by Sarah Blum
For years, I would go to the Wall in Washington D.C. and go to the panels from 13E-18E that cover 1967. I would touch their names and wonder how many came through the OR at the 12th Evac when I was there. I will never know.
October 18, 2013, there was a message on my phone, “Hello Sarah my name is Jim Vines. I am a Vietnam Veteran. Someone showed me your picture in your army field jacket with the tropic lightening patch on it. I just had to find you and call to ask if you could possibly have been at the 12th Evac on October 18th, 1967? Please call me……” As I stood there staring at the phone and listening to Jim’s voice my body was full of electricity, and chills, I was buzzing and shouted at the now silent phone, “ YES! I was there…I remember. Oh how I remember that day.” I kept feeling, shivering and remembering. I so wanted to talk with Jim but it was many days until we actually connected.
When I finally reached Jim by phone we talked for two hours. “Yes,” I told him, “I was there and I remember one guy specifically. Tell me about your wounds and how you are doing?” He described some scars on his legs and abdomen and then talked about his hand. Oh my God it’s him. It’s Jim the pitcher. “How is your hand Jim? Does it work? Were you able to pitch?” I remember holding my breath waiting for his response. “It does work and I have pitched softball.” Whew…relief.
That day the Manchus were hit badly as we had mass casualties from their unit the 4th Battalion and the 9th Regiment. It was nonstop for all of us in the operating room. I specifically remember that our head surgeon and I were working on Jim, who was wounded on his legs, and abdomen. The abdominal work was first because we did not know what we would find. Then we moved onto his legs. Before we focused on his hand the surgeon said, “I am going to the next casualty—you sew up his hand.”
“But sir he is a pitcher, he needs you to sew up his hand!”
“I am needed on the next case; you will have to do it.”
“But sir, I am only a nurse, not even a surgeon, he needs more than I have to give him…” but the surgeon was already going to the next guy in the next section. I was distraught. I felt angry at the war, at the surgeon for not staying and was terrified of the task that was thrust upon me. It was one thing to cut open wounds, remove shrapnel and sew up them up but another to have to repair a hand, especially the hand of a baseball pitcher. I was cursing and sweating while trying to figure out how to do the best job I could in bringing together the pieces left on the palm of Jim’s hand. It looked like an unsolvable puzzle. There were pieces coming from several directions and I was trying to see how they could fit together to give him the best result. At one point a reddish- brown locust landed on it. I shouted at my technician: “Get that thing off his hand NOW or there will be hell for you to pay!” Needless to say, it was a tedious job to reconstruct the skin on the palm of Jim’s hand and even though I love doing puzzles, that one was beyond my abilities and my pay grade. It was also 48 years ago.
Jim has been active in veteran’s affairs and created a Vietnam War Memorial and Museum in Mineral Wells, Texas. When he found out about my book, Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military, he invited me to speak at the update of their Wall in June 2014. He arranged for me to speak on Friday night to a group of supporters of the Memorial/Museum about my book and the issues of Military Sexual Assault. Then Saturday morning, share my own experiences as an operating room nurse in Vietnam at the update of the Wall ceremony that they do every year. They add new names every year of those whose names need to be on the memorial but were not, and that was the purpose of this ceremony.
Jim and his wife met me at the airport when I arrived on Friday early afternoon. He was a large tall man physically as well as large in his presence. His wife was sweet and lovely, both physically and in how she speaks. Connecting with both of them was easy. After we visited and had lunch I asked Jim if I could look at his hand. He agreed and told me he was happy with it because he is able to shake the hands of fellow veterans and used it to put the ring on his wife’s finger. When I could see and feel it, my heart sunk. It looked terrible and ugly to me. It was soft and smooth but very scarred and the 4th and 5th fingers pulled in toward his palm. I felt sad seeing it and realizing how much better it might have looked if a surgeon had sewn it up. He, on the other hand, was full of joy to be with me and to live a life he values. His joy and me being there with him, far outweighed my sadness and horror at how his hand looked.
He picked me up early the next day so that I could see the memorial and meet many of the volunteer vets he works with plus watch the motorcycle procession at the Memorial. As he introduced me to each guy, I felt so very welcomed and I had a strong upwelling of emotion inside me. Meeting my “brothers” touches me so deeply that grief comes up with a force. Knowing that these men are, in every way, my personal brothers fills me with joy, pride and grief all melded together. Each of us have been through the worst experience of our lives and come out the other end battered, bruised, and wounded inside and out, yet here we are together again. Each time, my grief rolls up from my toes through my torso to my heart, throat, mouth and eyes — I cry. I went through about seven years of therapy to take down the wall I had put up to protect myself and others from my emotions, and now I feel everything very intensely.
When the motorcycle vets came through in the procession, I cried the entire time. Tears were streaming down my face as I saw my brothers sitting tall and proud, wearing something that acknowledged they were Vietnam Veterans and even as I write this I can feel the emotions rise up in me. It is a combination of pride in them and the pain that we shared together from the war and being mistreated when we came home.
During the actual ceremony to update the Wall, as Jim was introducing me, he began to cry and could not speak. I went up to him to support him and I was crying as well. Together we managed to tell the audience our story both from Vietnam and finding each other this past year. We got through that and then Jim left so I could speak. He had asked me to speak about my service in Vietnam, what I saw, felt and experienced, about the casualties and the hospital etc. I did all that and cried many times throughout. As I looked out at the audience I could see many, if not all of them, were also crying. It was a very healing experience for me and what I shared was very well received. The marine colonel who was the speaker after me was also choked up and acknowledged the power of what I shared and the impact it had on everyone including him. He walked up and down in front of the audience as he spoke and said he was at a loss as to what to share following my story.
I am grateful that Jim found me, and brought me to meet he and his buddies. They gave me a large picture of their insignia— a dragon in front of a map of Vietnam the colors of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and the tropic lightening patch. It is beside me on the wall as I write and remember. Jim has since died, but his memory lives in me. (see pictures below.) You can see for yourself what his left hand looks like.