February 16, 1970
Dear Chaplain Miller,

I will start this memory from my lift-off from firebase Warrior after my valentine experience with the VC. I was happy to be going back to base camp and even happier with the CO’s order to go to the hospital in Qui Nhon to check on our wounded that were medivacced to the 85th Evacuation Hospital. As the chopper left the firebase, the door gunner handed me a pair of earplugs and pantomimed that I should place them in my ears. I took his suggestion and placed one tight in each ear. It was one of the better helpful hints I received from the experienced GI’s while in Vietnam. The loud chopper noise became a drone sound and soon I drifted off and fell into a sound sleep. I took no time for sightseeing on my way back. I was exhausted, more than I knew. When the chopper set down at the Golf Course, I jumped off, waved goodbye to the pilot and gave a thumbs-up thank you.

Dave, my Chaplain's assistant, was there to meet me with the jeep. The CO had radioed HQs and told him I was on the way. Dave was a fifth grade school teacher that was drafted when he didn't find a teaching job in New Jersey. It was wonderful to have such talented and educated assistants handling things in the rear when I went to the field. On the drive back to my hooch, Dave told me that HQ told him he had to drive me to the hospital tomorrow because the chopper would not be available.

Dave was a little apprehensive about driving down Highway Nineteen. That was the main artery from Pleiku through An Khe to Qui Nhon. We sometimes got reports about ambushes along the road by the VC. I had gone down to Qui Nhon with another chaplain and it was just an interesting drive for me. There were rice paddies and charcoal shops along the highway. They burned wood and sold the charcoal remains as firewood for cooking. I saw several Buddhist Pagodas but we did not stop to visit any of them. I told Dave not to worry, that we would be just fine. After all, we were doing the Lord’s work. His comment to me was, “That’s what all martyrs said just before they were burned at the stake.”

I had Dave get our HQs to set up a place for us to stay with the Military Assistance Command Vietnam or MACV. We would spend the night there. The Army, still being the Army even in wartime, Dave would have to stay with the enlisted men and I would stay in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters). I thought when I heard this that sometime in the field, officers can stay in the bunker of enlisted men, like Speedy. However, back in base camps army tradition stayed the same.

I had no problem sleeping when I got to bed after making plans for our trip. My prayers that night were those of thanksgiving for seeing me through the weekend. My first visit to a firebase was to me a memorial of faith and trust. I was needed and I was there. That was why I came to Vietnam.

The next morning I met Dave at the mess hall. He told me there was a message from the Brigade chaplain's office for me at HQ. After I ate, I went by HQ. The Brigade Chaplain wanted me to hold a service at one of the units that was about to move out into the bush. I called him and told him I would catch the unit for a service on my way out and that I was headed to Qui Nhon Nhon hospital.

“Good,” he said, “I'll send my assistant over with the names of the troops from Division that are in the hospital, and you can see them as well."

Dave had the jeep ready to go. We put on our flack jackets and helmets. Dave checked his M16 to make sure he had several clips of ammo to take along with us. He was still a little nervous about the trip. After we went over to the unit and I had a little service for them, we pulled out of An Kha and onto the highway. I began to think about the dust-off chopper I saw the morning of the attack and how wonderful their response time was during the firefight.

Efficient and quick medical treatment saved many American lives during the war. When a troop was wounded in the bush or on a firebase, the dust-off choppers were there quickly and efficiently.

The wounded were usually triaged on the spot by a doctor, nurse, or medic whichever was most available. When injuries were serious enough, the men were evacuated to hospitals like the 85th in Qui Nhon, treated there and, if necessary, sent along to larger better hospital facilities out of the country.

The MASH unit like the one in An Kha would also take those who were not serious but needed fast treatment and then moved on to larger medical unit. Some troops in An Kha were being treated for other war-related diseases as well as small wounds and illness. There were tropical fevers, parasitic diseases and the most critical, malaria. Some were overdosed on drugs and alcohol.

All troops, including officers, were subject to urinary testing to make sure we were using our malaria pills and were not on other drugs. The war on drugs was being fought in Vietnam in many respects as it was being fought in the real world.

It was at An Kha MASH unit that I saw my first prisoner of war being treated. There was a ward tent set off by itself where prisoners were treated. When I walked through the ward, I saw several patients who were anxious and fearful. In the doctors’ lounge I heard one Doc say to another, "I did a good repair job on that gook, but I should have split him from his neck to his pecker."

It was over a two-hour ride to Qui Nhon. As we drove along the highway, my mind began remembering as it often did, of this dream that I only seemed to be a part of. I remembered when I was stationed in Okinawa a year ago. The various units there took turns visiting the causalities from Vietnam that were sent to Camp Kuhe Hospital.

When my turn came to visit the hospital, I was always surprised to see the high morale of those that had been shot and blown up in Vietnam. They were mostly Marines who were sent to Kuhe Hospital in Okinawa. The Army wounded were usually sent to Japan.

