Vietnam: On a Hospital Ship

This is probably the Navy hospital ship I was on, the USS Sanctuary.

During my entire Vietnam experience, I was never shot or wounded and I never got a purple heart. But I did have dysentery the entire time, probably from drinking unclean water (everyone else had dysentery too); and I somehow got a bad infection my left arm so that my entire arm swelled up, down to my fingertips. Our platoon corpsman tried to squeeze the puss and infection out, but that didn’t work; it just got worse. And I began to feel weak and nauseous and had a fever. So, they sent me to a Navy hospital ship by helicopter.

Well, those Navy boys worked a miracle on me. They gave me a couple of pills and my arm was back to normal in just two days.  And because of the stool sample that I gave them, they also found that I had hook warms. And that was probably the reason why I was feeling weak and a little nauseous. So, they gave me some terrible tasting white liquid to drink. I think I drank two full glasses each day for a couple of days—and that seemed to kill the warms. More praise for the Navy doctors!   

Being on the ship was a little relaxing and a break from the war. But most of the time, even though I was healing and feeling better, I didn’t feel very good, and was a little sea sick. I remember standing on the ship deck, leaning over the railing, watching as helicopter after helicopter came to deliver the wounded to be bandaged up. Some of them were badly wounded and had lost limbs. I was under the impression that the war was almost over! I guess not. Not yet. The wounded just kept coming in: a constant flow every day during the day time and also during the night. I felt lucky to be alive and in fairly good health. What I had was nothing compared to what I saw.

In just a few days’ time they sent me back to my unit. Some guys seemed glad to see me and that I was all healed up. Others jokingly asked if they gave me a purple heart. I said no. Well, guess what? In a couple weeks I felt sick again, and they sent me back to the hospital. I had the hook warms again! I remember asking the doctors how you get hook warms, and they said that they usually come into your body through the pores in your feet. Then one of them said to me, “But you don’t walk around barefooted do you?”

Well, I guess I wasn’t your typical Marine that left his boots on all the time. I wore them at night when I was on patrols, but during the day I usually lounged around without them. In my defense, if they would have told me on my first hospital visit how you get hook warms, I would have been more careful, like maybe waring flip flops. Also, by going barefoot, there was no chance of me having smelly feet and getting gangrene—as some Marines did.

This is the look of most of the older Vietnamese people. They love their betel nut.

I began to think about all the Vietnamese people who walked around all the time barefooted. Either they found a cure for hook warms or they had gotten immune to it. Now I’m thinking that maybe all the hot sauce they usually ingested took care of them. And the older people were always chewing on betel nut, which is made up of area nuts, and lime and tobacco, wrapped in a betel leaf. This chew is a long-time tradition of the people, but is also a nasty habit. Yes, it is habit forming, it has been known to give them oral cancer, and it stains the teeth and mouth red. Most of the people really like chewing it, and it has some benefits: it numbs the mouth and teeth, and it will save you from the pain of a tooth ache. Now I’m thinking that maybe it helps to kill hook warms too. Maybe.

After my two hospital stays, I only had a month or so to be in Vietnam. I was counting the days. I would leave on August 21, 1971. But wouldn’t you know it, my ride home didn’t come. I was getting nervous. When I complained, they assured me that I was going home soon. They were right. On August 22nd I left. What was next?

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