Memorial Day, 2011

I first spoke with vascular surgeon John Baldwin in March of 2000 when I was collecting stories for my book, What Do You Stand For?  That initial contact led to an eleven-year friendship.


Before going to Vietnam, John specialized in open-heart surgery but decided upon the broader fields of general and vascular surgery, he says, “to give my people skills more room to flourish.” For his service as Chief of Thoracic Surgery with the 24th Evacuation Hospital, John received the Bronze Star.

In honor of all veterans, I’m posting his personal and very touching story that demonstrates how integrity became so important to him in both his work and his life.

Here’s to you Johnny and the thousands more. I’m proud to know you; prouder still of the example you set for us all. We need ‘em now, more than ever!

“As a surgeon trained as a scientist and a healer, I learned early in my career that absolute integrity is essential for success. Absolute integrity – the ability to honor and recognize the truth and follow through with appropriate action at work, at home, in marriage, with your children, and with yourself. This is the ingredient of great men and women and shines out of their eyes like a lamp in the night. This has been my goal and my obligation to those who have entrusted and allowed me, to operate and handle their very beings, their stilled hearts and their living, breathing organs.”

John’s story of inspiration happened Thanksgiving Day, 1968, while a major in the United States Army serving in Vietnam.

“I had been at the 24th Evacuation Hospital near Bien Hoa, since May, and was chief of chest and vascular surgery, and after the first two weeks of disbelief and homesickness had settled into the routine of over one thousand casualties a month, an average of twelve major operations a day and constant outgoing artillery. I had seen it all: rocket wounds, Claymore mine injuries, gunshot wounds, punji stick gangrene, and napalm burns.  We thought we were pretty good, and we were. Our place prided itself in saying, ‘If you get to the 24th, we will get you home.’

“The radio crackled in the surgical Quonset. A chopper was bringing in four American wounded. None of the wounded, all GI’s, made a sound. Four teams of nurses, doctors and corpsmen went to work, cutting off clothes, drawing blood, starting IV’s and assessing priorities.

“I was summoned almost immediately to attend to the most urgent of those casualties, a young man, aged 21, named Bruce Clark, an E-4, who had been in-country for just a week. While training with live hand-grenades from a pit trench with several of his company, a soldier, two down from him, 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 resulting 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 mess hall, turkey with all the trimmings was laid out in grand style, but I was too tired to eat. I went back and made rounds on the dozen or so kids that I had operated upon over those last twenty-four hours, and made a special stop to see Bruce Clark. I was the one who had to tell him that he would never see again, and that walking would be very, very difficult.  He never asked me, ‘then why did you let me live?’

“In the weeks that followed, Bruce Clark 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 was his contact with reality on the big C-141Starlifter as it winged its way across the South China Sea, carrying Bruce and one hundred other American wounded farther and farther from the killing fields.

“I bade him a tearful farewell on January 5, 1969 in a clean, sunny, well-appointed ward with the finest American nurses and doctors that ever were. He, the soldier, just a kid; I now thirty-five, the surgeon, his companion on the road to recovery. ‘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 returned to Vietnam, 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’ said 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, this time enough for both of us. 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, take 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.

“This poem by W.H. Auden, which is inscribed by the grave of the Gallant Warrior (Great Britain’s Unknown) in Westminster Abbey, says it best –

To save your world, you asked this man to die,
Would this man, could he see you now, ask ‘Why?’

UPDATE: Not long after this posted, Maj. Baldwin sent me this message:

” Five years ago, a Rhode Island high school teacher, a Nam vet, put all 238 KIA names from RI in a helmet, and his 78 seniors each drew a name. A great kid named Justin McCabe pulled out Bruce Clark.

“The assignment was to find out all he could about that person. He did incredible due diligence, found the obit in the Providence Journal, found Bruce’s sister, now 59 (she was 10 or so when he was killed), found out the mom and dad had died, found me through the 24th Evac website, and we all met in Rhode Island at his commencement, at which I was the guest speaker.

“Three of my operated vets attended (FL, PA, Idaho), surprising me (Justin found them too) and even our daughter Nancy flew in from Minnesota. Needless to say it was tearfully wonderful.

“Bruce had died at Walter Reed in February of a massive pulmonary embolus…quickly, and most certainly kindly…blind, one arm only and nothing to look forward to but absolute darkness.”

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