Chapter no 7

The Women

The next morning, when Frankie woke up, she was alone in the hooch. She dressed quickly and presented herself at admin at precisely 0800.

She saluted. “Lieutenant McGrath, Major.”

“I heard you were as much help in the ER as a tiara,” the major said, and opened a manila folder. “A nursing degree from some small Catholic women’s college and almost no clinical experience. And you’re young.” She peered at Frankie through black horn-rimmed glasses. “What on earth brought you here, Lieutenant?”

“My brother—”

“Never mind. I don’t care. But I hope to God you aren’t here to say hi to a brother.” Major Goldstein pushed her glasses higher up on her nose. “The Navy and Air Force won’t even let a girl like you in ’Nam. They require training.” She closed the folder, sighed. “Anyway. You’re here. Unready, unprepared, but here. I’m assigning you to Neuro. Night shift. How much damage can you do there?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Uh-huh. Welcome to the Thirty-Sixth Evac Hospital, McGrath. Be the best version of yourself.”



Housed in a Quonset hut near the OR, the Neuro ward was a brightly lit, domed space filled with Stryker frame beds. Frankie had never seen the

specialized beds before, but she’d learned about them in school and in Basic Training: beds for paraplegics, for patients with pelvic fractures, burn patients, or others who couldn’t handle much manipulation. Two rows of beds were separated by a wide aisle. Metal tubing ran the length of each wall for hanging IVs. The amount of equipment at each bed was staggering: ventilators, cooling blankets, monitors, IVs. Frankie didn’t even recognize most of the machines. The overhead lights were blaringly bright. She heard the whooh-thunk of ventilators, the buzz of EKG monitors.

In the front left corner, an older man in faded fatigues sat at a desk, writing. The only other soldier she saw (standing) was a corpsman at the far end of the ward; he was checking on a patient.

Frankie straightened her posture and tried to look more confident than she felt as she walked over to the man at the desk. “Second Lieutenant McGrath, reporting as ordered, sir.”

The man looked up. He had the tiredest eyes she’d ever seen and a face that showed a history of acne. Heavily jowled cheeks blurred his jawline. “Frances, right?”

“Frankie, sir.”

“Captain Ted Smith. Doctor. How much nursing experience do you have, Frankie?”

“My RN, sir. And … some time on the night shift at my local hospital.” “Uh-huh.” He stood up. “Walk with me.” He strode forward. At the first

bed, he paused. Beside him lay a young Vietnamese man, his head wrapped in bandages, through which blood had seeped in a red-brown burst.

“He’s Vietnamese,” Frankie said, surprised.

“We treat the villagers who are brought in,” Captain Smith said. “Anyway, Frankie, every patient in here is brain-damaged. Most have no pupillary response. You know what that means?”

Before she could answer, he took a slim flashlight out of his breast pocket and shone it into the patient’s eyes. “See that? No reaction. Fixed and dilated. You’d note that in his chart, along with the time and date.”

He showed her where and how to make the notation and then handed her the flashlight and walked on, took her past one young American soldier after another who lay naked beneath pale sheets, staring at nothing; most were on ventilators. There were several Vietnamese patients. “This one walked into a rotor,” he said at the bed of a man with half his head

bandaged and one arm gone. The last bed was occupied by a Black man covered in bandages. He writhed, babbled unintelligibly. Then he screamed as if in pain.

“He’s not comatose but not fully conscious, either. He has a chance at some kind of recovery. Most don’t, honestly. We’ve developed the skills to save their bodies, but not their lives,” Captain Smith said.

Frankie looked out over the many beds, a split sea of white and metal and men and machines. Each one someone’s son or brother or husband.

“We monitor and change dressings and keep them breathing until they can see a neurologist at the Third Field Hospital. You’ll learn to see subtle changes in their conditions. But this is an evac hospital. They won’t be here long.”

“Can they hear me?”

“Good question. Yeah, Frankie. I think they can. I hope so, anyway. You can start an IV?”

“In theory, sir.” She felt her own incompetence like a scarlet letter on her fatigues.

“Don’t worry, Frankie. You’ve got heart, I can tell. Skills, I can teach.”



April 14, 1967

Dear Mom and Dad,

Hello from the 36th Evacuation Hospital! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. It’s hard to express the speed of life over here. I’m either terrified or exhausted most of the time. When my head hits the pillow, I’m out. Turns out you can learn to sleep through anything if you’re tired enough. I’ve been focusing on improving my nursing skills, which were, to put it kindly, subpar. I work long hours on the Neuro ward, where I’ve been assigned.

