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Ward 21-A

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There were often two patients in a bed and even three, if children.

The mother stayed with the child, slept with the child and cooked the food. The patient’s brothers and sisters came along and slept on floor under the bed.

The ward was crowded with cases of tetanus, typhoid, chickenpox, plague, tuberculosis and a score of other bizarre infectious diseases.

It was a reservoir of virtually every disease known to mankind. Eye infections, intestinal parasites, nutritional deficiencies, gastroenteritis, malaria, leprosy, plague, and rabies. 

U.S. Soldier with an Asian young man and two small Asian children.

11-years-old and the boy had amputations of both legs. A 13-year old boy suffered from a badly burned and infected foot. They looked like old men. It was hard to believe they were kids. Their arms and legs were like pipe stems. They were so thin. They were in a great deal of pain. They were so frightened.

The burned boy’s charred body weighed less than 100 pounds.
A 15-year-old girl, without a nose, kept a little picture of herself to prove that once she was pretty.
A 14-year old boy without legs had nine operations in four months because he walked over a mine.
A tiny paraplegic boy curled up in one of the big hospital beds.

A ten-year old boy who had a phosphorous bomb explode in his face. He is without a mouth. They could explain what happened, but none could explain why. The children of Vietnam who had been most hurt by the war didn’t understand it at all. 

Young Asian patient on crutches, smiling, holding up a peace sign.

The boy had bad dreams. His father didn’t know where his son was. The boy saw his father often in his dreams. It took up to four hours to change his dressings. 

There was a difference between a Vietnamese child and American child. There, the kids seemed more tolerant and accepting, the opposite of the neurotic well to do American kids. 

Nguyen’s legs had been amputated. His father was shot to death by a guard who blamed the VC. The kid went to work on an American base filling sandbags and selling soft drinks. 

But one day he stepped on a mine. When he regained consciousness both his legs were gone. The idea of killing himself had always been on his mind, but he was not sure when he would kill himself. “I am completely useless you see. Instead of helping my mother I am a burden to her...this is not for me I wish peace for others so more of them will have to suffer as I am suffering.”

It was a vicious circle.

I grew more tired everyday. After a day’s work, I would always feel as if I was dying of exhaustion.

I wasn’t a great help but I really had a love of those poor children. 

Tiny arms glued by burns to the sides. Skull and face shot away, Hands and legs injured and burned, eyes that couldn’t shut.

It was too much for even the most hardened observers to bear. 

American soldier seated with two Asian children climbing on him.

The shambles the war had made were measured by counting the millions of lives lost and the billions of dollars wasted. Less measured was the suffering that would go on among the survivors. It would last as long as the victims lived.

In one bed, a 14-year-old girl shot and now a paraplegic. She was pale. She had been clearing weeds in a rice field when an artillery shell hit a nearby house. She had been struck in the right shoulder paralyzing her arm.

Her father was killed by an Americans the year before while he was plowing a rice field. Her mother was also killed by American troops. She lived with her grandmother.

A young Asian girl peers somberly over her bed toward the camera.

The boy was inside the house and heard the noise of gunfire. His brother was near the house with three cows. He fell to the ground. About 20 American troops came up; they searched him for a gun. He was asked whether his brother was VC. He was hit in the back. 

What luck for him to be cured by them? If he had been with the VC when he was hurt, he would have died a long time ago. Americans were humane. They had shot him by mistake but then took him to a hospital and then fed him for months.

His own army would have let him die on the spot. 

He didn’t speak at all of the day he almost died. He never blamed the Americans. In the American hospital he slept on a mattress for the first time in his life.

He had multiple perforations of the intestines and a spinal cord injury. It was noted that the lower half of his body was paralyzed with involvement in both legs.

In the hospital he learned to play checkers with the Americans. 

The shambles the war had made were measured by counting the millions of lives lost and the billions of dollars wasted.

Less measured was the suffering that would go on among the survivors. It would last as long as the victims lived.

The deepest cruelty was what the children had suffered, because they were the true innocents among those who started the chaos and then kept it going without great concern for the human suffering. 

