The door to the courtroom opened and we were asked to return to our seats. The Commander waited until I had sat down and then sat back in his chair and stared at me for several seconds. I felt very uncomfortable and had to turn my eyes away from him. “I’ve done several court marshals for the military and some of the people who have stood before me were high-ranking officers.” he began. “This however is one of the strangest cases I have ever done. The prosecution has presented me with evidence that strongly suggests that you have been involved with illegal activities that are as severe as any of the other cases I have tried. While the evidence they obtained may not hold up in a civilian court, as your lawyer suggest, it does hold up here and I must make my judgment on that. In front of me however I have ten handwritten letters from high-ranking military and government people, all of whom are of higher rank than I am, and all stating their strong support for you and asking that I have leniency on you. I have taken their request into consideration but since this is the military and because you signed an agreement when you enlisted in the military to surrender your civilian rights and follow the rules of the military, I must hold you to that and therefore our recommendation to the Department of the Navy will be for a Dishonorable Discharge with no military benefits. You are restricted to base and will report to the Chief’s office daily until you receive your discharge from the military. Case Dismissed!”
I stood and saluted the Commander and walked out of the courtroom. I felt nauseated as we got on the elevator and rode down to the lawyer’s office. He shook my hand before opening the door, “Well, we gave it a try, but I told you from the beginning there wasn’t much I could do. You should consider yourself lucky that you don’t have to do time.”
He evidently was not going to invite me into his office and so I thanked him for his efforts and slowly walked back to the ward. As I entered, the nurse informed me that I must go immediately downstairs to see Commander Brown, my eye Doctor. Somewhat reluctantly, I walked back to the stairway and went down one flight to the eye clinic. I recalled the first time I had made the trip nearly two weeks after being admitted to Bethesda.
We had flown in from Tokyo via Alaska on a military medical plane packed with wounded soldiers, most of whom were much worse off than I was. We arrived at the airport in Washington at about 8:00 PM and since I was one of the ambulatory patients we were unloaded first and told to board a bus, with instructions to leave the windows up. As we left the airport we understood why. A small group of about 24 people was waiting outside the gate to greet us with eggs and tomatoes. I am not sure if we were being given a tour or just avoiding crowds of demonstrators as the bus took us to Bethesda Naval Hospital, but I remember passing in front of the White House and seeing machine gun bunkers on the front lawn. It was not the homecoming any of us had expected and by the time we drove up to the emergency room entrance we were all a little apprehensive about getting out.
A doctor who assigned us our wards examined us all hurriedly and then we were brought to a telephone room where we were told to call our homes. I don’t remember the conversation because I was exhausted from the trip but I do remember feeling relieved after hearing my parent’s voices again. After the call, a Corpsman told me to follow him and we walked for what seemed a mile down a long dimly lit corridor and then took a right and entered Ward 4D, the ear, eye, nose, and throat ward for enlisted personal that would become my home for the next 6 months.
The following morning it was breakfast in bed after which I was told to get up and make my bed. “Attention on deck” was called and we all stood in front of our beds while the Doctors made their rounds. I watched as the Doctors examined everyone on the ward but me. “At Ease” was called and so I asked the Marine in the bed next to me why no one saw me. He said it took him three days to be seen so just be patient. I went to get back into bed but he told me that was not allowed until 3:00 PM.
“So what do we do until then?” I asked.
“Well, if you don’t have a Doctor’s appointment, you sit in the smoking room. “he said, pointing to a door at the end of the ward.
The smoking room was about 12 feet by 18 feet and contained about 10 magazines to read. There was no television, radio, or entertainment of any kind. Smoking was the only thing to do and so that is what everyone did; each inhaling two to three packs a day while sharing war stories.
The first weekend came and went, the only difference being we could stay in bed, if we wanted to, during the day. I was sure the Doctors would see me on Monday but was wrong and so I finally went to the Nurse and she looked at my chart and said the Doctor would see me when he wanted to.
“But I have been here over a week, Mam.’ I said, somewhat defiantly
“He is aware of that and will see you when he has time,” she responded sharply.
“Could I at least have my bandaged changed?” I asked, pointing to the patch covering my eye, which had been applied in Japan several days before. The tape was no longer sticking and the stench coming from it bothered and concerned me.
“We need a Doctors order for that!” she retorted.
