The Voice Behind Me
By Paul J. Kozak, Jr.
In the 1960’s during the Vietnam War, severely burned soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were sent to Brooke Army Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Brooke Hospital was known as “The Miracle Center of the World”; there, the injured received superior and compassionate care. For some patients though, this divine-like intervention did not always mean deliverance from pain, suffering and the grip of death; it sometimes meant something else… I know because I was a patient there.
I remember one night in the fall of 1968. The quiet of this late October evening was suddenly broken by the sound of gurney wheels, as they clacked and skipped across the polished linoleum floor. The smell of fresh gauze and the muffled sounds of surgeons’ shoes softly filled the air as another burn patient was brought to the ward. The new patient was being “brought to,” as with all burn patients, immediately following surgery; there was no post op for burn victims.
I wondered if this poor soul would be joining me tomorrow in my dreaded morning procession to “the tank”. There, I would be submerged in a large stainless steel vessel. The clean water would whirl and loosen the dressings that still clung to my wounds. My surgeon would wash, scrub and cut away the eschar from my burns and cleanse the tissue and bone. And, although third degree burns were serious they were not necessarily the most painful. For the most part, the nerves were dead. But not second degree. There my exposed nerve endings would sound off, announcing they were still present and all accounted for. They were truly alive! I would question why I was living, then later feel shame and do penance for not taking the pain.
Now though, my own distress from injuries caused by an enemy land mine was put on hold as I became mentally immersed in the urgent sounds of rescue around me. The commotion came to a halt directly behind where only a partition separated me from a cubicle of four; I could hear the clatter of glass bottles as a medical cart carried the needed saline solution bedside. Just moments earlier I had been almost delirious with pain, but now for the first time since I had been wounded, I was consumed in the emotion of something other than myself.
“Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Help me Lord!” pleaded a deep, weeping voice reminiscent of the old plantation South. Holy scripture poured from his lips as his calls for mercy ripped at my heart. I was mesmerized by his grief. Looking overhead I could see only the reflection of the lamp which offered warmth to his cold body. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the rounded figure of a man or boy, maybe nineteen or twenty. A dark black man I concluded, eyes opened wide in a look of despair, but with a desire to be well; an eagerness to hear the words of hope and consolation while his head tossed side to side as if expecting an answer. The agonizing sounds of his desperate pleas continued for what seemed an eternity: “Oh Lord! Please Lord! Help me Lord!” I lay in silence, sharing his torment. Eventually, overcome by exhaustion, I fell asleep.
Several hours later I awoke to the sounds of a heavy rain beating on the window off to my right. For a brief, precious moment there was calm; I had no thought of my pain or of the day’s suffering that lay ahead. Then, the figure of a nurse appeared across from me. She was making up a bed. A sinking feeling came over me as I watched the crisp linen sheet descend upon the mattress. “How is he …the guy from last night?” I stammered. The nurse paused; she stared at me for a moment, turned to block her emotions, then with a shallow breath said, “He’s not here anymore”….. I became quiet, then numb. In a strange way I missed him, “was he now with God?”. Feeling empty and alone I laid there in sad acceptance.
My daily pain and misery returned front and center, and the stench of burns was anew. I would continue to exist and do the same the following day. The surgeries would be many; doctors and hospitals would change, and my final trip home was still two Christmas trees away. Time would pass and thoughts of those days would sometimes reappear. Violence would be intrusive, guilt and resentments would linger and the pain would be remembered only in the form of an imposter telling a tale. But, what is not gone, and remains ever present is that immense sorrow I felt for “the voice behind me”. The memory of his pain has stayed with me to this very day.
Paul Kozak was a United States Marine in Vietnam. He lives in New Jersey and directs a non-profit that provides support to veterans. He attended Veterans Writing Project seminars in Summer 2012.