Sanctuary: From Camelot to Vietnam, Nevada City veteran looks back at war (VIDEO/PHOTO GALLERY)
Special to The Union
SHARING HIS STORY
William “Bill” Larsen’s “Sanctuary” won the 2017 Storyhouse Writers Showcase prize for Biographical Nonfiction from the Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit publisher seeking to preserve “the extraordinary stories of ‘ordinary’ people. On June 2, 1969, Bill Larsen was shot and wounded in Vietnam, where he served as a medic. Larsen shares his story with The Union readers on this week’s 50-year anniversary of that day. WARNING: This story contains details and images that may be disturbing to some; reader discretion is advised.
As a person who has experienced my share of traumas, I have always been fascinated at how life often presents opportunities for healing, even in the most dire of circumstances. This memoir piece is an example of that wondrous occurrence, and I dedicate my story to those who made it possible.
June, 1969. I was lying in a hospital bed in Long Binh, South Vietnam: jaws wired, tracheotomy, tubes strung like guidelines into my nose, throat, chest and both arms.
Earlier in the month, the army Brass had dropped us near a battalion-sized NVA bunker complex. Swarming our hundred or so iron-clad bodies into the jungle next to it, we were met with an avalanche of blazing fire. Several of the Grunts got hit and if Nam taught me any one thing it’s this: when Grunts get hit, there’s one word that rips from their lips right along with “AGGHHH”, “please God” and “motherf—er”, and that word is, “MEDIC!”
I had heard it before. Heard it way too often. Heard it and responded as my hard-ass, blue-collar father taught me — head-first into the fight. For some time that strategy had worked. I waded through the ruptured guts of others and came out clean. This time was different. This time I got hit as I crawled into a clearing to reach two Grunts who had gotten cut down in the NVA ambush. Crawled straight into a sniper round that caught me flush on the chin, shattering my jaw in over 70 places.
One second I was firing my M-16 into the jungle applying a little preventative medicine; the next, I was part of a three-man heap.
From then on it was twilight time. At some point my best buddy Michael crawled out, got within an arm’s length and was reaching out with a field dressing in his right hand when — CRACK — a rifle round snapped over my shoulder, shattering his eyeglasses and blowing out the back of his head. On impact, Mike’s body fluids splashed across my mangled jaw, and for the next hour I passed in and out of consciousness listening to my friend suffocate on his vomit.
Suddenly, a Grunt came speed-crawling out of the tree line. He made it to Michael’s legs, grabbed one boot and started dragging his body toward the cover of the jungle, where our guys were returning fire at the unseen enemy. My eyes locked onto Michael’s bloodied face as it retreated across the clearing, becoming smaller and smaller as he was dragged away. Just before they made it into the jungle, I saw the green field dressing I had wrapped around his head — the one he had meant for me — unravel and fall into the dust, limp as a dead snake. Then he was gone.
Sometime after that, I heard the lieutenant yelling that they were going to throw out smoke grenades, so they could get the two Grunts and myself out of the clearing. That scared the hell out of me because I figured the NVA wanted to keep us pinned down in order to entice more Grunts into their line of fire. If we created a smoke diversion, I was afraid they would just start spraying the area with gunfire to inflict whatever damage they could.
At that moment, I realized it was up to me.
Only one of the two Grunts in the clearing was still alive. I grabbed onto his shirt front, and started turning him to face the safety of the tree line. He had been shot several times, through the shoulder, arm and pelvis, and I must have dragged him over those shattered bones because he started screaming like a wounded animal as I moved him. But there was no stopping at that point, and after what seemed like an eternity of eating dirt and cringing at every burst of enemy fire, we belly crawled our way to the edge of the clearing. I had to lean onto my right side to shove him behind a tree, and when I did, two more AK-47 rounds got me, one in the shoulder and one through the chest. A couple of Grunts grabbed the guy I was pushing, and I was able to get behind some tree cover. Eventually I got put on a stretcher and carried to the nearby field, where a medevac chopper picked us up.
In the hospital. I was not responding to treatment. It wasn’t just Michael’s getting killed, it was the whole goddam thing. Reality notwithstanding, I had gone to Vietnam with stars in my eyes and fire in my gut to help the Vietnamese people.