I’m learning so much! I spend my shift shining bright lights into my patients’ eyes, marking down any pupil dilation, or lack thereof, changing surgical dressings, suctioning wounds, monitoring ventilators, changing IVs, turning paralyzed patients every few

hours, pinching or poking places on the bodies to see if they can feel pain. It is every bit as glamorous as it sounds, and Mom, you would definitely have something to say about how I look these days, but my skills are improving. Slowly.

I’ve made two friends over here. Ethel Flint, an ER nurse from Virginia, and Barb Johnson, a surgical nurse from Georgia. They’re keeping me sane. My superior, Captain Smith, is great, too. He’s from a small town near Kansas City. You would love him, Dad. He collects watches and loves backgammon.

I miss you. Send me news of the real world. All we get for newspapers over here is the Stars and Stripes, and the only radio is Armed Forces Radio. Suffice it to say that we don’t get news about the latest Burton-Taylor brawl. Please write back soon!

Love you,




The relative quiet of the Neuro ward was the perfect place for Frankie to improve her nursing skills. She was able to breathe here, to concentrate, to ask questions of Captain Smith, and with practice came the start of confidence. There were few emergencies on this ward; the patients’ wounds had already been cared for in the OR. The patients were comatose, but most had other wounds that needed care, too. The quiet gave her time to think, to process, to read the detailed care notes she wrote after checking each patient. The job at the Thirty-Sixth Evac was to get the patients stable enough to go to a field hospital for treatment. Pain management was the task Frankie took the most seriously. Because her patients couldn’t speak, she took extra care with each one to assess—and assume—their pain levels. From a distance, the ward seemed to be full of young men stuck in the hinterland between life and death. Most had little or no reaction to any stimulus, but as Frankie learned the skills it took to care for these men, she began to see them not merely as bodies in pain, but as men hoping for something more. Each soldier made her think of Finley. She spoke to them

softly, touched their hands. She imagined each patient lying here, locked in the black void of a coma, dreaming of home.

Now she stood at the bedside of nineteen-year-old Private Jorge Ruiz, a radio operator who had saved most of his platoon. Captain Smith had placed him in the back of the ward, which meant that he wasn’t expected to live long enough for transfer.

“Hey, Private,” Frankie said, leaning down close, whispering directly into his ear. “I’m Frankie McGrath. I’m one of your nurses.”

She pulled a stainless steel cart closer. It was stocked with sterile gauze, peroxide, and adhesive tape. She’d need to replenish it all for the shift change. The overhead lights blared down on her, making her eyes ache.

She reached gently for his leg, wondering if he had any sensation of being touched as she unwrapped the bloodstained gauze.

“This might hurt,” she said gently as she began to pick at the crusty, dried gauze, pulling it out of the pink, jagged wound. She wished she could dampen the gauze to make it free easier, but this way the wound bled, and bleeding was good.

Beneath the gauze, she looked for blackened bits of tissue or green pockets of pus. She leaned forward to smell the wound.

All normal. No infection.

“Looking good, Private Ruiz. A lot of the boys in this room would be envious of a healing like that,” she said as she re-bandaged the wound.

Beside her, the ventilator rose and fell, whooshed and thunked, inflating and deflating his sunken chest.

A commotion at the doors interrupted the quiet. Two bloodied soldiers in dirty, ripped fatigues walked into the ward, shoulder to shoulder.

“Ma’am?” one of them said, stepping close to Private Ruiz. “How is he?”

“He’s in a coma,” she said. “Will he wake up?”

“I don’t know.”

The other soldier stepped in beside his friend. “He saved our lives.”

“He wanted to go home and be a fireman. Some shit-ass border town in West Texas. I told him he’d never pass the test.” He looked at Frankie. “I gotta tell him I was just yankin’ his chain.”

“He’s hanging on,” she said. It was all the hope she could offer. And it was true. With life, there had to be hope.

“Thank you, ma’am, for taking care of him. Could we take a picture of you with him? For his mama?”

“Of course,” she said quietly, thinking how much a picture of Finley would have meant to her family. She moved closer to the young man, held his limp hand in hers.

The soldier snapped the shot.

“He’s lucky to have friends like you,” Frankie said. “Tell his mother he wasn’t alone.”

