The Hands of War

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

 

Christmas 2009

1

 

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?

 

2

 

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.

 

 

3

 

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.

 

4

 

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.

 

 

 

5

 

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.

 

6

 

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.”

 

 

 

7

 

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.

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One Comment on “The Hands of War”

  1. Suzanne Visor says:

    Thank you Caroline. I appreciate having the opportunity to read your sentiments, your history, to learn more about you, my friend. Suzanne


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