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Cover Story


Six Inches



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The final gun sounded, signifying the end of the game. A season over.

Sitting in the stands, I felt more than heard the collective groan of the crowd. The cheerleaders’ colorful skirts stopped billowing. Their matching pom-poms floated to the ground.

I saw my son standing on the cleat-torn grass field. His head was down, his battered helmet hung by a single strap at his side.

“Six Inches! Six Inches! Six Inches! Grossmont High School Stopped on Six-Inch Line.” That’s how the headline would report this tomorrow morning. My son’s football team was being stopped just six inches short of the goal line—in the final play of the game.

What was I to say? I wanted to call out to my son. I wanted to tell him that the team played great, that the defense played great, that he played great. I wanted to console him.

As I thought of what I could say to make him feel better, memories deeply buried in my mind began to surface. I tried to push them away, to remain in the present. But the past crept in with the incessant drumbeat of the rotor blades in my brain going whomp, whomp, whomp.

It was 15 days before Christmas. The last gray days of 1968.

I stood on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Tripoli, LPH-10, a helicopter aircraft carrier stationed three miles off the coast of Vietnam. The silhouette of the CH-46 chopper grew larger as it approached the deck and hovered, like a giant bird searching for a feathered landing.

The flight deck loudspeaker rasped, “Medevac inbound! Medevac inbound!”

The chopper was met and tied down.

I was the ship’s medical officer and was in charge of our medical spaces. On board we had a total of 12 doctors, 60 corpsmen, a 200-bed hospital, and the latest in X-ray, surgical, and other medical equipment.

Our close-knit group of medical personnel worked together and interchanged tasks. Some did surgery, some assisted, some gave anesthesia, some did the triage. The strong ones took care of the dead.

That day I was the triage officer. Earlier, we had launched an insertion, landing 3,000 Marines into a small backwater village. Booby traps, claymore mines, and sniper fire had greeted them. Projectiles of all sorts had caught the air, the rice paddies, the ground, and their flesh.

The chief, now standing next to me on the flight deck, was in communication with the crew chief in the helicopter.

“Bad news, sir,” he said while shaking his head. “We got a loadful of wounded. There’s a firefight going on, and we’re catching it bad. There’ll be more coming soon.”

Angered, I waited for the chopper’s huge rear door to open. A column of corpsmen, stretcher-bearers, and gunny sergeants stood behind me.

I was inside first. Stacked on stretchers, tiered on each side of the aircraft, lay the wounded. Some were thrashing about, some staring with vacant eyes, some not moving at all.

My job was to determine who needed medical treatment first—whose life was in urgent jeopardy.

I ran the length of the endless cavity, checking the boys as I went. “Number one,” I called out, and pointed to one.

“Number two,” I screamed, and pointed to another.

“Three” pierced the air, and the next one got taken.

By the time I counted to 27, the stretcher-bearers had transported the first ones for treatment. At last some sense of order prevailed. The worst-off were on their way.

I was about to cross to the port side when a hand shot out and brushed my arm. I turned to the injured boy.

His eyes penetrated to my soul. I already knew him because I’d seen hundreds like him before. He had a small entry wound about the size of a nickel in the midline of his back just above his hips. Ominous—but his condition was stable.

He was a good-looking Hispanic soldier about 18 years old with smooth tanned skin, jet-black hair, and dark eyes. He had to be hurting, but he was bearing his pain privately.

Somebody’s son, I thought. Somebody’s badly hurt son.

I walked back to his stretcher and bent close to his face.

“Thanks, Doc. Thanks for helping me,” he whispered in a soft voice. It was a sound from a boy—not a hardened soldier.

“What’s your name, son?” I asked.

“Carlos, sir. Carlos Martinez.” He smiled.

I felt his suffering deep within me, but I forced a return smile and said, “Carlos, you’re going to be fine. We’ll get you fixed up in no time, and you’ll be as good as new.”

“Sure, Doc,” he said.

The stretcher-bearers nudged me aside, lifted him gently, and started to carry him out of the chopper. Another boy’s cry broke my inertia, and I continued tending to the ones who remained.

“Medevac inbound! Medevac inbound!” pierced the air once again. The sequence started over.

How many hours? At the time it seemed endless. But finally it was over—at least temporarily.

I made my way to the medical spaces. All three operating rooms were going hot and heavy. I learned that Carlos Martinez was being operated on by Bob Kern, our orthopedic surgeon.

I put on a cap, donned a mask, and popped into OR 2. I peeked over Bob’s shoulder and asked, “Whatcha got there, Bob?”

“Not good, Harvey. Not good at all,” he answered, keeping his focus on the work before him. “Single-entry round, probably an AK-47. The stupid thing shattered the vertebral bodies at T6 and T7, severing the spinal cord. It’s like spaghetti. I’m removing as much of the bone fragments as I can, but I can’t do anything for the spinal cord.”

He turned his head and looked at me over his mask. “If that bullet had gone six inches to one side or the other, he’d be OK.”

Even though he didn’t state it, I clearly understood the long-term results. I swallowed hard, sighed, and said, “Thanks, Bob. Take good care of him. He’s a good kid.”

After Carlos came out of his anesthesia, I visited him. Although he was in pain, he looked at me and smiled again. He spoke haltingly. He was so proud to be a Marine. I learned of his sisters and brothers and the closeness and love in his family.

At one point his face turned serious, and he said, “Doc, Bob told me I won’t walk again.”

I nodded but couldn’t find any appropriate words. I wanted to console him, to tell him everything would be OK. I sat next to him on the edge of his bed and held his hands.

Then I began to shake, and tears filled my eyes. I still couldn’t speak.

He looked concerned and said, “Don’t worry, Doc. I still trust my God.”

Amazing. He was consoling me.

“Carlos, I believe you’ll come out of this just fine,” I stammered. “You’re a brave young man. Heal up, and go with God.”

An iron fist clutched my heart as he slipped off into a twilight sleep.

The next morning he was to be flown to Da Nang. I was waiting for him on the flight deck. As his stretcher-bearers passed me, they paused. He gave me the high sign with his hand, smiled, and waved.

I waved back and kept waving until the helicopter became a tiny dot on the horizon. The whomp, whomp, whomp of its rotors was still loud in my head.

 

Another gun

The years flash by. Gone from the past. Back to the present.

Yes, the final gun sounded, and I remembered. I prayed I’d never hear or see the result of another gun ever again.

The crowd around me started a crescendo of cheer. I joined in and rasped my approval of the boys below who were slowly walking off the football field.

They stopped for a moment and looked confused. Then they waved to their parents, classmates, friends, and teachers in the stands who were acknowledging their fine season and effort.

As I slowly walked to the clubhouse to see my son, I reminded myself that I had to tell him about six inches. What it means to some and what it means to others.  

 

This story originally appeared in the September 22, 1990, issue of Insight and won the 1991 award for first-person narrative by the Evangelical Press Association. Harvey Lobelson was a medical doctor in El Cajon, California.  

 

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