Not Sick – Just Broken

Not Sick – Just Broken

Injured during Action

Late September 1971. It had now been almost four days since I had been choppered into the 1st Australian Field Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds to my left shoulder. I was in a ward with two dozen other men from the 4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, most of who had shrapnel wounds from enemy mortars or rocket propelled grenades. We didn’t know it then but we had been in the last major engagement by Australian forces in South Viet Nam. Our combat troops would be home by Christmas 1971.

My pain was being managed pretty well by the ‘ladies in grey’, the Australian Nursing Corps sisters who looked after our treatment. Male orderlies who were mostly National Servicemen did the heavy lifting and kept the place neat and tidy. There were no ‘sick’ people in our ward, we were all busted. Some guys had fragmentation wounds that had ripped open their backs, bellies arms and legs in a most untidy fashion. Others had dozens of smaller shrapnel wounds from enemy mortars. I was one of the few blokes to survive being shot, as most of our dead had been head shot as they lay down behind their weapons in close and savage fighting with the North Vietnamese.

I was confined to bed and had a great view of the ward. I could see everybody coming and going and one morning I actually laughed out loud as the walking wounded were hobbling off to breakfast and the Australian Forces radio network was playing a popular song, ‘The Resurrection Shuffle’.  Here were all these wounded warriors still smarting from having bits of jagged metal extracted from their bodies and a bit stiff and sore from the process.  It just seemed so appropriate. They were alive and would live to fight again another day. I was being fed my meals as I was really feeling the injuries. My left shoulder joint had been totally shattered and I had one exit wound over my left shoulder blade that was long and ugly and was being kept open in what I was told was ‘delayed primary closure’ that would assist the healing process. What they forgot to tell me was the sickening and putrid stench that emanated from that six-inch long hole quickly reduced the visitors to my bed side. I stank.

We soon came to the realisation that some of us were going to have to return to Australia for further surgery because the facilities in South Viet Nam were limited, and our recovery would take longer than the three week convalescence period that applied to most wounded men. When I was told my injuries were so severe I would be going home I became severely depressed. My platoon would be staying on until March 1972 as part of the rear protection group for the withdrawing Australian forces and I would not be there. I was quickly put in my place by a fellow platoon commander Dan McDaniel that ‘I was lucky to be alive and stop being a goose’. He was right of course but I also felt sad that I wouldn’t be around to share the sorrow of the four men I had seen killed in action from our platoon. Our grieving would be fractured. It has now been recognised that one of the problems that veterans felt was because our dead were repatriated back home, there was no communal solace. Some men would be out on patrol, others on other duties and simply put there was not enough time for grieving.

I could sense the mood in the ward changing. The first few days I had missed because I was recovering from a stint on the operating table where they dug a bullet out from under my left nipple that had deflected there after hitting my collarbone. When I awoke after surgery it was on my bedside table, a hole had been drilled into the base of the round and it was on my dog tag chain. A mate from the supply unit who worked in Vung Tau had dropped by to see me but I was asleep so he took the AK-47 bullet and put it on my dog tags. But it had been quiet in the ward that was chock a block full. The nursing sisters were forever telling people to keep quiet as others recovered from surgery and it was a bit like a morgue – no pun intended.

Now, a few days later, it was getting noisier. The guys had all recovered fairly well from their surgery and these very young, very fit – but slightly damaged soldiers were on the road to recovery. Now, the staff had their hands full keeping these blokes in check. Their first principle was to get those that could walk or be wheeled out of the ward where the bed patients were recovering and into what we called the Red Cross or Rec hut. It was just a short distance down a small path from the ward. There the guys could play cards, other board games, listen to music, read books or just simply lay around and do nothing but recuperate.

