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as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

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~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Past, Loc Ninh '69

Nurse on C-141 Med-Evac Flight

by Lt. David Avery

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In late '69 I was wounded in the chest, arm, and back when a kid with an AK-47 rifle popped out of a spider hole I had overlooked while clearing a bunker complex near Loc Ninh. 

Christmas eve found me strapped to a stretcher and wearing an oxygen mask on a C-141 starlifter bound for Walter Reed.  

If I just breathe slowly and don't panic, I can do this. It's only a few hours, just concentrate on breathing. The oxygen mask makes my face itch and the oxygen feels cold and tastes metallic. Breath IN slowly: 1, 2, 3; Let it out. 

The plane is full, with stretchers stacked four high in four long rows down the length of the aircraft; two inboard and two outboard, like four sticks of jumpers. 

There are maybe a dozen flight nurses -- it's hard to tell, since I can't turn my head. Breath IN 1, 2, 3; Out 1, 2, 3 -- Just keep breathing slowly. If you let yourself get short of breath you'll never catch up. 

It would be silly to die here on the evac plane after surviving medivac from the field and surgery at the 96th. The sun sure seemed bright when they carried me onto the plane at BOA. And hot after days in an air conditioned ward at the evac hospital. 

Even on the taxi way, the green smell of the jungle cuts through the odor of burned jet fuel. It must have been a hundred degrees lying on the tarmac while the load master and the nurses shuffled slot assignments for the stretchers on the flight. Then dark as a cave in the cargo bay of the plane. 

I half expected guys to cheer when the wheels came off the ground in Vietnam, but no one did. Wonder how long the flight to Andrews will take? Let's see, it's twelve thousand miles and a C-141 cruises at what 450 mph? Hard to do the division - my mind is fuzzy. Wonder if I can stay calm that long? 

Just breath slowwwly and stay awake. One breath at a time. At least the nurses are all clustered around the stretcher two spaces aft -- kid there doesn't sound too good. As long as no one is fussing with me I must be OK. Breathe. Breathe. 

Plane seems warm. I wonder if they have the cabin heater set higher for these evac flights. I don't remember ever being warm in a C-141 when we jumped from them at Benning. Breathe slowllly.

Nurse in a flight suit touches my good arm. "How you doing LT?" I nod, having no breath to speak. She probably couldn't hear me over the engine noise anyway. I point at my mouth, asking for water. She shakes her head and moves on to the next stretcher above me. Same singsong tone, "How you doing sergeant?" 

Despite my intent to concentrate and stay awake, I find myself dozing off. Must be the morphine. Just breathe! I come fully awake when I hear the change in flight noise as the flaps come down. Are we are Andrews -- how long was I asleep? 

"This is your pilot speaking. We will be landing at Anchorage for refueling. Flight nurses take your arrival stations." Anchorage. I always wanted to visit Alaska. Hope he puts this thing down smoothly; I'm not up to a crash. 

We land and taxi for what seems like a long time. The engines are shutdown and the plane is very warm and quiet. Then I hear the hydraulics of the rear ramp and a gust of Alaskan winter blows through the cargo bay. 

Turning my head, I can just see the terminal building through the snow, and a big lighted Christmas wreath. It is 3 AM local time. 

Up the ramp walk a half dozen middle-aged women in civilian clothing with cardboard trays of coffee in Styrofoam cups, chattering and greeting the guys on the stretchers near the ramp. They sound like my mom and her sisters. Finally, one gets to me, smiles and says "Merry Christmas, Lieutenant! Welcome Home." 

It is Christmas 1969, and I'm going to live ...

Lt. David Avery

[Written especially for my wife, Hebe Quinton].  

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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