The soldiers nodded solemnly. One of them took a pin off of his pocket

—an insignia of some kind—and handed it to Frankie. “Thanks, ma’am.” He stared at Ruiz for a moment longer, then left.

Frankie pocketed the pin and looked down at her patient. “You have some good buddies,” she said, replenishing his IV.

By the end of her long night shift, it was all she could do to stand upright. With barely a glance at Debbie John, the nurse who’d come in to replace her, Frankie stumbled out of the ward. It was early in the morning and already the sun beat down on her. She bypassed the mess hall—not hungry—and the O Club—no desire to party—and headed to her hooch. She could tell by the sound of small arms fire and helicopters in the distance that there would be patients incoming soon. She’d better sleep while she could. Thankfully, the hooch was empty. Barb and Ethel worked days, mostly. For weeks she’d barely seen her roommates.

Grateful for the relative quiet, Frankie untied her boots, put them in her locker, and lay down on her cot. She was asleep in minutes.



“Rise and shine, princess.”

“Go away, Ethel. I’m sleeping.” Frankie rolled onto her side.

“Nope. Babs and I have talked about it and we are taking you under our wing. Wings?” She looked at Barb, who shrugged.

Frankie groaned and put the pillow over her head. “Cool. Starting tomorrow.”

“Starting today, Frank. You’ve been hiding out with the gorks for six weeks. We haven’t seen you in the O Club in weeks. Who comes to ’Nam and plays with no one?”

“I’m learning to be a competent nurse.”

“That’s what today’s all about. Now get up before I pour cold water on you. Put on your fatigues. We’re going on a field trip. Bring your camera.” Ethel yanked the blanket off of Frankie, revealing her bare legs.

Grumbling, Frankie stumbled out of bed and dressed in a T-shirt and fatigue pants that were still new-looking, unmarred by bloodstains. There weren’t a lot of bloody emergencies in Neuro.

Ethel and Barb waited for her outside the mess hall. “We’re off to see the wizard. Word is that no wounded are incoming,” Barb said, smiling. She handed Frankie an olive-green canvas boonie hat. “You’ll need this.”

Outside, the camp was blissfully quiet, no helicopters delivering wounded, no mortars exploding in the distance. Men were throwing a football back and forth as a water truck rolled past.

Ethel and Barbara led the way to a two-and-a-half-ton truck—a deuce and a half—that was parked near the gates of the hospital. They climbed up into the back, along with Captain Smith. Several men from an infantry unit stood among them, carrying rifles.

“Climb in,” Barb said to Frankie. “They’re not gonna wait forever.”

Frankie climbed up into the truck’s bed and took a seat on the metal floor, beside the gunner. The big truck rumbled to life, shook, started to roll forward.

“Where are we going?” Frankie asked.

“MEDCAP,” Ethel said as the deuce and a half rumbled past the guarded gates and out into the countryside. Was it safe out here? “The Medical Civic Action Program. We provide medical care to locals. I’m sure you’ve seen them in the wards. Captain Smith organizes these outings whenever he can, says they remind him of his practice back home.”

They drove through a village that was not far from the hospital compound, saw fatigues and uniforms and olive-green T-shirts hanging from laundry lines. And then they were out in the country, jungle to the left, dirty brown river to the right. A bunch of kids floated downstream on a tire, laughing and shoving each other.

Frankie used her Polaroid and snapped a photograph of a young boy herding a black water buffalo along the water, and one of an old woman dressed traditionally in a long, split tunic over slim pants, which Frankie had learned was called an ao dai, carrying a woven basket full of fruit.

The soldiers standing in the back of the truck straightened, their guns aimed at the lush jungle in the distance. “Stay sharp,” one of them said, adding: “Snipers.”

Frankie stared out at the jungle, lowering her Polaroid camera to her lap. A team of enemy shooters could be hiding out there. She imagined men squatted behind stands of elephant grass, their guns pointed at the truck. She scrunched down, held the hat on her head, started to sweat.

The truck rumbled down a muddy, potholed road and through the green countryside. Evidence of war was everywhere—burn scars on the land, sandbags, rows of concertina wire, explosions sounding in the distance, choppers flying overhead. In a huge patch of jungle, leaves were dying and had turned orange; Frankie knew it meant that the U.S. had sprayed the area with an herbicide, Agent Orange, to kill the vegetation and limit the enemy’s ability to hide.

