Listen to the author, an army medic, as you read.
It was 1966, I was twenty-two years-old, a medic and a psychiatric technician during the Vietnam War. I remember what I believed when I entered the Army―that the war was the sole cause for the physically and mentally wounded soldiers.
On my first day at an Army hospital in the hills of Pennsylvania I walked through the corridor past rooms filled with the physically wounded. Some soldiers in or next to their beds were connected by tubes to intravenous stands, with solutions drip, drip, dripping into the patient. One soldier was in a clear plastic tent and I could hear the rhythmic, swooshing sound of oxygen pumping like lungs. A burn patient was enclosed in a hammock while a medic turned a handle as if the soldier were on a barbecue spit. Another soldier had his neck wrapped in white gauze except for the dime-sized metal opening below his Adam’s apple. His chest rose as the hole sucked air inward and made pfffff sound as he exhaled.
I could see that bits and pieces of the soldiers were missing: gauze bandage over an eye or ear; an empty sleeve stapled to a shirt’s shoulder; crutches for a missing foot or leg. Wheelchairs were everywhere. It seemed obvious to me. It was the war; the war was responsible for these wounded soldiers.
I exited the main hospital, crossed the narrow base road and followed a mulched pathway over a grassy knoll to a two-story building that hid secrets; the place where the Army kept the psychologically wounded. I saw young men watching me from the second floor through windows with thick-wired grids. On the psych ward I saw every type of behavior and illness: Paranoid schizophrenia; catatonia; manic-depressives; obsessive-compulsives; soldiers with delusions and hallucinations; drug and alcohol abuse; and antisocial personality disorders―a person who disregards and violates the rights of others. I had known guys like that in high school. Here on the psych wards the damaged part of the soldier was on the inside. No bandage marked the entrance wound. The war had injured the mind.
During those years on the ward, I caught glimpses of the soldiers’ past: a visit from fathers, mothers, wives, girlfriends, rabbis and priests, contributors to the healing process to repair the broken part caused by the war. But I also learned during that time there were soldiers who had psychological problems before the war; before the firefights; the battles; the explosions; the fire and smoke; the death. For some the illness had shown itself from the first day of basic training with the constant yelling, “Out of your bunks, Now! Now! Give me twenty. Now! Now! Crawl faster. Now! Now!” The marches; the physical exhaustion; the separation from home; the fear of the unknown.
Damage to some soldiers had been done years before by an abusive father, a smothering mother, having no friends, or bullied by classmates. Whatever defense mechanism that had kept their illness in check in civilian life had now failed. War was not the cause but instead the catalyst. I learned that each of them, each of us, takes something from all of the visitors in our life: the good, the bad and the indifferent.
We are all bits and pieces, bits and pieces.