A Nurse's Story
By Theresa Morel Hudler as told to Roberta S. Rogers
Editor's note: I was a cobra pilot in Vietnam. Oftentimes I hear from other vets, vets who fought in the jungles and mud of Vietnam, that the helicopter pilots were the real heroes in Vietnam. They tell stories of, no matter how hot the area was or how much lead or fog filled the sky, how the chopper pilots always came to their rescue to re-supply, carry out the wounded, reinforce, or just plain take out the bad guys with rockets shrieking and miniguns screaming. But we were trained for this. In truth, we were raised for this. John Wayne prepared us all. Our high school coaches taught us to get out there and fight fight fight! And we came armed with rockets, bullets, and grenades.
The nurses in Vietnam were trained to help heal the sick. They were not prepared for this, they received little training for combat, and they carried no weapon. Now that, my dear reader, is true heroism. Bless them all. They gave so that others might live. They are all heroes.
Reprinted with permission from the SOLDIERS FOR THE TRUTH COMBAT REPORT, December 24, 1999
Suddenly, in my head it is 1968 and I am back in Vietnam.
A monsoon rain has just ended this late-January morning when the UH-1 "Huey" helicopter settles into the mud by the 12th evacuation hospital at Cu Chi ("KooChee"). The chopper is a "slick," a troop carrier, not the medevac chopper we are used to. It is full of wounded men who a few minutes before were in battle. Their comrades have hastily loaded and flown them to us.
Nurses, aides, medics run under the rush of blades to lift the wounded through the open sides of the helicopter. Triage is begun. There is the sickly smell of blood and mud, the shouts of medics, the moan of a man in pain, the down-winding whine of the chopper's engine.
I have just finished my 12-hour shift and should head for the "hooch"--the nurses' barracks-- but as nurse in charge, I know I cannot leave my staff at a moment like this.
"Lt. Morel, come here, please! Tell us what to do with this one!" I slop through the mud to where a nurse is standing beside a low stretcher.
I crouch down beside the soldier and observe a massive head wound. This man will die if we cannot get him to a field hospital up north where they are better equipped to deal with head injuries. I motion to have an IV started and move my mouth down near the soldier's ear.
"Don't worry, sweetheart; we'll get you out of here. We'll get you someplace safe. Just hang on." Glancing up through the noise and confusion toward the slowly rotating helicopter blades, I see crew members heading back to the "slick."
"Wait!" I yell. "Wait! We have to take this man on! We have to take him up north!"
I scramble to my feet and run toward the chopper, gesticulating wildly. The pilot glances at his crew; flying wounded is not their usual duty. After a pause, he looks back at me and nods.
Hands lift the litter and slide it in, lodging it against a projecting bulkhead near the rear. It takes up all but a few inches of the width of the chopper's floor. Two door gunners, their heads bulky in huge protective helmets, climb onto narrow benches behind the litter, facing outward, sliding in behind mounted M-60 machine guns.
It is not common for nurses to fly evacuation runs, and I have never been in a helicopter before, but there is no one else free to go. I scramble up onto the metal floor behind the pilot and co-pilot's seats. Someone has tossed me a flak jacket and a standard "steel-pot" helmet. I see the gunners and pilots hooking their helmet headsets into plugs in the roof: The crew will now be able to communicate with each other. I have no headset, no ear protectors. My helmet flops back and forth on my small head as I struggle to snap the drab flak jacket over my green fatigues and then reach up to check the patient's IV, attached to a hook overhead.
The co-pilot shouts that voice communication will soon be impossible. He tells me to bang on his seat if I need something once we are airborne. He will swing his boom mike out then so I can shout into it. Now the chopper engine begins to whine.
I am sitting with my back to the pilots' seats. The metal floor beneath me vibrates. The doors are open; it is as if the chopper has no sides, but nothing holds me in. Sweat trickles down my face and under my uniform where the flak jacket covers it. I am watching my patient closely as the engine winds up to full pitch. We lift up just above the trees, the nose drops a bit, and we move forward. We are flying.
The throbbing of the engine and rotors through the metal roof and the rush of wind past the open doors are deafening. The roar increases as we begin to move a hundred miles an hour up and just over jungle trees, down low over rice patties and fields.
Suddenly the pilots behind me are shouting something about enemy troops below. Simultaneously the gunners open up with their machine guns. The chopper begins to fly evasive maneuvers--banking steeply first to one side and then the other, still following the nape of the earth. The noise increases; the sounds do not blend; the noise is multidimensional, each sound adding to another.
Through the vibrations and throaty pounding of the guns and the whine of the engine, despite the rush of a 100-mile-an-hour wind, I force myself to concentrate on my patient. I turn my thoughts inward to escape facing the incredible place I find myself. Hours earlier, I had begun my shift with my daily visit to the chapel area for a quick prayer for safety for myself, my staff and anyone who would be with us that day.
Now I am praying again, crying silently inside: "Oh dear God! Don't let him die here in all this! Let us get him to a safe place!"
Suddenly I notice that the IV has come loose from my patient's arm. He will die! I bang on the pilot's seat to get him to level off, but he cannot hear me. I must act now.