Some blokes recovered more quickly than others and it was about seven days after I had come into the ward that an event just totally cracked me up and was undoubtedly the best moment in my stay at 1 Field Hospital. It happened when Private Gerry Olde (I will use that name because that’s who it was) made a name for himself. Gerry had been hit by mortar shrapnel all up his back and buttocks and this 20 year-old was forced to lay on his tummy when he was in bed. Our favourite nursing sister (who was also a good looking sort) came in and told Gerry he had to get out of bed and go down to the Rec hut while they changed his bed sheets. Gerry feigned being unwell and said he would rather stay in bed. He remained face down on his bed with just his pyjama bottoms on.

A tête-à-tête developed where the sister first politely asked, then more firmly requested, then ordered and finally threatened Gerry with a fizzer (a disciplinary charge) if he didn’t get out of bed. I was lying in bed opposite all this recovering from having my wounds stitched up and watched this drama unfold. Finally, Gerry was forced out of bed when the matron came down and told him to get out of bed or he would be on a charge. Reluctantly he slid out of bed, grabbed his crutches and started hobbling off. However his hospital pyjamas were not able to restrain his enormous erection, and as the nursing sister gaped at this throbbing monster, she went bright red. Gerry said with a grimace  ‘he hoped they were all happy’ and hopped off to the Rec hut. I knew when he had reached the hut because a huge roar went up from the blokes down there as Gerry stumbled in with his engorged manhood on display. If nothing else he now knew that all of his essential equipment still worked.

I was now getting close to the time when I would be loaded onto an air-conditioned bus, driven down to the main airstrip and loaded onto an RAAF medevac Hercules aircraft specially fitted out for the task of getting the seriously wounded back to Australia. I was now able to walk around although my arm, which was only connected to my body with muscle and sinew, was strapped firmly to my torso across my lower chest. The Rec hut had been visited, I had been to the movies at night and I wanted to explore a little further. I overheard some of the soldiers talking in the Rec hut that there was an enemy soldier in a ward at the end of the hospital. Apparently he had been badly wounded and captured after our big battle. Curiosity drove me to explore this further.

I found myself walking down past the wounded inmates and then deliberately circumnavigated the ward where sick people with all sorts of maladies were housed. I walked casually past a military policeman sitting outside the ward who had his head stuck in a book. He paid me no attention at all as I sauntered past in my striped hospital pyjama bottoms and white canvas scuffs. I looked in and saw a lone bed. At the end of the bed was a hoop arrangement with a sheet over it. Lying asleep was a Vietnamese man who looked about 18 years of age. His body was a little emaciated something which was not uncommon as the enemy lived in the jungle most of the time and were doing it tough. He had signs of jaundice and his complexion was sallow. I quietly moved closer to get a good look at him. This enemy that had caused the death of my soldiers, had wounded lots of others, and totally stuffed my future rugby playing days if not my military career in the Infantry Corps was now within arms’ reach. I was brimming full of hatred at that moment as I looked down at him.

Then it hit me. The bed sheet was up on the hoops because it was keeping the sheet off his lower body. I walked down toward the end of the bed and realised that this poor bastard had no legs below the knees. I leant down and looked up under the sheet and could see two bandaged stumps. I stood erect and stepped back. I didn’t know what to think. Here was my sworn enemy lying helpless in a bed and unable to defend himself. Thoughts of despatching him by ripping out his drip briefly crossed my mind. I guess it is in our Australian upbringing where we do not kick a man when he is down and always try to do the right thing that rapidly watered down any malicious temptation to wreak pain or worse upon the Viet Cong.

The stark realisation that this bloke was probably going to go into the South Vietnamese military prison system and have a seriously tough time evaporated any thoughts of retribution. Even if he survived the South Vietnamese Army jailers, the rest of his life would at best be miserable. Viet Nam did not have the medical facilities to provide the sort of ambulatory support that our limbless veterans enjoyed. This man’s life was totally stuffed.

I walked slowly out of the ward with mixed feelings. On one hand I had wanted to atone for my lost comrades, and on the other I pitied this poor devil who had a very bleak future indeed. I shelved my emotions and headed off to the Red Cross hut to find someone to beat at cards.