“Well, I don’t Mam,” I responded as I ripped the bandage from my eye and threw it into the trashcan. “Now could I have a Corpsman give me a new one please?”
She stared at me in disgust and then told the Corpsman to re-bandage my eye.
Friday’s rounds came and I still was not seen by a Doctor and so I asked the patient in the bed next to me where the eye clinic was located. Up to this point, I had not left the ward because no Doctor had taken me off ward restriction and so when the nurse left the unit and the Corpsman was busy with a patient, I quietly walk off and found the stairway that brought me down to the eye clinic.
There were several patients waiting in chairs along the hallways and in the middle of the unit I saw a sign that said ‘CHECK-IN’. I walked up to the Corpsman at the desk and said I wanted to see a Doctor.
“You need your chart to see a Doctor.” he informed me.
“The nurse won’t give me my chart.” I responded.
“Well, do you have an appointment?”
“No, I don’t.” I responded.
“Well, that’s why she won’t give you your chart. The Doctor needs to write an order for an appointment.”
“But I don’t have a Doctor, at least none that I know of.”
“Well if you don’t have a Doctor here, how can you have an appointment?”
“Look!” I said angrily, “I have been in this hospital for nearly two weeks and all I want to do is see a Doctor! Can you help me or not?”
“What is the problem out there?” I heard someone say from behind a closed office door.
“I am not sure Doctor Brown; I have a patient here who says he doesn’t have a Doctor.”
The door opened and a Navy Commander stepped out. “Where is your chart Sailor?”
“Upstairs, Sir. The nurse won’t give it to me.
“How long did you say you have been here?”
“About two weeks, Sir.”
“Come in here.” he said, motioning me to sit in the exam chair.
He removed the bandage and lifted it to his nose. “How long has this eye been draining?”
“About a week, Sir.”
“And did you show this to the nurse?”
“Come with me,” he said as he led me through the clinic, up the stairway, and into ward 4D.
The nurse was sitting behind her desk and rose when she saw the Commander enter the ward.
“Does this man have a chart here?” he asked authoritatively.
“Yes Sir.” she answered as she picked it out of the rack.
“Who is his Doctor?”
“You are, Sir.”
“Who?” he asked, somewhat bewildered.
“You Sir, your name is right here on the admission form.” She responded as she handed him the chart.
He took the chart from her and looked at the short admission notes written on the night I had come in. “Read all of it to me,” he said handing the chart back to her.
Nervously she began reading, “Admit to ward 4D for follow-up treatment of corneal wounds to Left eye. Lieutenant Brown.”
“You do know the difference between a Lieutenant and a Commander don’t you?” he asked, pointing to the three gold bars on his shoulder.
“Then would you agree that you have not only made a mistake in your reading but also in your judgment as a nurse? This man could lose his eye from an infection because of your mistake.”
“Yes Sir, I am very sorry that it happen.” she said, her face turning beet red.
“Not as sorry as I am.” Commander Brown responded. “You may leave this ward now; I will have personnel find an immediate replacement.”
“Let’s go he said as he led me back down to the clinic.”
From that day on I became his special project. He had performed the corneal transplant surgery and was even more upset than I was when it didn’t work. There was not much else he could do medically for me and so I was wondering why he had called for me now. As I entered the Eye Clinic I saw him waiting with a chart in his hand.
“Let’s go!” he said as he met me on the run.
“Where are we going, Sir?”
“I got you scheduled for a medical board hearing but they are almost finished so we have to hurry,” he said, picking up the pace.
“But I have just been court marshaled, Sir!” I said breathlessly.
“Yes, I know, but don’t say anything about it at the hearing.” he cautioned, as we reached the room where the medical board was being held.
Three doctors, all of whom were complaining that it was highly irregular to add a name to the list at the last minute, hurriedly examined my eyes. They wrote down their findings and all agreed that I should be Honorably Discharged with a 50% disability rating for the loss of vision in my left eye, received from the shrapnel wounds in Viet Nam.
I wasn’t sure what to think that evening, as I sat in the smoking-room on the back of the ward. The room was crowded as usual and I was reading some old magazine when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and looked at the bald-headed sailor standing behind me. I did not recognize him until he smiled. “Randy… What are you doing here?”
“Just came to see how you made out today. Can you come out side?”