Back then I was the Camelot Kid. A few years earlier, John Kennedy had raised his Arthurian sword pointing to the East, and I — a Midwest Catholic so naive I almost missed the ’60s altogether — came to follow. A white knight in service to his dead king.
The year I graduated from college, in the summer of ’68, I had been drafted out of the domestic peace corps where I had hoped to put my Camelot values to test and escape the stultifying cultural haze of the Midwest.
The young president had been the pied piper of both the Peace Corps and the war in Southeast Asia, and I believed in Kennedy, I believed in Camelot, and I believed in the Vietnam War. Having lived in the same Nebraska farmhouse for all of my 22 years, I had been as thoroughly marinated in the rustic values of Midwestern Catholicism as one piece of tender boy flesh could be.
When Uncle Sam called, I went.
My ideals may have been confused, but I honestly believed that if my call to service couldn’t be met teaching poor kids in Appalachia to read, perhaps it could be by killing communists in Vietnam. More than anything, I longed for a cause in which I could truly believe.
As it happened, things did not work out that way.
I may have gone to Nam seeking a clear and noble cause, but what I got was a crash course in the surreal, and nothing in my life or military training prepared me for the experience.
At times I literally waded through great globs of human mush, blood and body fluids up to my ankles, stuffing field dressings into obscene, liquidized shells. The first Vietnamese I saw was a dead NVA soldier lying against a raised tree berm, arms and head blown off and perfectly aligned a foot above his ruptured torso, the amputated body parts still connected by crimson, glutinous threads. Some of the Grunts made necklaces out of dead NVA ears. On another occasion, I had to use forceps to pick the gristly shreds of a Grunt off a jungle bush, so his family would at least have a body bag when their son returned from war.
By the end of the first month, my heart had shut down like a steel drum. I could mop up the eviscerated intestines of a kid I had played cards with that afternoon, not wash my hands before dinner, then sleep a cold, dreamless sleep through the haunted jungle night. It didn’t matter if it was Vietnamese or American, as the company medic it was my job to mop up it all — our guys as well as enemy prisoners.
Often, I went days at a time with the blood of two continents caked beneath my fingernails, never missing a beat as I spooned greasy C rations into my mouth. Joking that the bits of gore added spice to the blandness of the food.
This went beyond confused ideals and knightly valor. This was immersion in hell. I had been ready for war’s danger, but what my parochial upbringing had not prepared me for were the consequences of that danger. I came to Vietnam prepared to make sacrifices, but combat exploded the known limits. The loss of comrades was to be expected. I just never anticipated having their brains splattered across my face.
But the strangest thing was that I hadn’t even met the people I came to help. Our unit was “air mobile,” stationed on a heavily wooded hilltop far from any hamlet. Consequently, the only Vietnamese I encountered were NVA soldiers, either in the heat of firefights or afterward, when treating captives before they were sent to the rear for interrogation.
Somehow, considering my original motivation, this seemed as bizarre as the war itself.
MY INNER VOID
No, in the hospital I was not doing well. When I first came onto the ward I was pretty out of it, but after a few days the staff began hounding me to participate in my own healing. These were first and second lieutenant Army nurses in clean jungle fatigues, young women who had likely seen far more than they bargained for by the time I arrived. Mainly, they seemed like the rest of us, tight around the eyes and going by “the book” in virtually everything to avoid developing attachments to the endless parade of wounded kids rotating through their ward.
They kept pushing an aggressive physical therapy approach aimed at getting me back on my feet. They wanted me to do exercises, walk to the bathroom, sit on the outside patio, clean the area around my bed. Me, I wanted to sleep.
The thing was, I wasn’t even there. Only part of it was physical. That first AK-47 round to the chin had whiplashed my neck 90 degrees, slamming my head dead weight and crooked on my left shoulder. The other two got me as I was on my right side, jackknifing my body in the opposite direction. On the hospital ward — with my head and torso so twisted — I could tell from the way other patients were eyeing me that I was looking pretty creepy. But that was just on the outside. The real freak show was going on inside my head.
Peering through the cobweb of wires and tubes surrounding my bed, I remember marveling at the bloody circus of the ward: the parade of mangled bodies swaddled in plaster casts, feeding tubes and traction wires. None of it seemed real. Then I’d start thinking about Michael and all that had happened, and down I’d go spiraling into the soft dark waves of my inner void.