I scramble to my knees beside the litter. The stretcher is only five inches off the floor and, as I lean over to reach for the IV needle, my helmet slips forward. It will come off and hit him! I reach up with one hand, pull it off and fling it behind me. It rolls away.
Now I am bent over, fighting for balance, trying to hold the IV in with one hand, tearing tape with my teeth and the other hand, screaming silently over and over, "Oh dear God, don't let him die here!" The noise and vibrations possess my body.
Is that sweat or tears on my face? I don't know.
Suddenly the gunner on my left stops firing. He pivots sharply 90 degrees and moves his head down beside mine so his mouth is within an inch of my ear. Why is he here? Does he want to speak to me? For an instant I am aware of him poised there, then there is a "pang-ping" whine. The gunner slumps unconscious over me and my patient.
A bullet headed straight for my uncovered left temple has ricocheted off his helmet with enough force to knock him out, but I realize this only dimly at this moment. He will suffocate us. I shove his body to the left and he rolls onto the litter handles, inches from the open door. I don't know if he is tethered or secured in some way or not, so I grab him with my left hand, still holding the IV needle with my right. I am crying.
"Oh dear God, he'll fall out! Don't let him fall out! Help us dear God!"
It is a little while-- a minute? an hour? a lifetime?--before the other gunner looks around and realizes what has happened. He calls on his mike to the pilots and they break off the fight and head straight north, to the field hospital. We land. I unclench my hands from the gunner's fatigues, from the patient's IV.
Medics pull the gunner down and place him on a stretcher, then slide the patient's litter to the ground. I run first to my patient. The IV is in, he is stable, still alive. He is rushed away. I will never know if he survives.
I dash to the other litter and bend over the man who took the bullet for me, grabbing his wrist, feeling for a pulse. They have removed his helmet; there is no sign of a wound.
As I bend over him, the gunner's eyes open and focus on me.
"What is it? What do you want?" he asks. Does he think only a moment has gone by? I just look at him; I do not understand his questions.
This soldier whose helmeted head covered my bare one so perfectly in one bullet-splintered second in time, speaks again, struggling to rise up on his elbow: "You called me!"
In a few days the gunner, who will be back flying tomorrow, and I will meet to compare notes on what happened this January morning in 1968. The TET offensive will now be fully under way. He will offer me the bullet-scarred helmet as a souvenir, but I will insist that he keep it. Already I will not be sure that I will want anything to remind me of this day, or any, I spend in Vietnam. I will not remember the gunner's name. But over the years, even as I repress my Vietnam memories, I will always acknowledge that in the one moment I needed protection, a gunner heard a voice cry out "Help me!" so clearly over the cacophony of noises in a helicopter at war, that he stopped firing, turned, and bent down to see what I wanted. Yet with my teeth busy tearing tape, I had not spoken out loud to him or anyone. I had only cried out silently, to a God who had heard and answered me "exceedingly abundantly beyond" anything I thought to ask.
I had trouble believing it when a friend told me that the sweet-smiled middle-aged grandmother who sat in front of me in church most Sundays had been a nurse in Vietnam. I was even more incredulous when I found that Theresa Morel Hudler was one of the few women who have ever been in actual combat. With my writer's juices racing, I approached her and set up an interview.
We met one morning over coffee at my dining room table and she shared the basics of her story. Her facts were there, but something was missing. She hadn't opened up enough to give me the whole story. Then that evening my phone rang. It was Theresa. As she tried to relax in a warm tub, she realized a flashback was beginning. Throwing on her robe, she raced for the phone and dialed my number. "Quick, grab a recorder. I am only going to be able to do this once!"
I hit the "record" button on my phone answering machine and then listened. Theresa took me with her as she re-lived Vietnam, 1968. After a half hour, both of us in tears, her voice trailed off at last. After a few moments, we prayed together for the peace of God to heal this shrapnel-memory.
When I hung up and took the micro cassette out of the machine, I knew I held in my hand a special piece of American history, and a story of God's protective presence, even in war.
Because I have no military background, before I tried to write Theresa's story I did some research. As part of it, I located a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter at Ft. Meade, Maryland and received permission to climb around on it. My husband Bill - an editor for SFTT -- and our oldest son, Tom came with me. Tom played the wounded soldier and Bill took up Theresa's position while a helpful National Guardsman sat and moved as the door gunner had. As I watched the men replay the motions of that January hour in Theresa's life, I noticed patched bullet holes in the metal of the old chopper; it, too, had been to war. Maybe it was the same one.
The story you have just read is a compilation of Theresa's flashback and my research. The first two decades after the war were difficult for Theresa, but in the third one she has dealt with her memories and moved on. She is a neo-natal nurse at a hospital in Southern Maryland.
If you think YOU have trouble getting the truth from our government or representatives, our soldiers are the original mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed bullsh*t. Soldiers for the Truth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "dishing it out," no matter how painful, no matter how bitter, for as it has been said, "The truth will set you free." www.sftt.org.
Here is a memorial to the first American nurse killed in combat in Vietnam: http://members.aol.com/bear317g/lane.htm
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