She saw Vietnamese women moving through the rice paddies or walking in the tall grass, wearing their flowing ao dais and conical straw hats, carrying babies and toddlers as they worked beneath the hot sun.

They drove upward onto a mountain and, at last, came to a village tucked on a small, flat plain cut into the lush hillside. Neat gardens were carefully fenced and homes built of bamboo stood on stilts. In this remote village, the people lived as their ancestors had—hunting with crossbows and rice-farming.

The village appeared to have been built around a beautiful, but decaying, stone building, a relic of Vietnam’s contentious French- occupation past. The villagers—mostly small, hunched-over old men and women with thin necks and narrow wrists, their teeth blackened by constant chewing of betel seeds—came out from their huts to stand in front of the deuce and a half in a straight line, their hands clasped, their heads bowed respectfully.

Ethel started to rise.

“Be careful,” one of the armed infantrymen said. “The VC are everywhere. They plant bombs on kids and old women. They could be in

the bush.”

Frankie looked around. Bombs … on kids? How would you know? How could you tell these people from the Viet Cong, whose hidden bombs had blown up so many soldiers? How did you know who was an enemy and who was an ally?

She took a hard look at the line of villagers, in their flimsy black clothes, noticing there were no young people, male or female; only the very old and the young children. Were there swords hidden in sleeves, guns tucked in waistbands?

“Come on, guys,” Barb said. “No use worrying.”

“Let’s get to work,” Captain Smith said. The medical team jumped down from the truck.

Frankie was the last to step down into the red dirt. How were you supposed to protect yourself from invisible enemies?

Captain Smith moved in close, patted her arm. “You’re a good nurse, Frankie. Go show them.”

She nodded as he walked toward an elderly man, who was no taller than a ten-year-old American boy, with dark skin and black teeth. He smiled at the medical team; deep lines crinkled his face. He drew them toward him with a crooked finger, then turned and led them up into the broken-down French villa. The stone walls were riddled with bullet holes; in several rooms the walls had crumbled. Woven grasslike mats lay on the floor. A fire glowed in a large fireplace. In it, a black pot bubbled and popped, sending a rich scent of spices into the dank room.

The old man picked up a large earthenware jug and held it up to Captain Smith. He said something that sounded like,“Bac-si, Ca mon,” in a rickety voice. He took a long drink and handed the jug to the doctor.

He wasn’t going to drink it, was he? What was it?

“It means ‘thank you, Doctors,’ I think,” Barb said. She was the second to take the jug after the doctor, and drank deeply, then handed the jug to Frankie, who took it slowly.

She eyed the crockery lip and slowly lifted it to her mouth. She took a small sip, surprised to find that it tasted sweet and sharp, a kind of wine.

The old man smiled at her, nodding, said something in his language. Frankie smiled back uncertainly, took another sip.

After the welcoming ritual, the team set up stations to help the villagers. Everything was communicated by hand signals. None of the villagers spoke a word of English. The medical team set up a makeshift clinic with a portable exam table in a bare hut with a thatched roof; another table was set up outside with a tub full of soapy water for scrubbing lice out of children’s hair and washing sores on their skin. Flies landed on everything, on hair, on lips, on hands. The driver of the truck handed out candy to the children, who gathered around him, clamoring for more.

For the next several hours, Frankie administered to the villagers in the living area of the old villa. The villagers, young and old, waited patiently to be seen for a variety of ailments. Frankie dispensed worming pills, antacids, aspirin, laxatives, and malaria tablets. She checked teeth and looked in ear canals and listened to heartbeats. She was nearly at the end of her line of villagers when a small boy, not more than five, sneaked in to stand beside her. He wore a short-sleeved shirt and shorts, and had dirty feet and unevenly cut black hair that he’d plastered back from his face with red mud. He didn’t speak or tug on her sleeve; neither did he leave her side.

“What do you need, little one?” she asked when the last in her line of patients had been treated.

He smiled up at her in a way that melted her heart.

She lifted him up into her arms. He wrapped his arms and legs around her and gazed at her questioningly, said something in his language.

“I don’t—”

The boy slipped out of her arms and took hold of her hand, pulling at


He wanted her to follow. Frankie glanced back. No one was watching

her. Outside, Ethel was giving out shots and Barb was cleaning an old woman’s machete wound.

Frankie hesitated; she’d been warned to be careful. The VC could be hiding anywhere.

The boy tugged harder. He looked so innocent, so young. Not someone to fear.

