From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul


In May 1969, I was an eighteen-year-old rifleman serving in Vietnam. One day, my platoon was assigned the relatively easy task of setting up road security. We would ride out on tanks, and two of us would be positioned every quarter mile to ensure that mines would not be placed between convoys.

I looked forward to a day of little activity and limited danger. I’d have time to write a letter home and to rest a bit from the days and nights we had just spent on patrol. It was a bright, beautiful morning. I was filled with thoughts of home and the joy that comes with just being young.

But a few moments after being dropped at my observation point, the flash of a grenade changed me forever. In one split-second explosion, I went from being a strapping young Marine to a crumpled, wounded casualty. As I lay on my back in the dirt, I looked down and saw my body riddled with shrapnel and broken bones. The pain was searing, and I was overwhelmed with fear.

Weapons were fired near me, and somewhere in the distance, I could hear the sound of my own voice screaming. It was a strange but familiar sound. I hadn’t heard that cry since I was a child—grown men don’t scream very often.

I was sure that the enemy soldiers would immediately come to kill me, finishing the job they’d begun. Thinking I would rather die standing, I managed to stand up, but my badly injured legs could only briefly support me. Before my legs buckled and I fell back to the ground, I saw two wounded Vietcong lying only a few yards away.

Several of the men in my platoon reached me almost immediately. One raised his gun to kill the two soldiers, and before I knew what I was saying, I cried out, “No! No! Don’t do that! It’s bad enough already.” Somehow, the concept of “enemy” had disappeared, and we were simply three injured men lying in the road.

Then our Navy corpsman began to dress my wounds. Many times I had looked into the eyes of the wounded while struggling to keep my expression from betraying my shock and fear. Now it was my turn to hear words of comfort while I looked up into eyes filled with dread.

Even though my buddies were at my side, there wasn’t a lot they could do to help me. My body had been horribly violated, and my mind was filled with a terror that couldn’t be shared by anyone whose flesh was intact. The men in my unit and I had shared every hardship and many life-or-death experiences, but I had, in an instant, passed from their world of the whole to the new and terrifying realm of the wounded. I felt more isolated than I had ever felt before in my life.

While I lay in the dirt waiting for the medevac helicopter, my buddy Frank did an unexpected thing. He held my helmet in front of my face, forcing me to look at it. The camouflage-colored helmet cover was ripped to shreds. I saw that it had been only my helmet and a quick turn of my head that had saved my face, my eyes and probably my life.

When you are as messed up as I was at that moment, you grasp at anything that can ease your fear. Seeing that helmet, believe it or not, made me feel a little better. All these years later, I am still grateful to Frank for helping me see my good fortune in the middle of the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I spent the next seven months in a series of military hospitals undergoing grueling procedures to mend my broken body. Even with the morphine, I was in pain much of the time. Without bothering to ask, fate had taken me from their war in Vietnam and thrown me into a new, personal war, with my own body and mind serving as the enemy.

In those hospitals, in huge open wards, I met countless other young men who were recovering from devastating wounds. Many were so badly maimed that I knew I should count myself among the lucky.

When I was finally sent to a Naval hospital in the States, my parents and my girlfriend, Sharon, came to see me. When Sharon approached my bed, I whispered, “I love you.” But I felt I had to let her know what the future might hold for us. “They may have to amputate my leg,” I told her.

She didn’t hesitate for even a moment before saying, “That’s okay. It doesn’t matter.”

I turned my head away, struggling to maintain my composure in the face of such love. But as much as I wanted to, I didn’t believe her. It wasn’t okay.

When I was well enough to leave the hospital, I flew home. They had managed to save my legs, but I had lost a lot of weight, and one of my legs, was still in a cast. I was wearing my Purple Heart medal, but I knew I looked terrible, a bag of bones in a Marine uniform. Supporting myself on two canes, I made my way through the airport. At one point, I looked up and froze in horror.

Coming toward me were a mother, a father and a muscular, fresh-faced young man in a new Marine uniform. They were obviously seeing him off. They also stopped abruptly and stared at me, the mother’s hand flying up to her mouth in an attempt to stifle her involuntary cry.

I wanted to hide, to spare them the agony of what I’d been through, of what still lay ahead of me, but I also realized with surprise that I wanted to tell them it wasn’t so bad. Maybe Sharon was right after all. I was alive. I was home! It was at that moment, I truly began to heal.

But all I said was a cheerful “Good luck, Marine.” And turning to his mother, I said softly, “He’ll be fine, Mom.”

Then, smiling broadly, I continued down the concourse to meet my own waiting parents.

George W. Saumweber

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