"I was no warrior
I didn't shoot, search, destroy.
But I was witness to the abominations,
Becoming atheist in the midst of war."
Pauline Hebert was a Captain in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at the 12th Evacuation hospital in Cu Chi Vietnam from January thru December 1968. She earned a Master of Science in Nursing and a PH.D. in Education from the University of Connecticut, before retiring from the Veterans Affairs Nursing Service in 1990. The following poems are from a work in progress called "Golden Empire". This term was the radio call designation used by the 25th Infantry's Huey Choppers flying Med Evacs to and from the 12th Evacuation hospital.
I am as speechless today
as he was then. I too have had my tongue
Severed from my throat. My eyes
Will not let me forget
His eyes watching me,
Waiting for me to faint
From the horror of his face
Blasted away, bone shorn from skull
As the butcher's cleaver hacks
A chicken breast apart.
Fast as I pump that suction pump
He bleeds faster
Drowns in his own blood.
Fully aware of my role as his Savior,
His eyes never leave my face.
I'll never know
Whether he would've rather died that day,
If given a choice.
We never asked.
I arrived in Vietnam in January 1968, a few weeks before the Tet Offensive. The 12th Evacuation Hospital, a 300 bed Army Hospital was located in Cu Chi, on the Ho Chi Mingh Trail, between the Cambodian border and Saigon. At the time of my arrival, the hospital and sleeping quarters for the hospital staff were not sandbagged and there were no bunkers built to protect patients or staff.
At the 12th Evac. American casualties with head or face wounds were initially treated but in need of specialized surgical teams. These soldiers were then transferred by choppers to the Long Binh hospitals, accompanied by an Army nurse who had to sustain the patient during the chopper ride until she could transfer him to the appropriate hospital staff.
I flew on these med-vacs, how many I can't say. But I can say no one cared or helped me to get back to my unit. I was gone overnight on some of those flights, without clean clothes or even a toothbrush. On some occasions, we went down into a hot LZ to pull out a wounded G.I. who otherwise would not get out. The choppers were shot at, on a regular basis, red cross chopper logos nothwithstanding.
I worked on a medical unit two months, an intensive surgical unit two months, Triage four months (during the May Day Offensive, we triaged hundreds of patients a day.) My last four months I served as head nurse on the respiratory intensive care unit and recovery room. During my entire tour, we lived, worked and slept in flakvests and helmets. We took in-coming rounds, mortars, within the nursing compound and the hospital units, on a regular basis.
Nurses from 'Nam brought back the same ghosts as the fighting troops. When I could no longer perform clinically I tried administrative positions, research positions, education positions. I skipped all over the Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire landscape trying to find something that would work, help me find the person I was, before 'Nam. It never happened.
I think most Nam vets realize that there are no war survivors. For the living, there can never be peace. My poetry is my vehicle to transmit a compelling message about war's extreme cost paid by those who do come home. If one young man is spared the experience of going to war, by something I wrote, I will feel my life, after Vietnam, has been purposeful.
Just when the Japanese maple seemed to
Come into focus
Just when I felt I had some control over
The long trip home
Just when I thought my brain
Had been shrunk small enough
To fit into my skull again
I found myself
Tied to a bed not my own
In locked leather restraints.
There's a place where even grief cannot go
A marscape desolate
Without thinking feeling beings
A cavern deep within existence
Where human voices
Slam against stone
Where tongues babble languages
where sense, sensibilities spin
Gyroscopes out of whack.
I've been there, done that.
The red cross wasn't bullet-proof,
Fair game. Incoming rounds knew no mercy.
If you had a stethescope
In your ears when the first mortar landed
You, your patients
Could wind up dead, all of them
To save, to keep safe.
There was never time
To save them all,
There was never time
To take cover,
There was never time
There was never silence.
Above the tunnels of Cu Chi,
In Quonset huts,
We perched stationary,
Without sandbags, bunkers,
The only thing
Between us and forever,
Geneva conventions be damned.
THE GIRL I WAS
I sit quietly, rock my cat asleep
On my lap. My mind travels backward
In time, sonic speed, back to 'Nam.
As I rock, I redo '68 my way, my version.
Fly my first med-evac, one week in-country,
Pump that Ambu bag, do CPR in the dark.
This time I save that eighteen year old soldier,
His brain tissues sticky on my hands. I wrap
And re-wrap bandages, as if they could contain
Life itself within his shattered, bleeding brain.
I rock, know full well the girl I was left Vietnam
In the same coffin, cradling that young boy,
My soul stretched out alongside his.