We left the room and sat down on the curb of the parking lot. “I thought you were still in the brig,” I said, lighting up a Winston.
“No, been out a couple of days now.”
“Do you have to go back in?”
“Not if I behave myself.” he responded.
“So what happened, did you have a court marshal?”
“No, they were going to but I talked them out of it.”
“I should have guessed, you have a real gift for that, but what did you tell them?”
“Well, I told them if they would give me another chance I would volunteer to go to Vietnam.”
“What? Vietnam? We’ve been demonstrating against the war for the past year, and now you want to volunteer to go there. Why would you do that?” I asked.
“I guess I thought it was the Christian thing to do.”
“Christian thing? Since when were you interested in doing the Christian thing?” I responded.
“Just kidding, but when I was in the brig I was thinking that if I get kicked out of the military, what would I do? Go back to New Orleans or maybe California and live in the streets, until I die of an overdose like James. So if I am going to die anyway, why not make it count. A lot of people are having to go to Vietnam who don’t really want to, so if I go in their place, it would mean that at least one person might benefit from it. I know the war is wrong but that doesn’t stop people from having to go there.”
“Wow, that’s pretty heavy, Randy, since when did you start thinking like that.”
“Guess I’ve been around you for too long,” he said, with a smile. “I talked with John and he has decided to do the same thing.”
“And how is Mary doing?” I inquired.
“She’s fine, got released from her commission, and is now working at a local hospital. How did you make out today?”
“Not really sure what will happen.” I responded and then told him the story.
“You should make out okay,” he said reassuringly, “I got to go, man, they got me on a 9:00 curfew. Hope we can get together before I leave.”
“Ya man, I should be out of here soon. I will give Mary a call and maybe she can arrange a time and a meeting place.”
I watched him walk away until his figure faded into the shadows of the night and then slowly walked back to the ward. The meeting did take place at Mary’s apartment a few weeks later on a Saturday morning. It was tense and not at all what I had hoped for. John’s orders for Vietnam came in and he had left without saying a word to anyone. Randy had his orders and would be leaving in two weeks and Mary was having a hard time accepting all of it. She broke down while trying to make brunch for us and ran into her room. Randy followed her and closed the door. I sat alone in the living room that had become my home for the past year but now it seemed strange and cold. I wrote a note to both of them saying good-bye but then added that they should not try to contact me because I felt it would be best if we did not meet again.
A few days later I was called to the personal office and told that not one but three discharge orders had come in at the same time. One was a Dishonorable, one was Honorable with a disability, and the other was Honorable because my four-year enlistment was up. “This ain’t suppose to happen.” the Chief Petty Officer said. “We got to send it all in the Top Brass so they can tell us what to do. In all my days, I have never seen anything like this.”
Four days later I was called back to the office and handed my discharge check out form. They had gone with the Honorable Discharge with disability. I completed the rounds to the different offices by 11:00 AM and returned to the Chief’s desk for the final signature. “I don’t know how it happened, boy. You sure lucked out on this one,” he said as he handed me my Discharge Papers and a $3000.00 check for my disability payment.
“Is that all, Sir?”
“That’s it; you may leave whenever you want to. You are now a civilian.”
I walked out of the office and took the elevator to the ground floor, then down the long-familiar corridor, that had seemed so strange that first night I had checked into the hospital, through Ward 4D where I had spent several months as a patient and on through the smoking room where I said goodbye to a few of the patients I knew. I crossed the parking lot where Randy and I had had our last good meeting and on to the dormitory where I packed my bags, showered, and put on my dress blue uniform for the last time
My seabag was heavy and so I cut across the lawn to the hi-way in front of the hospital; Bethesda had no fences or guards on duty at the main gate, so coming and going was easy. It is only a quarter of a mile or so to the bus stop but the road is on an incline and so by the time I got there, I was out of breath. It seemed strange standing there alone. I had thought about this day since that first lonely night in boot camp nearly four years before but now that it was here I was totally unprepared for it. There was so much to hate about the military and yet, it wasn’t really all that bad. I had made and lost so many good friends over the years, yet now I was right back to where I had started. In the years that have followed, I have at times made attempts to locate members of the group but have not yet succeeded. Are the names of John and Randy listed on ‘The Wall’? I have thought about looking for them there… but I guess the truth is, I don’t really want to know, for memories, like old photographs, keep better when left untouched.