Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Chapter 19: I Arrive at the 249th General Hospital, Camp Drake, Japan

The long flight from Tan Son Nhut Airbase outside of Saigon ended at an airbase northwest of Tokyo in Japan. I was being transferred to the 249th General Hospital in Camp Drake, which wasn’t very far away. I would stay at the 249th for a few weeks before being transferred closer to home for the remainder of my hospital stay.

When the medevac plane I was on touched down on the runway in Japan, a cheer erupted from everyone on the plane. I remember getting goose bumps at the sound of that and just how good it felt to be out of Vietnam and on friendly soil again. No longer would I have to fear for my life every second of every day any more. I felt so good that I almost forgot why I was here.

I was taken off the plane and put on a medevac helicopter just like the ones in Vietnam for the flight to the hospital. The flight didn’t last long so the helicopter didn’t fly very high. I could look out the windows at the scenery as we flew over. I remember how crowded it looked; everything was so close together. What really surprised me was seeing a few farms but they were very small compared to ones I remember seeing growing up.

249th General Hospital, Camp Drake, Japan

Once the helicopter landed I was wheeled into the hospital on a gurney and placed in intensive care where I would stay until after my surgery a few days later. The wards in this hospital were just one big room with beds lined up not too far part in long rows. The fellow in the bed on one side of me had a large abdominal wound and the fellow on the other side had a chest wound. There wasn’t much to do so we talked about how we were wounded and what was wrong with us. We also paid close attention to each other when our wounds were treated.

When I first got wounded, it was difficult to look at my wounds. The easiest way to describe the feeling would be the feeling you get just before you are going to get a shot or they draw blood from your arm. You know how you can’t look and turn your head just before the needle sticks you. As if not looking will make it hurt any less or something. That fear of looking passed very soon after I was a wounded and I watch intently whenever my wounds were treated and asked questions when I wanted to know what things were or what was going on.

Remember the picture I posted of my bug scar on Half-Nekkid Thursday back in September? That scar was the result of a 4 inch round wound on the top of my right thigh. That wound was easy to see when they cleaned it. The wound was superficial which meant the flesh and fatty layer were gone, but the muscle was left intact. The first time had the nerve to look at that wound, I got a little worried because the muscle had a green tinge to it. They told me that was what it was suppose to look like and was normal. Pretty soon I was straining to look at all of my wounds whenever they cleaned them.

The wounds I could see on my body were nothing compared to the abdominal wound on the guy next to me. One time when they were cleaning it, he rolled over in my direction so I could get a good look at it. HOLY SHIT! His abdomen was sliced open in the shape of a very large capital “T” with the top of the “T” just under diaphragm. I could actually see inside of him. I mean the organs weren’t exposed but still, that was wild!

The guy on the other side was recovering from a chest wound that was almost healed. He was in ICU because his chest cavity kept filling with fluid that had to be drawn out several times a day. He would sit up, face me and lay his chest over one of those bed tables they give you to use when you sit up in bed in the hospital. They used a very large syringe and the longest needle I had ever seen to draw out the fluid. They stuck it directly into his upper back three or four times until most of the fluid was removed. The fluid was a yellowish color. He tried to hide how much it hurt, but you could see by the look on his face how much it must have been killing him.

I had a lot of tests and x-rays those first couple of days. I had to slide out of the bed over onto a gurney. Get wheeled to x-ray, or where ever, and sometimes back off the gurney and onto another table the have to reverse the process when I got back in bed. I was drugged up pretty good so I wasn’t very uncomfortable just lying in bed, but during these transfers it got pretty bad. Having a catheter didn't make any of this any easier. If you remember I had wounds pretty much everywhere except on the front of my torso and right arm and still had great difficulty moving my legs. Since I my entire body was practically wrapped in bandages, I wasn't allowed to wear pajamas which made tending to my wounds easier.

One time when I was being transferred back into bed, they were having trouble getting me off the gurney and back into bed. The sheet I was covered with had got caught on something about half way through the transfer so they stopped to clear it so I stayed covered. That pissed me off so I just yanked the sheet off and told them to forget it. I didn’t care who saw me nude at that point. My modesty was long gone. They got me back into bed and I settled in. Then a couple of the guys started making jokes about my lack of “manhood” if you get my drift.

