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They trained us well to be medics in Vietnam, a few of us for nearly a year. Some days felt like on the job training, but the basics proved solid enough. The military only wants two things from you, obedience and silence.
Then one day, they take away your gear, put you on a Flying Tiger Airliner back to the World, and 24 hours later you’re walking the streets of your hometown.
They didn’t train us how to come home.
It was 110 degrees on the flight line at Bien Hoa airfield the day we left. Sgt. Rollins drove me to the waiting plane in a cracker-box ambulance with the lights flashing and siren blaring. He tucked me into my seat on the plane, patted my shoulder, and gave me the thumbs up before disappearing out the door.
Dozens of men wearing green fatigues or regulation khakis loaded their carry-on bag in the rafters above their seat, sat down, stood up, looked at the closing door and then out the window not believing, not fully comprehending, taking short, open mouth breaths with dilated pupils and rounded eyes; but I could see that we were parked at the end of the runway on the edge of the barbed-wire perimeter and I felt like a sitting target, afraid that we had come too far to be offed while in a holding pattern.
When the pitch of the engines whistled low to high and we began to bump and roll towards take-off speed everyone screamed and hollered (expletives deleted), to help get that hunk of metal up and gone—and by the time we lifted off and the hydraulics moaned and creaked, tucking the wheels into the deep underbelly, we screamed so loudly that the engines could not be heard.
Out over the ocean when we lost sight of the jungle, the captain got on the loud speaker to brief us and stated that we would be disembarking in Seattle, Washington, and just those words, Seattle, Washington, sounded like hometown America, and we all began to cheer madly again, and that’s when the captain added that we had the honor of carrying three coffins home with us in the hold.
Other than the whir of the engines, I don’t remember hearing music or the sound of a passenger’s voice for the entire trip back to the States.
That’s when the grief overpowered me. I stiffened and grabbed on to my seat: This can’t be home. This can’t be real. I wasn’t supposed to be the one to come home.
We had a three hour layover in Japan, but every man kept his seat; not one left the plane. The same was true for Anchorage. On approach to Seattle, we were told we had to divert to San Francisco, and did not expect to arrive until well after dark. Okay, California then. No big deal.
It seemed like the longest leg of the journey, but when we entered Frisco skies, I looked out the window at the city lights below, and remembering their stated preference, I wondered if the hippies were all making love down there.
The captain got on the loud speaker and told us to buckle up for landing, and all the brothers raised their hands and snapped their fingers: snap one; snap two; snap...
The landing gears started to creak and moan as the wheels released from their cold vault and locked into place, that’s when the grief overpowered me.
I stiffened and grabbed on to my seat: This can’t be home. This can’t be real. I wasn’t supposed to be the one to come home.
The wheels hitting on the tarmac felt like punches to my gut that took my breath away. The engines slowed to a hum, and the plane turned into a poorly lit, secluded area and stopped. When the engines shut down and the cabin door whooshed open, they pushed a staircase up and secured it in place. We were ordered to disembark, and standing on the top of the stairs, I can’t remember if it was misting, or if it was cold. I can’t remember the smell of salt air or any sounds, but when I stepped off the bottom stair, I remember the feel of the hard and unyielding earth.
We were pointed towards a thick set of double swinging doors, the type with metal plates that the baggage cars crashed through on the way to unload the plane. I pushed the doors open, dodged a forklift and walked down a dimly lit tunnel that opened into a huge, light flooded, open-bay room with loudspeakers blaring and hundreds of people moving around in different directions, and I froze in place wondering, where am I? What do I do now? How do I go home?
Story Themes: 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, Air Force, BIen Hoa, Bien Hoa Dispensary, California, Coming Home, Flying Tiger Airliner, Japan, Medical Personnel, Northfield, Reflection, Steven James Beto, Survivor's Guilt