Trapped in the Whirlwind

“Something is taking its course.”

– Samuel Beckett, Endgame

The author gives aid to a grievously wounded female NVA soldier. Song Be, Vietnam, 1970. Photo: Jeff Motyka.

At first sight I did not like him. The young man, a boy really, seemed to resemble the  comical clash of his first and last name, which could have been Matthew Flunkt or Hamilton Crisp.  Look at him. See how the unrelated words fill his face, call to mind a fool who will breed only grief and sorrow. Look at the boy-man sent to take my place in third platoon. It’s time to leave but I cannot leave them. Should I or shouldn’t I? I set down my gear. Extend my hand.

After eight months on patrols I’m lucky to be alive, though saddened that more than half my platoon is gone; most were wounded. Eight months instead of six, but that is a story for another time. Two hundred and forty-four days of it, and today, here on the large safe base, old timers, FNGs, squad leaders, the lieutenant, say their farewells. I’m off to a rear job where I’ll sleep in a bed, wear clean clothes, eat hot meals, perform safe menial labor. 

But soon the men, my replacement among them, will load their nylon packs with tinned and dehydrated food, water and ammo, stagger to board the trembling choppers, which will rise up, briefly hover, nose left or right, or zoom gracefully forward, and whisk them high over the beautiful canopy. After a time, as the choppers descend, the door gunners will unleash frantic bursts into the approaching tree line. As the whirling metal birds touch down, the anxious grunts will jump out, rush forward, anxiously reassemble. The squad leaders and officers will check their topo maps. Take magnetic compass bearings. The point man will take the first of many steps into the green unknown. So it begins. Step by booted step, the long green line of helmeted men slinks forward and disappears into the beautiful maze of infinite jungle. 

My replacement is clearly unfit for combat. For patching up casualties writhing in pain. Look at him. He is clumsy and careless. Slow at knowing how to pack the medical gear; how to use it. “You mean like this? Oh, like this!” he exclaims. He is too friendly. Too unconcerned with what lies ahead. “Number 10!” the Vietnamese might say, or “No beaucoup!” I help him adjust his nylon Alice pack and canvas medical aid bag. Its myriad plastic bottles are filled with antibiotics, analgesics, antihistamines; tubes of topical cremes and antifungal ointments; a glass bottle of orange antiseptic; a surgical scissor and paper tape. Six thick cotton bandages wrapped in thick transparent plastic. A half dozen morphine syrettes. And I do it. Give him my precious forty-five caliber pistol and U.S. Cavalry holster. And wish this man taking my place, my platoon, good luck. 

One month later third platoon goes out on ambush. An hour later, spied upon by the enemy, a hail of small arms and machine gun fire cuts four men down; the pointman is nearly torn in half.

Fact: After an ambush or fire fight unfurls its sudden havoc, after the medevac’s red- crossed steel belly hovers directly overhead, and kicks out a canvas litter, it is necessary to settle the flailing or shocked out or half-dead man upon the stretcher, to secure him with canvas straps, hook the chopper’s winch D-ring to the head of the litter. Before the medevac lifts the casualty away, you must speak convincingly to the lightly wounded or conscious man words of encouragement, conjure a bright future, beautiful women, a world without war or unbearable pain. But do not, I say again, do not good-luck pat or slap or tenderly tap the casualty’s gunshot or shrapnel-flayed wounds, as I once did. He screamed bloody murder, and may never forgive me. Instead, you must stand back, trapped in the rotor blades mechanical whirlwind, and wave goodbye as the medevac crew haul the wounded man up and up, pull him in, drift away. You must do that. Stand in the whirlwind until they are gone. I did that many times.

With all the sadness I have ever known, when I heard what happened to my platoon, what my replacement did and didn’t do, I hated that man with all my heart. Four months earlier I had nicknamed the gawky, nervous, ninety-five pound FNG from Illinois “Skinny Bob,” and the name stuck, and we grew to like him, to love him and his FNG buddy Big Ken, a strapping good- natured farm boy from somewhere out West. Look at them. See in the eye of your mind the unlikely pair, flung from the depths of a Steinbeck novel into a hopeless guerilla war, only to be shot apart by a merciless foe, then, at the hands of my replacement, hoisted to the medevac upside down, their blood whipped about in the rotating wind.

Thirty years later I met a man who survived my replacement. A better man than I, he might have said many cruel things about the unfit medic. But his tone of voice and simple obscenities were apt and sufficient.

Full disclosure: of course I felt guilty. I took good care of them. Daily tended to their minor cuts and scratches, coughs and colds, head and belly aches, fevers, rashes, leeches, blisters. You know you’re needed when twenty or so men protect you. Depend on you to save them if they are shot. And I was needed. When the bullets erupted, when the mortars thuuped and fell, at the sound of my name I ran to the call and patched them up. Needed and cared for them. Would never have slung men upside down. How could he do that? I should have been there. 

Twenty years ago I called my replacement. Why? I wanted to hear from him what happened. Wondered how to confront him. What to say and how to say it. For thirty minutes we conversed amicably. Patiently, I listened while the boy-man gaily recounted his combat tour. After a time, gingerly I asked about one particular ambush. With certainty he recalled the event, made no mention of the inverted men. Not a single haunted whisper. In those fleeting moments I chose not to express my anger and sorrow. Why, I thought, cause additional harm for what could not be undone? Besides, he was a reverend now, with a Baptist congregation. Why muddy his sacred waters?

“Take care,” I said, wishing him well. “God bless you,” replied the holy man.

The other day, for no apparent reason, I wondered if he were still alive. A few clicks on the keyboard, and I learned he had passed. Odd how the obit mentioned the Army but left out Vietnam. Odd too, how the good Reverend met his maker. Alone one night, he flew over the handlebars of his all-terrain vehicle and died on impact. In the eye of your mind see him sail through the wide open air, and crash with great force into the impersonal earth. In that ephemeral windy time, before all goes black, see his awestruck youthful face. See it clear as day. I have learned to think kindly of that young man.  Memento mori. To be kind.

Marc Levy’s books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: