“My Life Must Stand for Something”

In a moving commentary in Monday’s (May 29), New York Times, Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick reflect on their ten-year research detailed in an upcoming documentary, The Vietnam War.

“For more than a generation,” Burns and Novick write, “instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester. The troubles that trouble us today — alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions — so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War. …

“Nothing will ever make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But if we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.”

Every Memorial Day brings to mind a story of such a sacrifice told to me by Maj. John Baldwin (Ret.) about a moment, among many such moments, the vascular surgeon experienced in Vietnam.

On a cold Thanksgiving day, “A chopper was bringing in four American wounded,” Baldwin writes. “I was summoned to attend to the most urgent of those casualties, a young man, aged 21, named Bruce Clark, who had been in-country for just a week. While training with live hand-grenades, a soldier had dropped a grenade in the pit, and everyone froze. They were too green to know they had four seconds to pick it up and throw it and too frightened to move. The explosion killed four and severely wounded Clark. My initial rapid assessment was difficult because he was covered with mud, torn uniform, and blood, but it was obvious he needed a quick trip to the O.R. if he were to live.

“Four hours later, with the combined talents of the ‘A Team’ – anesthesiologist, ophthalmologist, orthopedist, neurosurgeon, and myself – Bruce entered the recovery room. Swathed in bandages from head to knees, this once-handsome, high school athlete from Cumberland, Rhode Island had been ‘saved,’ but reduced to one arm, no legs, no eyes, a profusion of tubes and wires going in and out, and painful incisions in his abdomen and left chest. Our angels of mercy, the army nurse corps, surrounded him with love and care.

“In the weeks that followed, Bruce required several more operations and incredible amounts of daily care to survive. He endured pain most men could never understand, all in the inky blackness of his sightlessness. We became quite close; indeed, he became bonded to me and dependent upon me. I became his big brother and his dad. I was there when the general pinned the Purple Heart on his pillow, and when it was finally safe for him to make the 3,000 mile journey to the 249th Field Hospital in Tokyo, my commander allowed me to accompany him.

“I bade him a tearful farewell on January 5, 1969 in a clean, sunny, well-appointed ward.

“‘I can’t cry, Major Baldwin,’ he said. ‘My tear makers must have been taken out with my eyes.’  I know, I said, unashamedly weeping as I hugged him goodbye, knowing that we would never meet again in this world.

“I finished my tour, and came home to a strange country that did not understand where I had been or what we had done, much less why we were still doing it. My family and I visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., in 1986. I was shocked to find his name, on panel 34W, line 47, ‘Ground casualty, died, accidental self-destruction, January 21, 1969’ read the inscription in the book-like directory. This referred to the dropped hand grenade, but could not convey the suffering that followed and the unexpected death after reaching safety in Japan.)

“I ran my fingers across his name engraved in the cold, black marble: BRUCE A. CLARK. What had happened? An infection I had missed? A blood clot to the lungs? Some hidden fragment that became a catastrophe? Again, the tears came. I turned to hold my wife and said, maybe that was the best way for him. I just don’t know.

“Bruce was only one of many. A young man who never got to own a car, go to college, propose marriage, have children, or take his kids to a Sunday doubleheader at Fenway Park or any of the thousands of things we all take for granted. Devastated by the loss of their son, the Clarks moved from Cumberland shortly thereafter and I have never been able to find them to tell them of the bravery of their son and how I loved him.

“And then there is now. Bruce and the nearly two thousand American soldiers that I had the privilege to operate upon remain indelibly written on my heart. Somewhere between that emotional day of farewell on the ward in Tokyo and several years later, it became apparent to me that my life must stand for something more than the ordinary, if the sacrifice of the Bruce Clarks was to have real meaning. It was their example of courage, bravery and unquestioning devotion, which inspired me to become the person that I am now.

“In honor of their memory, I have tried to elevate my standards of absolute integrity to meet their expectations. I treasure life, children, honesty, valor, duty, country and family; all things that Bruce and the 57,000 other names on The Wall never got to practice or experience. I cannot dishonor their sacrifice by living my own life in a manner unworthy of their suffering.”

For his service as chief of thoracic surgery with the 24th Evacuation Hospital, Dr. John Baldwin received the Bronze Star.

“There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War,” Burns and Novick conclude. “Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”

Many Vietnam veterans have not only suffered personal wounds, but the pain of alienation from many in this country. The time is long overdue for their service and sacrifice to be acknowledged, and for them, all of them, to be accorded the same respect as others who served.

1 comment… add one
  • John Baldwin MD, FACS, Major, US Army May 31, 2017, 3:01 pm

    Beautiful and thank you Jim.

    To close the circle: In March 2002, in the Bishop Hendriken School (Warwick, RI) a project was started, when a Vietnam Vet, former Lt. Colonel army, now teacher, Mr. Joseph Cichon created “the VietNam Experience,” a senior elective, and presented his war helmet to the 51 members of the senior class. It contained individual pieces of paper with the names of the 224 Rhode Island boys who had died in Vietnam. Justin McCabe drew Bruce Clark and dug in fast and hard, found me, found Bruce’s sister in New Hampshire, and gloriously had his school invite us to speak on Veterans’ Day 2006.

    In the nearly 400 strong audience, to Jeannie’s and my complete surprise, were two of my many wonderful surviving “Purples” the great Dennis Haines of whom Jim has written before and brave Andy Brigante, of the 7th Division Riverine Force, seriously wounded and one of our many friends. Also there was Nancy Baldwin, our daughter, and Meridith Watts, Bruce’s sister. There was no room for sadness. The circle had been closed in God’s way and it was Right.

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