“I see someone hankerin to go home.” Private First Class, Sharon, met the young sergeant’s gaze with a smile, something hard to do lately.
The young solider, Sergeant Dwight Howser, already dressed, lay back on his cot in the tent evacuation hospital in Chu Lai, Vietnam. He awaited instructions to vacate as soon as the helicopters landed. He returned her smile.
“No, I would rather go back out in the jungle and find the Charlie who put two bullets in me and return the favor.”
With her hands on her hips, her eyebrows raised. “And keep that pretty girl of yours back in Jersey City waiting.” She nodded at the black and white photo he had taped to the utility cabinet beside his cot. “I reckon not.”
He snickered. “Good point.” Then the sight of men lying in beds all around him in the tent hospital brought back reality. Some with arms or legs missing and some unable to speak or feed themselves, and some lay dazed at the horrors of what they had witnessed in the jungle during battle.
Sharon broke his concentration. “Have y’all made wedding plans?”
“Yeah, when I get home, we’re gonna elope, find us a cottage by the shore, and live happily ever after.”
She smiled. “Sounds like a plan that might just work. How did y’all meet?”
“We grew up together, lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same school, and got baptized in the same church.”
Sharon laughed. “Well I’ll be. Y’all know you were made for each other, I reckon.”
Dwight cocked his head. “What’s your full name Private First Class? I only see Sharon on your name tag.”
She winked. “That’s so you boys want come looking for us girls after the war because you’ve fallen in love with us.”
He snickered. “Not a bad idea. You are kind of cute.”
With a smile, she reached over, and pinched his cheek. “I reckon you need to save those compliments for that girl in Jersey City.”
His eyes widened. “That accent. You’re from the south, aren’t you?”
“How did you know?”
“I keep hearing you say y’all and reckon, and all these words I never hear in Jersey.”
She nodded. “You’re right. Selma, Alabama is my homeplace.”
“What made you decide to be a soldier, Private First Class?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, being a cotton farmers daughter, the only thing to do after high school was to get married and start having babies. I wanted to see the world first, so I joined the army, entered their nursing program and fancy that…,” she nodded, “my first assignment landed me here in Vietnam.”
“Since your enlistment was voluntary, wasn’t it your choice to come to Vietnam?”
Her lips pressed, she lowered her gaze. “Yeah…I wanted to serve where I was needed and could make a difference, I reckon.”
Well, you’ve sure making a difference for me and all these other soldiers laid up in here. I’m proud of your service to our country, Private First Class. Maybe someday after the war our paths will cross, and I can buy you a cup of coffee for nursing this Jersey boy back to health these past two weeks.”
Sharon’s eyes narrowed and she cocked her head. “You know, I might just surprise you one of these days and mosey up that way and look you up.”
“If you do, I’ll introduce you to the wife and maybe by then, I’ll have a house full of kids.”
She giggled. “No doubt you will.” She glanced around the room. “I need to get the rest of you boys ready to transport out of this hell. The helicopters are due here any moment.”
“Carry on, Private First Class. Good luck.” He saluted her.
Sharon returned the salute and when she turned to walk away, a shrill, whistling broke the silence. A sound all too common in war, Dwight lounged off his bed to his right, clawing his way under the bed. But the rocket’s deafening blast, piercing the silence, sent a wave of heat, smoke, shrapnel, and broken debris flying through the air.
Seconds later and dazed, Dwight pulled himself upright to peer over the bed in the smoke-filled tent and scattered debris. He was lucky. The rocket blasted outside the tent but had pierced a hole all the way down about twenty feet down. Not hearing anymore incoming rockets, he rose slowly to access the damage. Beds were overturned, soldiers lay on the ground crying out along with many of the medics lying motionless on the tarp in the aisle. His eyes searched for Private First Class, Sharon, but he didn’t see her. When he rounded the front of his cot, his eyes fell on her. Her crumpled body lay on the ground between his cot and another bed lying upside down, partly on her. He rushed over to her.
Pushing the cot aside, he knelt beside her, calling her name. She didn’t answer, so he gently rolled her to her back. A trail of blood trickled down her forehead from a scalp wound, a gash in her left shoulder above her heart bled freely, and her left leg was streaked with blood. He screamed.
