David A. Lombardo 5/29/2016
Monday is Memorial Day, and few people have the vaguest notion of what that means. Memorial Day is a day for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Those that have served don’t forget. All told, the United States has been involved in 78 wars or conflicts beginning with our own Revolutionary War through the present day Middle East conflicts.
The Civil War tops the list for killed and wounded at just shy of one million, forty thousand casualties and the Bombing of Libya is at the lowest end with two casualties. But in between those two extremes, those 78 events resulted in almost 1.4 million dead, 1.5 million wounded and almost 41,000 Americans missing in action. Reading off numbers is mind-numbing; people can’t relate if they’ve not been personally touched by a war, but for those that have, the numbers represent something very visceral, very deep and dark inside them.
In Vietnam everything happened very quickly. We walked down the airstairs from the TWA charter jet that brought us halfway around the world and got onto a bus. It was to transport us to the replacement center where personnel arriving in country were processed and given assignments. I casually asked the sergeant why there was chicken wire over the bus windows. “To prevent them from throwing a grenade into the bus,” he laughed.
Not a hundred yards off the airport, someone took a few shots at us, and a busload of kids in wrinkled, new uniforms piled on top of one another on the floor. That night they blew up an ammo dump a mile away, and it knocked down half the tents at the replacement center. Within my first week I’d come under fire three times. Two weeks later I was in the field on my first major military operation when I saw a young 2nd Lieutenant, sitting on the tailgate of an armored personnel carrier, get half his head blown off by an accidental discharge from a .30 caliber machine gun.
One of the most difficult things I have ever done was triaging the wounded as they arrived en masse at our mobile aid station. I had been in country for less than a month, and I was making choices of who lived and who died. I wasn’t even a medic; I was a medical administrator, but when you have 30 serious casualties coming in and 20 people to deal with them, everyone pitches in.
The best advice I’ve ever received came from our company commander, who was also the company’s senior doctor. “You can’t save everybody,” he told me. “Give me the ones that we can save, and do your best to comfort those we can’t.”
I reminded him I wasn’t a medic and had only the most basic medical training at Fort Sam Houston. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You’ll know which is which when you see them.” It was beyond surreal, and those that you left behind haunted you when you closed your eyes to try to get a few minutes of sleep.
In fairly short order I learned to debride, give blood, do cut-downs, give shots and a host of things a 20-year-old kid had no business learning to do. When Doc showed me how to suture someone up, he had me practice on an orange. When he was satisfied I could do it, he said I needed to do it on someone for real, and everyone within earshot quickly walked away. I gave myself a shot of lidocaine and practiced on my own arm.
I was never given someone whose life was seriously in jeopardy; rather they gave me routine tasks such as starting an IV or giving blood. They sent me the not-so-complicated wounds that just required cleaning and suturing. That was my territory: freeing up the professionals to work on those whose lives hung in the balance. I don’t care if you were Special Forces or a cook, no one in the military comes out the same as when they went in.
People keep thanking me for my service. It makes me uncomfortable; I didn’t do it to be thanked. Rather than thank a veteran, I’d ask that you’d respect what they’ve done in the hope it would make your life and our country safer and more secure. On this Memorial Day, say a prayer for those that paid with their lives and then commit to doing something to make our world a safer, more secure place to live.