The Hands of WarPosted: March 22, 2012
Caroline LeBlanc served as a nurse in two uniformed services, The Public Health Service Corp and the Army Nurse Corps; and also as a Civil Service nurse in the 1970s, when she cared for soldiers being medevac’d from Vietnam to the states by way of the Ryukyu Army Hospital in Okinawa. When her Vietnam era Special Forces husband returned to active duty as a Medical Officer in the 1980s, she resigned her Army commission to assure their children would always have one parent who was not mobilized. Since Desert Storm she has lived through her husband’s five deployments and the uncertainties that come with her son’s Special Forces career.
The Hands of War
In this Christmas snow, if planes get off the runway
their PA systems will crackle, “Some of our military
personnel are with us. Let’s give them a big hand….
We thank you for your service in our nation’s stand
against terror.” When I fly, I wonder if others share
my doubts, my angst about the horrors of warfare.
Does the evening news make them think a round
of cheer will dispel our soldiers’ troubles? I don’t
know soldiers who expect a hand from civilians.
True special programs give “Families of the Fallen”
“survivor support” after a beloved’s sacrifice of life or limb.
And some count on food stamps to help feed their children.
Strapped in my too narrow seat, I sit stock-still and stare.
What would a Quaker at Meeting do if enemies were there?
Is an enemy near or am I a Quaker at Meeting not yet
moved to stand and speak about the last meals I ate
with my deployed husband and son? About how I savor
those crumbs of memories? While they were safe at home
I read poems about Vietnam when my husband fought
as a Green Beret. The year before, Tsou Tai Tai had taught
his group Chinese near the place we treated demonstrators
at the War Moratorium on the Mall in DC. After, I nursed “lifers”
and draftees in Okinawa while my husband and his team travelled
on missions. Years later, “back in the world,” the Army’s nickel
sent him to med school. I left our toddlers in the family’s care
and went off to Army Nurse Basic. They inoculated me against rare
diseases, but not the grief, not the terror. Vietnam loomed too large–
our hours apart, the days and nights I had nursed troops in my charge.
Day or night, Army Nurses are charged with the care of US troop.
We fired and cleaned our Colt 45s. We ran Mass Cals and debrided wounds.
Drill Instructors pounded podiums to signal test items. They assured, “Nuclear
and chemical attacks can be survived when you follow proper procedure.”
We watched hours of slides—Japanese maimed by the first nukes,
Americans burned and gassed. We put on and removed charcoal suits.
Troop trucks took us into deep woods for our own taste of the gas
that swelled a windowless shed. We needed no order to don our masks.
“Proper procedure will save your life,” admonished our Sergeant
once again, before he led us into the fog. Too soon he barked,
“Remove your mask.” Each of us gagged on gas, tears, and snot.
“Replace your mask,” his hoarse bellow came like a welcome shot.
The possibility of our saving troops gassed in combat felt unreal,
even if we did not die from our own battles and ordeals.
Of course, I lived through my small Basic Training ordeal
and travelled from Texas to Massachusetts where I filled
my arms with my sons’ soft bodies. In our temporary military
housing, roaches raced all night. At work, I treated basic trainees–
even peace wounds psyches. My hands stroked my sons
and I nurtured them with all the left-over vigor I had. Some
things were almost too much. Like the night the sitter’s
boyfriend stole my dead grandmother’s rhinestone pins
while my sons slept in the next room. High on pot, the thieves
left a trail of Klondike Bar wrappers. It ran straight from my freezer
to their stash of stolen guns. Like the Corp’s threat when I refused
a “joint” assignment four hours from my husband. It was true.
Tender enthusiasms mattered little to the Army, after all.
No surprise–common wisdom has it women’s wars are small.
Though common wisdom has it women’s wars are small,
I resigned my commission while my husband answered the call
to serve in new wars where he treated kids maimed in battle.
At home, I managed the family and gave others like me counsel.
One son had blond, the other brown hair. Both grew up
with war and chose sides—one preferred weapons,
one medicine—healing and wounding, back and front
on the coin of the warrior’s struggle with violent forces.
At the Fort Drum gym, I’ve watched healthy looking men
sit to play volleyball and slide where others would run.
Their net was low, as it would be for children, as it must be
for adults who have suffered traumatic brain injuries
from bombs that bounced their brains inside the caverns
of their skulls, shaped like crucibles of cupped hands.
Soldiers’ skulls, so like crucibles of cupped hands
bake inside Kevlar helmets worn in contested lands.
At three this morning, before their charter plane
touches down, soldiers trade Kevlar for soft caps.
It is minus nine degrees on the tarmac as the last
of the Third return from a tour in the desert—
their fourth. Bareheaded, they march into the gym
below high flying American flags and military emblems.
“You are my hero.” “Welcome home,” signs blare.
Adults and children wave tiny flags made of paper
in hands that do not care to keep warm under covers while
husbands & wives, father & mothers, brothers & sisters arrive.
An Army band fills our waiting-time with patriotic ditties.
Wavy white screens cycle slides of soldiers “in country.”
In the waves cycling behind white screens, my soldier is lost
and a distance farther than the missions’ stands between us.
Still, we dare not cross the divide until the Command
Sergeant Major shouts his order: “DiiiSsss-Missed!”
Our phalanxes spill wave into wave onto the court.
At jump lines, I join others who have their children in tow.
Each of us searches the crowd for that beloved face
not touched–in how long? Almost before we can trace
hair or lips, photographers snap shots for papers and TV,
thrust hand-held mikes before our faces. They ask us clichéd
questions while hand in hand, we embrace each happy moment
we have. Soon enough, our lives could be another kind of hell
if the sand in their boots and gloves doesn’t wash away. We know.
Your Christmas troubles on runways? Clap your hands! It’s only snow.