“Medic…I need a medic here now!” Not hearing a response, he looked back and saw everyone already tending to someone as well as several medics still lying motionless on the ground. He looked back at Sharon who still lay unconscious. Having underwent emergency medic training as a squad commander, if she had any chance of surviving, he first needed to stop the bleeding.
He felt of the artery in her neck. She still had a pulse. The shoulder bleeding the worse, he ripped her blouse open. A gash inches above her heart bled freely. He pressed on the wound but felt no shrapnel. She needed stitches but little he could do, he would have to improvise. At first glance, he saw a first aid wagon lying turned over near him. He dove for it, dragging it over beside Sharon. Grabbing a handful of gauze pads, he pressed them tightly to her shoulder. Then with a roll of bandage cloth, he wrapped it around and around her shoulder tightly and around her chest several times. Then, working with one hand while holding a roll of first aid tape, he wrapped it around her shoulder several times, before tearing the end lose and tying it securely. The bandages had soaked red, but she no longer bled freely.
The gash on her head had stopped bleeding, so he put a sterilized, square gauze over it and taped it. Next, he looked at the wound on her mid-thigh. It still seeped blood, so he took a roll of cloth and wrapped it around her thigh several times then tied a tourniquet to slightly tighten it to stop the bleeding.
He then sat back to see what else he could do. Seeing nothing, he picked up her hand and clasping it to him, he leaned over her and brushed the singed hair from her face and spoke.
“Private First Class, stay with me. I’m here for you and I’m going to help you get through this. Pull yourself together and fight it with all you got. I’m not leaving you alone and I’m not leaving you behind. Stay with me, you can beat this.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“We’ve got this soldier.”
He looked up at a medic standing above him.
“We just flew in on the helicopters.”
Dwight sat back, breathing a sigh of relief while watching the medic check her vitals. He looked back at Dwight. “Good job on the bandaging and tourniquet. You stopped the bleeding.”
“Will she make it?”
“I think she’s got a chance now thanks to you. Once we get her to a hospital, we’ll no more. What’s your name soldier?”
“If she makes it, I’ll make sure she knows you saved her life.”
Reality sitting in, Dwight blinked back tears. “Tell her,” he swallowed hard, “tell her, I wish her well.”
Two soldiers rushed a stretcher up to them. They hosted her limp body onto it and along with a dozen other badly, injured soldiers or medics, they loaded them quickly in the waiting helicopters. Dwight watched them lift off amidst the bursting, fireball bombs being dropped around the perimeter by the Americans to protect them. His ride out would have to wait.
Dr. Conner made her morning rounds in the special, quarantined ward set up for Covid 19 Patients. Dressed in plastic scrubs from head to toe and wearing a mask under a hooded plastic shield, she carefully entered each room and read the charts, checked vitals, and noted any progress or not, she witnessed.
In room 319, this elderly man who had entered the hospital a very sick man five days earlier, had piqued her interest. Only feeding him oxygen through his nose, she had ordered a ventilator to his bedside if the need arose.
With him unable to communicate and floating in and out of consciousness, she only knew what his chart and computer records provided. She yearned to know more.
Day after day, the same routine. More Corvid 19 patients admitted, with some overcoming this dreaded disease that made headlines every day and some not so fortunate. Today in room 319, her patient had taken a turn for the worse. His worsening condition saddened her. And not knowing if he was the one, disheartened her even more. She intended to find out.
She went into his chart records to find his wife’s name so she could call her. She found him widowed, but two children were listed as next of kin. Drumming the desk with her fingers, she had to know, even if it broke protocol. All they could do would be to dismiss her. She dialed the number.
“Hello, Diane speaking.”
“Diane, this is Dr. Conner from the Brooklyn Hospital Center calling.”
“It’s dad, isn’t it.” She rushed her words.
“Diane, forgive me for calling like this, but first I want to put your fears aside and let you know your father is still with us.”
There was silence.
“But I have a question I thought maybe you could answer for me.”
“If I can.”
“Did your father happen to serve in the armed forces?”
“Yes, in Vietnam?”
“Was he injured in the war?”
“I know he’s always had trouble with pneumonia in one of his lungs and remember Mother saying it was because he got shot in one of his lungs.”
“I see your father is widowed.”
“Yes, Mom passed away two years ago. Cancer.”
