Horrors of the wartime burn unit

  • Article by: STEVEN BOYER
  • Updated: June 26, 2014 - 8:04 AM

The geography has changed from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, but the reality for the wounded remains.

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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the released POW, is being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center. It’s in the news every day. And every day, as always happens with any mention of Brooke, memories never far from my consciousness come flooding back.

On another occasion like this a few years ago, I wrote down a few thoughts. Now, as the United States contemplates getting back into the war in Iraq, I found myself rereading them.

In 1967, I was a corpsman in the army, stationed at Fort Sam Houston and working the night shift in the E.R. at Brooke Army Hospital. One of my jobs was to assist transferring patients arriving from Vietnam at Kelly Air Force Base.

The inside of the planes was not well lit. There were a few seats up front for the guys who could walk. The rest of the compartment had litters along the sides, suspended by straps from the ceiling with the IV bottles. There were usually two flight nurses who looked like they needed about six weeks off. They radioed ahead specifying the type of transport needed and they decided who was taken off first.

Once there was a colonel out there, dressed in his Class A best, whose job was to welcome these guys home and give them Purple Hearts. The colonel’s job wasn’t easy and no one — not the wounded, the nurses, the corpsman or the drivers — tried to make it easier for him. I can still see him standing there looking completely helpless and useless.

I had a friend who was an X-ray tech who also worked the night shift. One of his jobs was to do chest X-rays every morning for the patients in the burn unit. The severely burned were particularly susceptible to infection, especially pneumonia. A few times, when I wasn’t busy in the E.R., I helped him get the X-rays done by passing him the cassettes and taking those exposed. We passed them between us in a way that he could get a sterile slipcover on them to protect the wounds from contact with the cassettes. The burn unit staff helped position the cassettes and move the patients as needed.

I wasn’t allowed in there; everyone was dressed as if in surgery. I could see the patients through the glass. That’s as close as I got, yet those images have been with me ever since. I tried to imagine the horror for the wounded and their families who wouldn’t be able to recognize their sons. And, of course, I couldn’t.

Wounded who survived the burn unit back then were transferred to another hospital building called Beach Pavilion, where I occasionally had business. Once I found myself on the burn step-down unit, where the patients where trying to rehab themselves while undergoing skin grafting, surgeries to relieve contractures and simply trying to learn to cope. There was a guy sitting in a chair wearing a hospital gown and robe. Every part of his body visible — his head, neck, arms, hands and lower legs — was burned. He had no ears. His nose was a tiny knob with the nostrils looking large and way out of proportion. His fingers were little stubs. It was impossible to guess his age.

A young woman was feeding him, spooning food into an orifice that was once a mouth. The guy saw me watching them and it was impossible to know what he was thinking because his face could make no recognizable expression. I nodded to him as a sort of greeting, I guess, or acknowledgment, and then went on with my work barely able to contain myself.

I was discharged in 1968, never having been sent to Vietnam, and so I came through unscathed. The horror I saw at Brooke back then was just a tiny bit of the nightmare experienced by those who did go there, and especially by those who lived in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

In Iraq and Afghanistan now (and in all of the military adventures in between) only the place is different. Everything else is the same — the horror, the victims, the families, the enormous cost, the war profiteering, the corruption, the squandering of a generation. And something else is the same, too. The same guys are in charge.

They may have been Democrats or Republicans (or both), but it’s the same guys, serving the same interests, spouting the same platitudes, putting out the same propaganda, violating the same civil rights of citizens and the same human rights of opponents, flaunting the same self-righteous arrogance and playing on the same fears.

And the kids burned beyond recognition today are the same as the ones burned then, just separated in time — naive, maybe ignorant and uneducated, deluded and seduced by the cheap patriotism of those who are forever making and profiting from war but who always escape its horror.

 

Steven Boyer lives in St. Paul.

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