Sometimes when I was taken for tests I had to be wheeled between buildings, which meant going outside. I always asked them to prop up the head of the gurney so I could look around. I’ll never forget the first time being outside how overwhelmed I was with everything. I even made them stop for a few minutes just so I could take it all in. They turned the gurney so I could look around without straining.

As soon as the doors open to go outside, I remember taking a deep breath and smelling the air, air so fresh and sweet. It was as if I was smelling clean air for the first time. It was a beautiful sunny day, a little chilly, but I was covered with a blanket so I didn’t care. I remember hearing the birds singing and seeing them flying around and hopping on the lawn. The lawn was dotted with benches and tables with people sitting, or just walking around enjoying being outside in the fresh air on such a beautiful day.

Across the lawn, was a fence and over the top of the fence I could see the second floor on a school. The children were moving in and out of the classrooms and walking along under the over hang that ran the length of the second floor of the school outside the classrooms. I could hear them laughing and talking as they moved along just like I used to do when I was in school.

How wonderful everything seemed just then. Gone were the smell of the diesel fuel exhaust and the sounds of the vehicles that constantly drove back and forth all day on the highway outside FSB Stuart. Gone were the smell of the exhaust and the sounds of the helicopters that flew us so many places, so many times. Places we never knew what to expect when we landed. Places we never knew if we would even make it back from. Gone was the smell and sounds of gunpowder from the rifles, mortars and hand grenades, and those damn 105mm Howitzers at FSB Stuart that shook the ground and sent shock waves through the air every time they fired. Gone were the smells and sounds of war. Gone were the never-ending fears that almost never let me get comfortable from the moment I first landed in Vietnam and stepped off that jet into the rocket attack at Bien Hoa airbase just a little over a month ago.

At that moment in time, a feeling of peaceful contentment engulfed me that I will never forget. I truly never felt better in all my life.


Loren said...

Hello. My Father was the Chief of Physical Medicine at the 249th General Hospital from 1966-1968. I am wondering if anyone can tell me about their experiences there.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was there in September 1970. I forget my ward # but I will never forget Ward 11D. The guys who were losing their battles with infections would be moved to 11D. It was a death sentence and the immediate family (wife or parents) would be sent for from the states. I remember sitting with a young Lt. who had severe burns from a white phosphorus round that accidentally cooked off inside a tank. He wept and told me he didn't want his family to see him with the flesh burned away and the bones exposed on most of the front side of his body. He just wanted to die before they arrived. He didn't. He died later. The staff was wonderful. How they coped is beyond me. They like the wounded had to endure things that never leave us. Jehovah God has promised to put an end to all wars by means of his Son Jesus. I look forward to the day when that occurs and the memory of war does not come up into the heart. Thanks for your dad who tried to mend the mangled bodies of those who served. He too has to be scarred and burdened with his memories.

Dirk Septer said...

For more information, see the book "Trust Not" by William G. Haneke and Jane C. Walker, published in 2012, especially chapters 25 and 26.
Lt. Haneke was lucky that his father, Major General William C. Haneke could pull some strings through his West Point classmate General Bruce Palmer, Jr., vice chief of staff for the US Army.
Many other wounded soldiers who ended up in this hospital were not so lucky. Inexperienced surgeons performed many unnecessary amputations to gain some experience till thanks to Haneke exposing this and Palmer putting an end to it.
Just wondering how many veterans unnecessarily lost limbs there......

Anonymous said...

I was there 1968-jan 1970 I was a medic and do remember hearing about amputation s done that weren't needed or something like that it's a shame it happened; hopefully they learned from their mistake s

Michael E. Mazelis said...

I was stationed at the 249th for several months before being transferred to Zama Hospital. It was a great honor to be part of the Patient's Trust Office where we traveled every ward in that hospital securing your valuables in the safe in our office. The best part was seeing a soldier at our door to get some of his valuables who was a week before confined to a bed in one of the wards.