Long Way Home: Part 2

January 2, 2024

Long Way Home, Part 2

“Sergeant Dillon?”

I looked up and saw a Naval officer and medical doctor. “Yes, sir?”

“Let’s take a look at your leg.”

Doctor onboard ship

The doctor leaned down, lifted the sheet off my leg and smelled my wounds. “Want to make sure there is no infection.  Bullet goes through your leg and kills a lot of tissue.  We want to make sure we cut out all that dead tissue.  Your leg has got to heal from the inside out.”

“Yes, sir.”

The doctor moved to the next wounded marine.

A nurse came up and asked, “When was the last time you had a shower?” I realized this was an order, not an idle question. She pointed past the double bunk beds toward the shower area about 20 feet away.

“Yes, ma'am.”

I had not been vertical since I was loaded on the medevac chopper yesterday. I struggled awkwardly with my painful wounded leg to get out of the lower bed.  Clinging desperately to the upper bed railings on both sides of the aisle, I stood up. I instantly nearly blacked out from the intense pain as the blood rushed into my wounded leg. I broke into a cold sweat and I fought to stay conscious and vertical, gripping the bed frame with white knuckles. Panting, I struggled to adapt to another top 5 all-time dose of pain.

Nurse with patientWith some help from a Navy corpsman, I made it to a shower stall. It was then that I really had for the time the chance to actually look at my wounds. I had a gaping hole on the inside of my right thigh above the knee. A wide, soft tube extended from the hole in the raw meat. This was the entry wound. On the outside of my right thigh, just below my hip was a large clean incision with the same kind of tube hanging out. I felt like I was looking at someone else’s leg. I trembled from a combination of weakness and the shock of the reality of my wound, as a tried to wash my filthy body.

The Routine

My day on the Hospital Ship Repose evolved into an exhausting routine: doctor’s exam, shower, get my self to the corpsmen station, flush out my wounds, stuff my wounds with thick gauze mustard colored from antibiotic, get back to my bed, eat some breakfast – interrupted by a large penicillin shot in my butt – and fall asleep with my right leg elevated. In the afternoon, I repeated the same routine without the doctor’s exam or shower.

InfirmaryThe first few days I slept a lot in the air-conditioned surgical ward. As I slowly became more aware of the wounded marines around me, I was about in the middle. About a third seemed to get around pretty well and helped the other wounded marines like me. About a third were really seriously wounded and were attended by the nurses and the corpsmen 24 hours a day.

Within about a week, 2 things changed.

The cheeks of my butt were so sore from 2 penicillin shots a day, that I started taking them in my good thigh. The other thing was unnerving.  My right thigh was now half the size of my left thigh and was like mush. I was a 23 year old combat marine who had been humping in the jungle for a year. It was depressing how fast my wounded leg atrophied from laying in bed doing nothing. And it was still so painful no way could I put any weight on it. My good leg was still like iron.

I could hear the medevac helicopters coming and going. We would get new additions to our ward – reminders that the war was still roaring only a couple miles away.  As I slowly became less exhausted, I began to have trouble sleeping at night. As I lay there flat on my bed with my right leg elevated in an air-conditioned ward, I thought of my buddies:  hot, filthy and fighting for their lives.  I began to wonder: why me? Why am I alive and living a protected life of clean sheets, clean pajamas, hot chow 3 times a day in an air-conditioned ward no longer in harm’s way.

Map and Ship

After a couple of weeks, I had lost all sense of time, I realized something had changed. The ship was moving.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We’re full and we’re headed for Subic Bay in the Philippines.” It’s about a thousand miles from where we were off the coast of Vietnam near the DMZ to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines.

That afternoon the surgeon came round and checked me out. “Looks good and most important of all, your wounds smell clean. We will be around early tomorrow morning to close you up.”

Sure enough, bright and early they came around for me. They gave something and I barely remember the operating room. Then, when I woke up, I was back in my bed with my leg elevated.  Only now, my leg was heavily bandaged.

Clark Air Force BaseWithin a couple of days, we were in Subic Bay. I was loaded on a stretcher, taken off the ship, loaded into a truck and driven to a C-130 – a large propeller transport plane. Loaded with wounded, we took off and flew less than an hour. We landed at Clark Air Force Base inland from Subic Bay. Our stretchers loaded back into a truck, we were driven a short distance and unloaded at the Air Force hospital. Each of our stretchers was taken to the appropriate ward. My stretcher was carried into a large spacious ward with full sized hospital beds. I was transferred over to what felt like a large luxurious bed. No more bunks. Lots of space between beds.

An Air Force nurse looked at my chart, checked out my heavily bandaged wounded leg and asked, “How would you like your steak?”

Thank you for listening.

As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.