“Is my father going to be alright?”
Dr. Conner sighed, her forehead in her hand. His daughter deserved the truth, but she couldn’t pull herself together to tell her. “We should know more about your father’s health in the next day or two. He’s at a turning point…but we aren’t quite sure which way he’s going.”
“Is there a reason for you calling me about my father’s past history and service in the army?”
“No… no, it’s not. I just like knowing as much about my patients as I can when taking care of them. I hope you understand.”
“I think I do. Thank you for caring. And please…,” she choked up, “let me know if my dad worsens.”
“I will call you personally.”
Her shift ending, Dr. Conner pondered what to do. She wasn’t ready to give up. She redressed in her plastic scrubs, face mask, and shield, and made her way back to room 319. His heartrate weakening on the monitors and oxygen level dropping below ninety, she picked up his hand and spoke boldly.
“Sergeant Houser, it’s time you got your butt out of this bed and went home. If you think you’re going to lie here and give up the fight, you got another thing coming. I’m not leaving you behind, so get used to it. You got a family that loves you who needs you and,” she choked back tears, “you owe me a cup of coffee.” She squeezed his hand. “And I aim to see that debt paid. I’m not leaving you behind soldier, so pull yourself out of this. I’m here waiting.”
Instead of leaving, she pulled a chair bedside and sat down while still holding his hand. She continued to talk to him about their time in Vietnam until someone tapped her shoulder and woke her.
“Dr. Conner, are you alright?”
She cleared her voice. “Yes…yes, I am. I must have dozed off.”
“Do you need help?”
“No, I’m fine.” She stood.
“My supervisor came by earlier and questioned why you were sitting bedside with Mr. Hawser against protocol?”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her the truth and she said to get you anything you wanted.”
“Good for you.” She glanced at the monitors. The nurse holding his chart spoke out.
“According to this chart, his vitals have suddenly improved. His heart rate has strengthened, and his oxygen level is back over ninety.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. Soldiers know how to fight.” Dr. Conner couldn’t contain the smile behind her shield and face mask. “Besides, we soldiers take care of our own. We leave no soldiers behind.”
The next few days Dwight improved and now clear of the virus was being released. Dressed, he sat up in his bed waiting for the orderly to come with a wheelchair. But instead, Dr. Conner wearing a mask, rolled the wheelchair in to his bedside.
Dwight spoke. “I was expecting one of the orderlies.”
“No sir, Mr. Hawser. I’m personally walking you out.”
“Because I’m going to hold you to the promise you made me.”
Dwight raised an eyebrow. “What promise?”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
He shook his head. “No…. No, I don’t. Should I?”
Dr. Conner lowered her mask and her eyes narrowing, she spoke. “It was June 1969, in Chu Lai, Vietnam. You were a Sergeant and I was a private first class, medic.”
Dwight dropped the mask from his face. A smile crept across his face. “I often thought about you and always wondered if you made it.”
“I did because of your heroic actions that day. The helicopter medic told me later what you had done to save my life. And I’ve always wanted to thank you, so that’s why I’ve taken it personally taking care of you.” She broke a smile. “And I aim to see to it that you buy me that cup of coffee you owe me.”
“Yes Ma’am, Private First Class, Sharon.” He saluted her. “I’ll buy you several cups of coffee.”
On their way down the long hallway, Sharon shared her life’s story with Dwight. After Vietnam, she re-enlisted in the Army to further her education and travel the world. Six years after Vietnam, she received her doctorate in medicine and served as a doctor wherever she was needed. She toured all over the world as well as tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. She had retired from the armed forces after thirty years of service and had practiced medicine in Selma, Alabama until she retired five years earlier. As news of the coronavirus spread across America, she once again felt led to serve where she was needed. She chose Brooklyn, New York.
As she rolled Dwight down the last hallway to the hospital entrance, nurses, doctor, custodians, staff, and all, cheered him. Once he rose to get into his car beside his daughter, he paused. Then he reached over and hugged Dr. Sharon Conner. She returned the hug. Since she had shared their story with the rest of the hospital, all clapped and cheered even more. They had promised to meet once it was safe to do so.
Watching Dwight being driven away and pleased that she had finally met the man that saved her life, once more those words soldiers live by, came back to her.
“No soldier left behind.”
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