In my dream in the jeep, I remembered the Christmas I spent alone in Okinawa. Housing was a problem and I had been there seven months without my family. On Christmas Eve, I shined up my cross, put on my dress uniform and went off to see the suffering in the hospital. I didn't feel very cheerful and was fighting homesickness. I felt like an abandoned child from a sad Christmas story. Here I was, six feet tall, thirty-three years old but inside I was just over four feet tall, ten years old and all alone at Christmas, feeling sorry for myself. However, I was doing my duty and going to visit the wounded troops in the hospital.

I remembered walking in the front door of the hospital. Troops were everywhere. Some of the patients were watching Armed Forces Television. Others were playing cards, listening to Christmas music, joking around and laughing aloud. They greeted me with, "Hi Chap. Merry Christmas. How you doing? You going to have dinner with us? We’re having turkey and ham and all the fixings.” I wasn't ready for such cheer. I felt blue and alone. I remember thinking, I'm not staying down here, I'm going up to the orthopedic ward where broken-boned bodies and lame soldiers were stuck in their beds and confined to their ward on this humid, hot Christmas.

I got off the elevator on the orthopedic ward. Decorations were everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, and pasted on the walls. It seemed that every bed had wreaths. A large, fully decorated Christmas tree stood in the recreation room, and everyone that could, had gotten up and were waiting, they told me, for Santa Claus to arrive.

The USO and Donut Dolly's had guests visiting from Hollywood, California. Joey Bishop, the comedian, and three very attractive scantily dressed young ladies, who were flirting with the patients, leading them in singing carols, having their pictures taken, were celebrating life. After all, they were only wounded. Joey came up to me and put his arms around my neck and the next thing I knew, I had my picture taken with a Jewish celebrity on Christmas Day, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive on a ward full of wounded Vietnam soldiers.

From down the hall came the sound of jingling bells. We heard a shout that Santa was on his way.

Everyone got quiet, waiting expectantly for Santa to come through the door. The door swung open, and there stood a large, six foot seven Santa. His eyes were peering out of a large head-cast. There was an opening for his ears and nose and a wider one for his mouth. His arms were in a cast with braces holding them out like wings at half-mast. His upper body was in a cast down to his waist. Both of his legs were bound with surgical elastic tape. His feet and hands were the only indication that there was a man inside the massive shell. On the cast covering his head, sat a bright red Santa cap with its fluffy tassel hanging down to his neck. The cap had the words “Merry Christmas” printed in white letters. As he entered the ward, with his mini-skirted elves carrying bundles of gifts, he muffled out as loudly as he could, “HO! HO! HO! Merry Christmas."

Santa's real name was Jerry. He had been on the receiving end of a Vietcong rocket attack. He had a fractured skull. His shoulders and arms were broken. His ribs were broken and his legs full of shrapnel. The other patients nicknamed him "The Mummy." He did look like he had come out of an Egyptian tomb. I stood there in amazement along with Joey Bishop and his three attractive ladies. Here was Santa, bringing joy and happiness to his fellow wounded patients. The ward was full of Christmas spirit and joy. Patients were greeting visitors with smiles and those who could, were shaking hands. The lucky patients received a kiss from the ladies. The ladies then planted lipstick kisses all over the face cast of Santa.

Dave woke me up, "Chaplain! Hey Chaplain! Look what's up ahead!” There were MP's blocking the road and stopping traffic. We pulled to the side of the road. A very large MP came to my side of the jeep. He saluted, "Sorry to stop you, sir. There was a little skirmish up ahead."

"Are you closing the road, sergeant?” I asked.

"No, sir. An APC hit a land mine off the side of the road a mile up. There was light arms fire but no one was hurt. There's a Cobra chopper is in the area checking it out. I think every one has cleared out. You can be on your way shortly."

Dave looked over at me. He wasn't smiling. "I thought you said the road was safe.”

"I didn't say safe, I said nothing will happen to us."

Dave smiled. "Yet." That was all he said.

We sat there for about ten minutes. Dave didn’t say much; he checked his M-16 and asked me if I had ever shot one. I told him I did once when I had a week of basic training while in Chaplain’s School. All he said, shaking his head in disbelief, was “A week?”

The MP motioned us on our way. "Drive carefully, Chaplain, and take care,” he said as we drove by him.

I told Dave as we continued down the road that I had made plans for both of us to spend the afternoon on the beach after our hospital visit. He looked at me like I was crazy. "Beach?” he said, like he had never heard of the word.

"Right. There’s a great beach near the hospital. I wouldn’t advise going in the water but the sun and sand are great."

The rest of the trip was uneventful until we pulled up into the hospital compound. A dust-off helicopter was hovering about to take off. Dave pulled into a parking area and the chopper flew overhead. "Must have brought someone in," I said. “I'll check out the emergency room. You're welcome to come with me, or find yourself a coke or something. I'll meet you back here and we'll go over to MACV." Dave had no intention of going into the emergency room.


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