“Okay,” she said.

He led her down a cracked stone hallway, through which vines crawled between the crumbling stone tiles and spread out, tentacle-like, across the

mold-blackened floor. At a closed wooden door that hung half off its hinges he paused, looked up at her, and asked a question in his language.

She nodded.

He opened the door.

Frankie smelled something rotten and foul …

Inside, a candle flame illuminated a child lying on a grass mat, covered in dirty blankets, with a chamber pot not far away. Frankie covered her mouth and nose with a handkerchief and moved closer.

The girl was adolescent, thirteen maybe, with tangled black hair and sallow skin. Her left hand was wrapped in a dirty, bloody bandage.

Frankie knelt beside the girl, who eyed her warily. “I won’t hurt you,” she said, lifting the bandaged hand and slowly unwrapping it. The smell of rot assailed her. The hand had been mangled beyond recognition. Green pus oozed out of the open sores. In one finger, a bone stuck up through ripped black flesh.

Black flesh. Gangrene. She’d read about this, but had never seen it.

The boy said something in his language. The girl shook her head violently.

“Stay here,” Frankie told the boy, carefully releasing the girl’s ruined hand.

She went through the doorway and down the hall, out to the sweet, fresh outside air. “Captain Smith! Over here! Bring your bag.”

She led the doctor back to the dark, fetid room. He crossed the stones quietly, his footfalls matching the rapid beats of Frankie’s heart.

He knelt by the girl, examined her injuries, and then sighed heavily. “She must work in one of the sugarcane mills. This is a roller injury.”

“What can we do?”

“We could send her to the Third Field Hospital. They have a Vietnamese ward, but these villagers are a self-reliant people. They won’t want to let her go, and we can’t guarantee her we’ll come back. Amputation and antibiotics are the best chance she has to live. If we do nothing, the gangrene will spread and she’ll die from the infection.”

They looked at each other, but neither thought there was a question.

They had to try to save this girl’s life. “I’ll call for Ethel—”

“No. I want you, Frankie. Tell the boy to leave.”

Frankie felt a surge of panic, but Captain Smith was already kneeling, opening his bag. He took out a syringe and administered a sedative. When the girl closed her eyes and went limp, Captain Smith said, “Hold her down, Frankie,” and pulled out a saw.

The young Vietnamese boy ran. Dr. Smith administered morphine.

“Hold her by the forearm,” Captain Smith said. “Hard.”

Frankie held on to the girl and did her best to help; the amputation was so brutal she had to look away several times, but when the surgery was over and the girl lay still, Frankie carefully treated the stump and wrapped it in clean white gauze. When Frankie finished treating the amputation, she turned and saw a slim, elderly South Vietnamese woman standing against the wall, with tears in her eyes. “Maybe that’s her grandmother,” Frankie said softly.

“Give the antibiotics to her and try to explain,” Captain Smith said. “Show her how to wrap the bandage.”

Frankie nodded. She went to the silent woman in the back of the room and did her best to explain what care the girl needed.

The woman gazed up at her steadily, nodded in understanding, and then bowed deeply.

Frankie gave the woman the antibiotics and gauze, and then followed Captain Smith out of the building. As she moved toward the truck bed, she felt a tug on her sleeve.

The little boy held out his small hand, unfurled his fingers. In his palm lay a smooth gray stone. He said something in his language, pushed it toward her. She had a feeling it was a precious possession. “Is she your sister?” Frankie asked.

He smiled, pushed his hand at her again. She took the stone gently, not wanting to offend. Then she reached behind her neck to unclasp the Saint Christopher medal she’d worn since her confirmation at thirteen. She handed the necklace to the boy, whose eyes widened in joy.

She dropped the smooth stone into her blouse pocket and climbed into the back of the truck. As they drove away, the very old and very young villagers standing silently in a row, Frankie pulled the stone out of her pocket.

A nothing little rock, something she’d ordinarily ignore.

In her palm, it became a talisman. A reminder that, hopefully, a girl would grow to adulthood because of their work on this day. Yes, the girl would join a generation of amputees who had survived war, but she could run and play and marry and hold a child in her arms.

“You did well today, Frankie,” Barb said. “There might be hope for you after all.”

Ethel took out a pack of smokes. “This is step one toward getting our girl out of Neuro.”

Frankie took a cigarette and lit it up. “What’s step two?” Barb smiled. “Well, honey, we’re still working on that.”

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