It developed into quite a tug-of-war with the nurses, them prodding me back toward the world while I battled passively to stay as comatose as possible. They would stuff me into my government-issued hospital slippers, prop me up in a chair, and the minute they left I’d be back in the rack drifting into my psychic escape.
By placing my finger over the trache hole, I could speak a bit and tried to make them understand that I didn’t want to be here. They thought I meant Nam, and just said not to worry, that I had a million-dollar wound and would be going home soon.
But that wasn’t it at all. I didn’t want to be awake, alive, in my body.
I had followed the glorious dreams of my childhood and discovered they all led to the same nightmare. Camelot lay behind me, smoldering in ruins. As far as re-joining the world was concerned, let alone performing knightly deeds, I was done, I was finished, I was through.
FINALLY, We meet
In the middle of all this, after the tubes had been removed and I was fairly ambulatory, some Vietnamese were brought onto the ward. Two mama-sans and a bunch of kids.
Peering out from under my bed covers, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. All around the world, through Dante’s Inferno with no personal contact, and finally here they were — the Vietnamese!
Wide awake for the first time since being shot, I watched in fascination.
A young military policeman escorted them onto the ward. He and the ranking RN had an intense whispery conversation at the nurses’ station across from my bed. She seemed upset, complaining that the Vietnamese were dirty and didn’t speak any English, but she finally signed the form on the MP’s clipboard and he left.
One of the women was several years older than her companion, a compact matronly lady who stood so quietly she seemed bolted to the floor. The other was a pretty girl-woman in her late teens, with a baby in her arms. Both were dressed in traditional peasant garb: black pajama pants and faded dark cotton shirts, Ho Chi Minh sandals on their feet. The older woman had her hair pinned tight on top of her head, and was holding a conical straw hat in both hands in front of her. The younger had a mane of jet-black hair hanging down her back. A tall girl and three younger kids clustered around the two women, all of them staring back at the glaring hospital staff like animals in a zoo. A tiny wagon train circled against the world. A few of the kids had bandages on different parts of their bodies, so I figured that was why they had been brought to the hospital — shrapnel wounds.
It wasn’t hard to see the staff didn’t want the Vietnamese there. Even though the ward was half empty, the nurse put each family in a single bed, and the mothers were immediately pulled away from the kids and ordered to clean the latrines.
Later in the day, I drifted out of my usual stupor and noticed the young mother walking with her baby past my bed. There weren’t any nurses around, which wasn’t unusual at that time of day. Just an enlisted orderly mopping the floor. As she passed by, the orderly turned and thrust the blunt end of his mop deep into her crotch from behind. The woman jumped as if hit by an electric shock, nearly dropping the baby as she straddled the wooden shaft for one sharp moment. Struggling to keep from falling, she clutched the child into her right armpit and cringed away from the orderly, hooking her left arm in front of her face and chattering off a stream of angry Vietnamese.
‘‘Aw, c’mon, mama-san,” the orderly crooned, his voice dripping with lewd vulgarity, right hand dipping to his own crotch, pumping the loose folds of his hospital fatigues. “Boom-boom. C’mon — you and me, baby. Boom-boom.”
Like a startled deer, she darted around him, scuttling back to the frail safety of her family at the end of the ward. It was over in a moment, but the spark of terror on that girl’s face burned like a camera flash behind my feverish eyes. Unable to deal with any of it, I plummeted back into my hypnotic slumber.
ENOUGH: THAT WAS IT
The next morning, the Red Cross worker came around pushing his cart loaded with books, stationery and a huge bowl of brightly wrapped candy.
He was a fat middle-aged guy with a purplish alcoholic nose, dressed in well-pressed Jungle Jim khakis which did nothing to disguise the fact that he’d been out boozing all night. Sometimes he’d talk a bit and try to be friendly, but mostly he was just tired and hungover, handing out his packaged goodies like an embittered spinster on Halloween.
The eyes of the Vietnamese kids nearly popped from their heads when they saw the candy, and they clustered around the cart, tugging at the trousers of the Red Cross guy, little kittens licking their lips in front of a milk shop window. But he just waved them away. “No, this for G.I.’s, not you. Beat it. Dide mow now, dide mow, dide mow.”
