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Spooky Action At A Distance

A Grunt Corpsman's Memories Of Vietnam

By Joseph Hoepner

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

I came to on the Huey and sensed someone standing over me. I couldn't see and blinked my eyes several times hoping it was dirt and that I hadn't been blinded. I regained some vision and asked for morphine. The man above me said, "Doc, we're a gun ship and I don't have any. Hold on and we'll be in Danang in about two and a half minutes." I felt myself slipping into shock as I pulled both arms to my chest. I lost consciousness again and came to in triage after they got fluids into me.

My first conscious words in triage were, "Where's Popp, my radioman?" I got no answer; instead the questions started coming at me. "What's your father's name, what's his address, what's his phone number?" I remember answering them and I remember telling the person asking the questions not to tell my parents that I'd been wounded, only to have to tell them later that I'd died. I requested they wait until I awoke from surgery.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

They took X-rays and pumped me full of fluids. Someone touched my testicles and I yelled in pain. They'd gotten hit too! It seemed like forever before I went into surgery; at one point I sat bolt upright, looked down at my left leg, laid back down and yelled: "Cut the damn thing off now."

They asked if I wanted to be put out before being transferred to the operating table or after. I said after and remember trying my hardest to help them transfer me. I remember being taken into surgery and hearing doctors, corpsmen and whoever else was in there arguing over which parts of the body they would work on.

Off to la-la land and when I awoke I saw a corpsman at the end of the bed and called out his last name, "Dineen." He wanted to know how I knew who he was and I said that we'd been stationed together at USNH Portsmouth, Virginia. I asked him what time it was and he told me 1715. I said same day or next day. Same day. The explosion had happened at approximately 1215 hours. I remember a beautiful blonde nurse who apologized to me that she had to shave my face and clean me up. She said she'd never done it before and I told her she'd do just fine. They must have doped me up because I remember waking up in a different setting, a ward with Vietnamese on one end and wounded troops at the other. My bed was next to the nursing station. I don't recall seeing any other nurses than the blonde in ICU.

The road to recovery had begun. It would get a little bumpy from there.

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I remember being taken to surgery about every other day for dressing changes. But what I remember most is the feeling of burning up inside. My temperature hit 105.8 and in order for me to be medevaced out of Vietnam, they needed to get it down. Out came the ice bags. Under both arms, between my legs, with a huge fan blowing directly on me.

Those days spent at NSA, Danang were a blur. Some things I remember vividly, others not at all. I was alive, that was what I knew; I didn't know how close I'd come to dying. I would find that out much later.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

The flight out of Nam was another non-memory. The only thing I recall is lying in the lowest cot, directly across from the nurses station, and that once airborne I had to pee. They gave me a plastic bag I filled to overflowing before falling asleep. I suppose I was drugged for the duration.

The C141 landed and they offloaded to a bus which transported us to an awaiting helicopter. Once loaded onto the helicopter, it was a short flight to the next facility. Once on the ward, I asked where I was; they informed me the 106th General Army Hospital in Japan. I couldn't figure out why a US Navy corpsman was in an Army facility. That, too, would be revealed later in my life.

I arrived on a Friday and as no surgeries were scheduled for the weekend, I endured at least three days of smelling the stench of rotting flesh from my dressings. I asked when they were going to change them and was told that I would have to wait until they scheduled the surgery. But at least I was no longer on IV's and ate a regular diet. My ward mates seemed worse off than I.

Bed one next to the nurses station was a triple amputee by the name of Tony Rango. Fate would reunite us later.

Bed two was another triple amputee, a guy with reddish hair from Rochester, Minnesota named Jim Suresly, though I am not positive about the spelling.

Bed three was a double amputee from Southern California. He had lost his right leg, right arm, and was blind in his right eye. We talked a lot but I cannot remember his name. He would later express a wish he couldn't fulfill that I would take care of for him.

Bed four was mine and remained mine during my entire stay.

I underwent two surgeries at the 106th. Being a converted Army barracks with wards detached from other areas, going to surgery meant riding in an ambulance to a remote building.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

During the first surgery, doctors debrided my wounds and attempted to close some of them. They wanted to save my left knee, but there wasn't much tissue to cover the distal end of the stump. The placed me in traction for a couple days, then attempted closure. They put me back in traction for about a week to determine if the wound was closing.

To help keep the wound clean I was to have daily whirlpool therapy to the stump. For the first treatment they set me on a ledge dangling my stump into a deep tank of water. I can still feel the pain from that day. It hurt so damned much I cried. I vowed never to let them do the whirlpool that way again. After the treatment, they returned me to the ward and dressed my stump. I confronted the doctors and demanded that they find an excuse to put me in a tub-like tank where I could immerse my entire body.

Finally I had a win and got what I wanted. I was able to get clean for the first time since being wounded. It felt wonderful. I looked forward to that time and demanded getting there for my appointments. So adamant, in fact, that one day my escort was late so I figured I'd attempt it alone. I got into the wheelchair and with one hand attempted to get to therapy, which meant going to another building with ramps everywhere. I thought I could make it down the ramp exiting our building but I started rolling too fast, and in an attempt to slow myself managed to tip over the wheelchair and crash to the concrete. If not for an officer seeing me, I might have stayed there. He helped me into the wheelchair and pushed me back to the ward. I never tried that journey alone again.

I could get in and out of bed and to some extent navigate the ward on my own. After returning from therapy I would redress the end of my stump, as the Army medics were about as competent as orderlies in civilian hospitals. I would have a fellow patient hold a mirror so I could see what I was doing, and I did it one-handed because my left hand was splinted and useless.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

My ability to get out of bed and into a wheelchair led me to accept a dare that astounded a few people. The Californian in the bed next to me, with his right leg and right arm missing and blind in his right eye, was attracted to a cute nurse on the ward. He remarked he would love to swat her ass. I told him I would do it for him. He didn't believe me but I was up to a little mischief and set a plan into motion.

I positioned my wheelchair in such a way that rolling it with one arm I could coast past her on her left side, allowing me to slap her butt with my right hand as I coasted by. I wanted it to occur in front of the guy's bed. My timing was great but just as I got past her, I felt a hand grab the neck of my pajama top, bringing my wheelchair to a quick halt. She'd caught me after the mission accomplished and wanted to know why I would pull such a stunt. I lied and said for the heck of it. The guy in bed three was laughing; he couldn't believe I'd done it and neither could I.

That incident got me closer to heading back to the states. I was informed I could make the one collect call we were allowed. A call to say I was coming home. I'll never forget that call. Using the only phone on the ward for such purposes, I placed the call via a Japanese international operator. My father answered and before he could say he would accept the charges I told him that I was going to be on my way to USNH Philadelphia. He asked where I was calling from and I responded Japan. His reply was short and very much like my father. "Hang up," he said, knowing how expensive it would be. I found out that the 3 minutes cost thirteen dollars, which my mother gladly paid.