An Asian boy recuperates from his hospital bed, laying on his stomach.

Traditionally, Vietnamese parents and families are easygoing with their young, pampering them and not demanding much. But to treat them requires that they must undergo painful therapy. A mother with a crippled child would prefer to treat him by just letting him sit alone, bring toys to him and never disturb his passivity. The mother reasoned that he’d never get better, so at least let him have some comfort. 

The faces haunted me. I saw them in my sleep. During quiet times in the day. I saw the smiles, and eyes expressing fear and pain. Are any of them still alive? It was a feeling of helplessness. 

I was sad when I thought of them and the situation they had been in. The life-threatening diseases and injuries caused by war. They lived in extreme poverty and their chances of surviving childhood were slim. I could get the memory of them out of my head and I didn’t even know their names.  

I saw the girl lying on the chairs, looking pale and sad. She barely had the energy to lift her head. I walked over to the grandmother and asked whether the child was feeling ill. Grandma replied that she often felt like this, as she tried to force the child to sit up and greet me. 

A young Asian child in her hospital bed, under a colorful quilt.

She had difficulty obtaining medication for the child. Grandma said that they had run out of medications days ago. The girl had been losing a lot of weight during the past week. She did not seem to understand how critical her granddaughter’s situation was.  

The child was weak and lethargic because she was dying. Without medication entering her system, she would go into crisis. It could happen at any moment. Death in children was common. It was hard to become attached to those kids because often, there was nothing the doctors could do to help. 

It is a world where parents took death as normal and life abnormal for their children. Where debilitating disease like malaria, dysentery, malnutrition and festering sores were chronic. Where a human being with TB or leprosy could ask only whether death would come fast or slowly. Where someone caught by the yearly cholera epidemic could ask no question at all.

The ten-year-old boy with the melancholy eyes was swinging a knife through long green elephant grass clearing -- some new land for farming -- when something exploded and blew all the fingers off his left hand.

Tran, 12, fell asleep as she was studying by the light of a kerosene lamp, knocking the lamp over and setting herself on fire.

Scars had left her elbow stiff and her neck partly immobilized.

My was attacked by a potent and common gangrene which in the course of a few weeks ate away whole sections of her face, destroying her upper lip and nose, twisting her features in to monstrous shapes.

A certain percent of the patients were military-injury cases. The rest were victims of diseases that began throughout most of Asia before the war and would probably continue long after and there were also victims of accidents. 

There were many badly burned children but hardly any were burned by napalm. People hit by napalm rarely lived to be treated.

A close up of an Asian child, looking sad.

The boy didn’t know why they had shot him and his friends as they swam in the stream near their village one warm morning. He was wounded in the hip and couldn’t move out of the big hospital bed. 

A boy was shot in the stomach by VC, while he walked in the woods. He had an operation to remove part of his large intestine and his aged mother, who is staying with him, is worried because his intestines were still tied in a sack outside his stomach to prevent infection. She couldn’t understand the purpose of it. 

An Asian grandmother sitting at the side of a hospital bed.

The little boy was blinded by a grenade explosion. He was a friendly kid and had become a favorite of the staff. He wandered around the ward making friends with the other patients. He always had a smile despite the bandages that were kept over his eyes.They were only taken off to apply medication. 

I couldn’t do anything about it. I had to make up for it. I was so angry. Heart rendering were their infant cries. The girl with burns. A girl with no legs. The boy with infected fragment wounds. A teenager with multiple gunshot injuries. The little blind boy. The shy smiling girl dying from TB. 

Where are they now? 

U.S. soldier standing out in the open, in front of a building.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Long Binh, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Military Service

Military Branch: U.S. Army

Dates of Service: 1968 - 1972

Unit: 24th Evac Hospital

Specialty: 91C20

Find more writing by Tim on Amazon and Lulu.

Story Themes: 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 24th Evac Hospital, 24th Evacuation Hospital, Army, Children, Death and Loss, Listen, Long Binh, Medical Personnel, Physical Wounds, Richfield, Tim Connelly, Veterans for Peace

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