That was it.
Hauling my sorry ass out of bed, I shuffled over to the cart, and motioned the kids back — cuffing them around as casually as I had my nephews and nieces back home — until they stood before me in a fidgety wide-eyed row. Starting with the oldest girl, I used my hands to show them how to take hold of their T-shirts at the bottom and raise them like aprons to form deep little pockets. It took a minute because the littlest boy kept trying to pull his over his head, but as soon as they got it I dug both hands into the bowl and loaded them down with as much candy as they could carry. When those kids saw all that sugar coming, their eyes flared like slot machine cherries, and they went into giggling fits, squealing and hopping around while waiting their turn.
Behind us, the Red Cross guy started sputtering like I was emptying his personal checking account, but we just ignored him.
Then I took a pen and stationery from the cart, and walked the kids back to their beds. Standing next to the two women, I stared at the orderly who was lounging nearby, leaning on his broom and trying to make eye contact with the young mother. Sweeping my palm in front of me, I made a hand gesture that said ENOUGH, and wrote out on the stationery: “Leave them alone or I’ll report you.” I walked over and tried to hand him the note, but he wouldn’t take it. Just glanced at the writing, smirked, and slowly shook his head. I shoved the paper in front of his face, then dropped it, chewing on his soul with my eyeballs as it fluttered between us to the floor. Finally he just raised his eyebrows as if I were nuts, turned and walked away.
Overdosed by this brief foray into the world I tottered back to bed.
BACK INTO THE WORLD
That afternoon I was still burrowed under the covers when I heard the patter of many feet. Grudgingly, I opened my eyes and saw that all the Vietnamese had gathered around my bed. Before I knew it, several little hands were pulling down the covers and urging me up, their low murmuring voices calling me to them.
Startled at this intrusion into my sanctuary of private grief, I lurched away. But this didn’t seem to offend them one bit, and they simply continued drawing me outward, dozens of feathery little fingers tugging-prodding-lifting, gathering me into my bathrobe, then forming around me like new skin. Supporting both of my elbows they folded me into their midst as we slowly made our way down the long corridor to the door.
When we got outside, they pulled some chairs off to one side of the lounging porch, and we formed a tight little circle, pulling in against the war and the military and all the sorry circumstances that had brought us there.
We sat that porch for about an hour, enjoying the shade from the mid-day heat, ensconced in our own world under the canopied veranda as the never-ending parade of wheelchairs, stumps, and hospital gurneys bustled around us.
My new friends chattered away in their nasal sing-song Vietnamese yet seemed to include me through beaming bright-eyed smiles and pats on the hand. The women and older girl were friendly though physically reserved, but the kids quickly bounced out of their initial shyness and started climbing up on my lap. Sticking their faces into mine, touching my hands, my dog tags, my round eyes. Screeching hilariously and pointing as they cocked their heads crookedly in imitation of my own. Over and over again, especially when I tried to communicate by sign language or pidgin Vietnamese, the whole group would break into fits of hysterical giggling as if I was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Mostly, they treated me like one of their own.
This ritual was repeated every day until I was shipped to Okinawa. In the morning I’d score candy and various knick-knacks for the kids, and in the afternoon they’d all come to collect me from my reclusive hide-a-way. Sometimes my inertia was overwhelming, and I’d push them away, clinging to the dark undercover of my oblivion.
But like the first time, they breezed right through my feeble protests, clucking in soft insistence as their many-tentacled fingers peeled away the layers of isolation, guiding me back into the world.
We never did work out a way to speak — hardly a single word. But our contact created a true sanctuary in a world of insanity and violence.
Their acceptance transformed my depression, and, because of them, my last memories of Southeast Asia were ones of love and caring, rather than despair.
I will always remember that sacred contact, and although the deepest scar I brought back from Vietnam was the inability to expect much goodness in anything, I live in the hope that our time together made some small difference in their lives, as well.
William Larsen lives in the foothills of Northern California with his wife of 40 years. He is a writer, hiker and the father of a fantastic daughter. He also is a longtime psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner who, not coincidentally, is a disabled veteran from the Vietnam War. For 50 years he has sought to make sense of his combat experiences, and has been aided in this desire for peace by living within the splendid beauty of the Yuba River Watershed.
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