More than Ordinary

Miracles come in many forms.

Sitting in a rice paddy in Vietnam in 1968, infantryman Dennis Haines heard the cries of a baby or small child, “Just as I looked towards this hooch,” Haines recalls, “I saw what appeared to be a door swing open and a flash.  The next thing I remember was my buddy John cradling me, telling me how proud he was of me, how Gail, my fiancée, would be proud of me….”

Flown to the 24th Evac, the 18-year-old soldier was in critical condition with two wounds to the side of his head, but was unaware of the miracle who would soon operate on him.

John Baldwin was a chest surgeon and chief of surgery at the hospital.  “All you have to know is how badly damaged his brain was on that one side to realize how incredible it is that the guy is still [alive],” Baldwin said.  “Dennis was put behind the curtain where you put people that you don’t think will make it.”  That night, Baldwin remembers, all the brain surgeons were busy.

“We’re backed-up, John. Can you do the case?”

“I said, yes.” Baldwin rolled Haines out from behind that curtain and worked on him, “as best a chest surgeon could.  I never really thought about him after that day.”

Thirty-five years later, Baldwin received an e-mail: “Dr. Baldwin, I saw your post in the 199th Infantry website,” Dennis Haines wrote. “I would have been a patient in the 24th Evac while you were there. I was shot twice in the right side of my head, paralyzing my entire left side and causing permanent visual field loss in both eyes. I had to see if you were there and might remember me.”

In 2004, Dennis Haines and John Baldwin were reunited. The two attended a ceremony honoring Haines as a recipient of theImages of Bravery Award, nominated by Dr. John Baldwin, the man who saved his life.  “Dennis never gave up.  [He] had the can’t-quit ability that one can only admire.”

But that’s just one story about this extraordinary surgeon. In my book, What Do You Stand For? Baldwin describes a moment that happened Thanksgiving Day of that same year.

“A chopper was bringing in four American wounded. Four teams of nurses, doctors and corpsmen went to work, cutting off clothes, drawing blood, starting IV’s and assessing priorities.

“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 Clark entered the recovery room. Swathed in bandages from head to his 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, 1969read 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.

If I were casting the lead for the movie version of the John Baldwin story, there’s only one actor who demonstrates the necessary discipline, character, and empathy for the part: Clint Eastwood.

I thank Tanya Foster and CBS 21 News, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for providing me with the Dennis Haines story, yet another demonstration of John Baldwin’s courage, duty and integrity.

4 comments… add one
  • Tanya, Pennsylvania December 22, 2009, 7:11 am

    I read your post and it gave me chills. Excellent portrayal of both Dennis and JB. Their courage and exemplary dedication to helping out fellow men — whether on the battle field or on U.S. soil — never ceases to amaze me. What incredible role models.

  • John Baldwin, California December 24, 2009, 6:43 am

    Jim: I am not being falsely modest, but you know me well enough to say honestly…”I was just doing my job, my profession and what I trained to do with the incredible gift that was given to me and I loved every minute of it.”

    The real heroes are the kids we worked on…..who sacrificed, in my opinion, for a completely political, useless and unnecessary war. And now we are doing it again.

  • Jim Lichtman December 24, 2009, 6:44 am

    Ethically speaking, you are both heroes, John.

    Dennis Haines is alive and helping others today in part due to your heroic efforts and that’s a fact not only supported by Tanya’s story but Haines himself. No one can ever accuse you of having a big head. You and the doctors and nurses that helped and saved so many in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, deserve to be acknowledged.

    What’s more, Clint would agree and you DON’T disagree with the Eastwood!

  • John Baldwin, California December 24, 2009, 6:58 am

    I “knew” Clint back in 1972 when he was still relatively unknown, lived in Monterey and we played golf together in some “tournament.” I said, “I really hate this game because I am a perfectionist.”

    He replied, “I am too. I play it because people expect me to do it, but I stink”. We both [played] Rancho Canada in Carmel Valley, really not hard, but lost over eight balls each. It was Fall and they could have been under huge sycamore leaves, but Clint said to this newby surgeon who was a nobody, “I have more balls to lose than you do, don’t worry.”

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