by Jack LaFountain
The hour was 0400. The annual ceasefire in honor of Tet, the lunar new year, had bathed the late January night in restful silence. Stealthily then, the combined forces of the North Vietnamese People’s Army and the Viet Cong of the south started closing in around the Americans and their allies at Chu Lai Combat Base. Only the low rumble of mortar shells announced the incoming assault. Rockets abruptly exploded on impact, shattering living quarters…and the men inside of them. Sirens wailed. Shocked out of their sleep, Marines hastily grabbed their gear, crawling for the relative safety of the in-ground bunkers that lay in between the flimsy plywood hooches. The night lit up with the flames that were rising from the hangars and the aircraft on the flight line. The Tet Offensive had come upon the base with a fury.
The staccato crackle of small arms fire crept into the general racket. The entire perimeter guard came to life fighting off a two-pronged ground attack, coming at them from either side of the creek. The rockets and mortars kept flying in. All personnel were hard-pressed, but the Marines were taking the brunt of the flying shrapnel. The wounded began piling up.
Lt. Kris Goodnight RN scrambled from her hooch and sprinted for the hospital. Doctors and nurses were already dancing to the organized chaos inside the facility. In the triage area, the wounded were being sorted and prioritized to provide the best care possible, given the staff and supplies on hand. The Lieutenant Commander quickly assigned Kris to triage—she would be one of the ones forced to determine who would get seen first, and sometimes…who wouldn’t get seen at all. A Marine casualty was hauled in by a pair of corpsmen. Both legs were blown off below the knees. He was awake, breathing, and—although his wounds were terrible—a good candidate to live. Kris cut away his blood-soaked fatigues and rushed him immediately into surgery. Hell of a way to start the day. But that was life in the 74th Medical Battalion.
Kris and Leslie Detty began sorting out the gunshot and shrapnel wounds, putting the worst first…well, up to a point. A Marine lieutenant, killed by a direct rocket hit on his bunker was carried in by a couple of his troops who reported another officer in the bunker was also killed. When the second officer was carried in, Leslie came to a sudden stop. Kris looked over her shoulder into the face of Navy Commander “Doc” Simmons. Both nurses had worked the ward with him the day before. Doc and the Marine were placed behind the curtain. The corpsmen carrying in the next man looked like they were having a hard time holding the big Marine on their stretcher.
The wounded man was transferred onto a gurney and wheeled into triage. Kris cut away his fatigues. He had multiple wounds to his chest. She tried to roll him to check for exit wounds but could not manage the giant of a man on her own.
“Leslie, come help me with this guy. I need to roll him.”
“Damn, he’s a big one,” Leslie said. “Okay, let’s do it.”
Goodnight held the Marine’s arms, Leslie grabbed his hips. On the count of three, they log-rolled their giant. He felt uncommonly light for such a big guy.
“Oh shit,” they said in unison.
The soldier’s back stayed glued to the stretcher with the cut-away fatigues. They gently laid him down and moved him behind the curtain. How this guy wasn’t dead already was just one more mystery in the annals of the 74th Med’s time at Chu Lai.
Behind the curtain… that was where those deemed too far gone to benefit from ER care were taken to die. Whenever possible a nurse went with them to hold their hand and provide what comfort they could as life slipped away. Kris didn’t think this particular stay behind the curtain would last very long. In the grand scheme of the universe, she was right. But, in the short span that men call life, the conversation lasted two lifetimes. One was the Marine’s. The other belonged to Kris Goodnight. The conversations behind the curtain always began with a question every nurse hated to ask. It wasn’t lack of compassion. It was a kind of defense—more a hope, really. If you didn’t know his name, you might be able to forget…
“What’s your name, Private?”
“Wolf. Eli Wolf.” The strength of his voice took her by surprise. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Her hand closed around his. “But, I’m here with you and I won’t leave you.”
Some of the tension drained from his face along with the color. Wolf’s brown, almost black, eyes were clouded with pain. Kris thought pain was all that held him on earth at the moment. She had to be fair with him.
“Would you like something to ease the suffering?” she asked.
“No. Please. I want to stay awake.”
She nodded and pushed his raven hair from his face. As she did the thought intruded that his smooth skin, only a year or two away from acne, was never going to grow old and wrinkled. This boy was going to die thousands of miles from home with only a stranger to comfort him. She fought back the tears and steeled her voice.
“Where are you from?”
“Oklahoma…a little place called Tipton. It’s really just a wide spot in the road.” A faint smile touch his lips. “Most everyone there is kin to me one way or another.”
“Hope that doesn’t include all the girls.”
“No, ma’am. I have a girl. Her name’s Michelle. There’s a picture in my pocket.”
He nodded in the direction of his top left pocket and winced a little with the effort. Kris unbuttoned his pocket and gingerly drew out the picture. It was a high school graduation photo.
“We have a baby. I haven’t seen him though. He was born two weeks after I shipped out.”
Kris threw a hand over her mouth to stifle a groan…or was it a curse.
“If the Corps wanted you to have a wife and kids, they would have you issued one, right?” The old saying had popped unbidden into her head and onto her lips.
“Well, screw the Marines. I got me a family without their help.”
What the Corps had issued this boy was a plane ride to hell, a widow and an orphan. On the surface, Chu Lai seemed too beautiful for this to be happening here. The tides of war had turned—
A deafening roar shook the ground. Kris grabbed the stretcher with both hands to keep it from toppling. A second rocket exploded outside followed by a barrage of mortar shells. Shards of hot metal ripped through the hospital walls. Thankfully, they were above the heads of the staff. Rockets and mortar fire continued to rain down around the compound.
“Take cover!” The naked terror in Eli’s voice confirmed the warning the medics had shouted.
“No can do, Marine. I’m staying.”
“For God’s sake, get out of here,” Eli urged.
His grip tightened on Kris’s nearly cutting off her circulation. She stroked his head, mumbling reassurances until his grip relaxed. The sound of choppers powering up could be heard between the blasts. Kris looked down into his face hoping to assure him with a smile and news of the action to protect the hospital. The words caught in her throat. The light was fading from his eyes as though a hand was slowly turning down the flame. Eli Wolf, whom she learned later never graduated high school, opened his mouth. She leaned close as he whispered in her ear.
“Never fear, he said. “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.”
The light went out in his eyes, his body went limp and his breathing stopped. As if acknowledging the stalwart’s passing, the world seemed to explode. The ground heaved, toppling Kris and pinning her beneath the gurney and Eli’s body. All the air was sucked from the sky as 600 tons of bombs and bulk explosives in the ammunition dump detonated in a series of volcanic eruptions. Dust blocked out the faint light of the dawning. Enemy sappers had broken through and ignited the depot.
When the earth stopped quaking, Leslie crawled around the curtain. She helped Kris work her way out from under the dead Marine, and without losing a moment’s time, the two began prepping the triage area for the causalities that would inevitably pour in. The job took over and Kris was lost in the turmoil of the moment.
Later that night, sitting outside her hooch and listening to the surf pounding against the shore below, the phrase Eli spoke came back to haunt her. She recognized that it was Latin, but could make no sense of the words. The next day, she went to the Catholic base chaplain. He recognized the phrase and translated for her:
Bidden or unbidden, God is here.
Those final words of a dying Marine, impossibly spoken, in the midst of falling death, became a blanket of comfort wrapped around Kris Goodnight. Never to be forgotten. Never to be doubted.