Long Way Home

December 11, 2023

Long Way Home title image

Where our story left off

I was on a medevac helicopter out over the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam just south of the Demilitarized Zone. The battle of Con Thien raged below and behind me.  Flat on my back, a large bloody bandage was wrapped tightly around my right thigh just above the knee.  The UH-34 medevac helicopter was packed with wounded Marines.  

My leg ached.  The roar of the helicopter engine drowned out all other sounds.  The cool wind rushing in through the open door of the helicopter was welcome after the high humid heat of the jungle below.  As I craned my neck to see, I caught sight of an aircraft carrier.  An LPH.  The 900 foot long aircraft carrier is for helicopters as part of the Marines battalion landing team reaction force on station just 2 miles off the lush green shore of Vietnam.

Helicopter landing on ship at sea

A shift in the helicopter’s engine sound signaled the start of our descent.

We landed on the busy flight deck of what turned out to be the USS Tripoli.  Sailors and Navy corpsmen ran out to our helicopter and began to quickly and efficiently transfer wounded Marines onto stretchers.  Loaded onto the ship’s huge external elevator, we wushed down to the football field sized hangar deck which was packed with wounded Marines.

Interior of ship

Navy doctors quickly triaged us with head and chest wounds going to the head of the line.  With my relatively minor wound, I went to the back of the line.

With surgical scissors, two Navy corpsmen expertly cut off every stitch of my sweat-stained, filthy, nasty smelling jungle utilities.  They cut off my jungle boots with the same efficiency.  They covered me with a fresh, clean sheet and got an IV going in my left arm.  They briskly moved onto to the next wounded Marine.

My mind slowly began to catch-up with the swirl of events.  It was only a few minutes ago I was unsure I would even get on a medevac helicopter and get out of Con Thien alive.  Now here I was flat on my back on a stretcher, naked except for a clean sheet with an intravenous needle in my left arm starting to re-hydrate me with saline solution.  As my conscious awareness focused, I noticed through the massive elevator hatch, the changing light of the fading day.  I figured it was around 7 or 8 o’clock.

Doctors working on a ship

The hours passed

The line progressed.  Sometime after midnight, a group of corpsmen picked up my stretcher and carried me to a surgical suite.  I was transferred from the stretcher to an operating table.  The surgeons were blood spattered, friendly and efficient. The camaraderie in the operating room was palpable.  They quickly got me into the fetal position for a spinal.  The blinding pain of the large needle entering my spine instantly dwarfed the ache of my leg.  Very soon I was numb from the neck down.    I was wide awake, alert and aware enough to ask for the bullet.

Removed, the bloody AK-47 bullet was taped to my chest. The surgeons continued to work on me after they had removed the bullet.

I lost all sense of time. The next major event, I was transferred from the operating table to a stretcher.  Navy corpsmen carried me to a recovery ward somewhere else in the ship.  I had just drifted off, when corpsmen picked up my stretcher and carried me out onto the flight deck which was flooded with the early light of dawn.

USS Repose

The 34 medevac helicopter carried me and a couple of other wounded marines on stretchers up and off the carrier.  We only flew for a few minutes then began to descend.  As the helicopter approached, I became aware of a large white ship with giant red crosses on it.  Turns out I was being transferred to the hospital ship USS Repose serving off the coast of Vietnam between Da Nang and the DMZ.

We had no sooner touched down on to the helipad on the rear of the Repose, when a group of sailors and Navy corpsmen ran toward our helicopter.  One group grabbed my stretcher and pulled me off the helicopter.  Ducking slightly as they ran, they carried my stretcher toward the pure white body of the ship.  Carried by a group of benevolent strangers, I was about to enter yet another world.  After 12 ½ months as a Marine squad leader, it was unnerving to be forced to be so passive.  I could only feel grateful that everyone so far seemed to be efficient, competent and compassionate given these, at least for me, extraordinary circumstances.

Medevac collage

I was carried through what seemed like a labyrinth of passage ways into the bowels of the ship. When we came to a stop, I was gently but efficiently transferred from the stretcher into the lower bed of a two level arrangement. They were gone before I could thank them.

Laying flat on my back, I found myself in a fairly large ward full of complete strangers – all Marines with wounds of varying degrees of severity – from a simple arm cast to a few guys in a maze of IV bottles and tubes seemly coming out of every orifice.  Seeing these desperately wounded Marines again made me grateful for my relatively minor wound.

A Navy nurse raised my wounded leg and slid a pillow under it to keep it elevated.

"The doctor will be around in a few minutes," she said.

Only a couple of days ago I was engaged in an intense and deadly battle with the NVA at the fire base Con Thien.  Now here I am laying in a clean bed in clean sheets on a hospital ship in the South China Sea only a few miles away from a battle that continued to rage on without me.

“Sergeant Dillon?”

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

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