From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Just Like Me

“Twenty-seven, sir! A new company record!” my crew chief called over the intercom. A few minutes ago, we had been dispatched to the evac hospital from our base in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. One of our duties as an Army medevac helicopter crew, or “Dustoff” as we were called, was to pick up civilian casualties from the Army hospitals. We were to transport them to the provincial hospital at the city of Quang Ngai, about a fifteen-minute flight away. Some of the casualties were from gunshot wounds, booby traps, napalm burns from other war-related injuries, and some of them were from other illnesses and injuries common to Southeast Asia. While loading the UH-1H “Huey” helicopter, I noticed Vietnamese people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. When a family member was sent to the American hospital, the entire family went along, including the grandparents.

The helicopter had strained to maintain a hover prior to takeoff. The power was redlined as we struggled off the hospital pad and nosed out over the South China Sea. As we gained airspeed, I settled back. The hard part was over. Landing at the open field by the provincial hospital would be easy. “Okay, you take the aircraft,” I told my copilot. “Be gentle. She’s really heavy.” Then, turning to the back, “Way to go!” I congratulated the crew. “It will be a long time before anyone breaks this record!”

We had a friendly competition going on in the company. It was a version of the old “See How Many People Fit in a Volkswagen” game, only our vehicle of choice was an Army Huey. The previous record was twenty-three. The crew of four could not be included in the count. It was a good thing Vietnamese were typically diminutive people. Surveying the cargo compartment, I could see people packed in like sardines. Oh, well, I thought, it’s only for a short time. I was proud that I had been able to nurse such a heavy load off the ground. It took a gentle touch to get maximum performance.

The helicopter was so crowded that a young Vietnamese girl had to be seated on the end of the center console between the pilots’ seats. I had actually bumped elbows with her as we were taking off. I noticed that in her arms she had what appeared to be a new baby wrapped in a blanket. It was common for the locals to send problem childbirths to the American hospitals for the superior care available. This was part of the so-called Winning the Hearts and Minds program the military had in place. This young mother met my eyes and gave me a small, shy smile. I reached over to the baby and lifted a corner of the blanket. “May I . . . ?” my eyes asked.

Her smile broadened to say, “Yes.” She softly folded the blanket back so I could see her baby’s face. Bright black eyes peered back at me from a beautiful little round face. I was captivated. I gently caressed the baby’s exposed hand. Tiny fingers gripped my finger in the reflex response all babies seem to have. The mother held her precious bundle out to me. Though we could not talk, the communication was clear. I was taken aback. “Are you sure?” I looked the question at her.

“Yes! Yes!” Her vigorous nod and eager smile were easy to understand. Gingerly, I accepted her offer and cuddled the baby against me. The baby’s soft warmth felt so good. How strange to hold the beginning of a new life, when my usual view of the back of the helicopter was of blood, broken bodies and the agony of war. The contrast was so extreme that it was almost unbearable. A tight feeling rose in my chest as we flew over the bomb-cratered countryside.

As we began our descent into Quang Ngai hospital, I reluctantly passed the baby back to Mom. Her beaming smile and the soft light glowing from behind her eyes spoke the universal language of love and pride. Her openness brought a rush of tears that I quickly hid behind the visor of my flight helmet. I believe she felt honored to see the American pilot tenderly holding her baby, but I was the one who was honored. She had given me a tremendous gift, perhaps one of the greatest I have ever received. I was moved and more than a little shaken. What started out as a lighthearted moment had suddenly become a momentous event. Her love, trust, pride and willingness to share spoke to me in a way I was completely unprepared for. These people were supposed to be inscrutable. We were taught during basic training and during flight school that our enemies were “gooks” and that they were different than we were. I remembered only too well the words of my drill instructor in basic training:

“What’s the spirit of the bayonet?!” he would scream during drills.

“To kill!” We would scream back at him.

“To kill what?”

“To kill gooks, Drill Sergeant!!!” we responded.

The enemy was presented to us as less than human, which I suppose served a required purpose. It is easier to kill “gooks” than human beings, and in combat, one can’t hesitate when it becomes necessary to kill. A second lesson we learned quickly was that no Vietnamese was to be trusted, because there was no way we could distinguish the “good” ones from the “bad” ones. Many times an innocent-looking child or grandmother tossed a hand grenade into a crowd of Americans or into a bus. I did not trust the Vietnamese, though I was rarely around any, other than our hut maids. To me, they were all “gooks” until proven otherwise.

Face to face with a young mother and her baby, I was forced to look at my callousness, and it hurt. These were real people, and they were just like me. The young mother could have been my sister, who also had a new baby—my namesake—whom I had not yet seen. From that point on, my view of the war was forced to change, a change that made the war even harder to bear. I saw the people and had compassion for their suffering. No longer were they just bodies in the back of the helicopter. Thank God for a young mother and her spontaneous gift. Thank God for God’s message spoken in the universal language of love.

Jerold S. Ewen

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