Finally, reality took over, I told them to cover him up with a sheet. It was enough of a show.
Later that day, the general realized that enough was enough and ordered an end to the maneuvers. Little by little the troops came back. It was a relief. Boredom was over. The place livened up. Both work and comradery returned. Most of the soldiers who were injured in the many accidents out in the field didn't start arriving at the infirmary until the maneuvers were ended and they started filing back into the camp. By that time the usual Medical Battalion doctors had returned and taken over. All things considered, most of the injuries were minor.
When Major Fratelli found out that I had left the infirmary to go out to the scene of the accident. He was furious. "You do not leave your post! I don't care if the President himself gave you an order! You left our only emergency room without a doctor in the middle of a dangerous field maneuver! What if someone had been brought in with a serious injury while you were out there?" Eventually, he calmed down, attributed it to my inexperience and blamed the colonel for his intimidation. "Fortunately, no harm was done, but this should be a lesson for the future. No matter how high ranking that colonel was, he was not your commander, he was not a doctor, and he certainly should not have been making medical decisions." That night I returned to the BOQ at Division Headquarters, happy to be back in my own bed.