Caution: graphic descriptions of burn injuries are described.
We came to Brooke Army Burn Center on a Sunday afternoon with apprehension. The servicemen we would visit had survived napalm (jellied gasoline) and phosphorus burns received in Viet Nam. On the floor above, where these men had once been, doctors were contending to salvage lives. Whether or not those battle scarred soldiers wanted them to was an unanswered question.
“Thank you for coming” said the petite Red Cross nurse. “If this is your first visit you must receive a brief orientation.” Dot and I followed the nurse to a conference cubicle while the other four couples found chairs in the waiting room.
“What you will be doing is very important” she said, “but not everyone can do it. These men are horribly scarred, physically and emotionally. Many are missing limbs and are in pain. They dread people thinking of them as circus freaks.
“You will be their first contact with the civilian world. This is the first step in integrating them back into society. Your reactions suggest how the folks back home will receive them when they are discharged. If you avoid eye contact, it will hinder their recovery.
“These photos” she said, flicking on a projector, “will give you an idea of what you will see. If you feel you cannot put a smile on your face and love these men as they are, it is okay. Not everyone is emotionally equipped to do this. Do not go in there if you can’t handle it. These men are very fragile.”
After viewing the photos, Dot and I almost backed out. We thought about it but we didn’t.
“Here’s the plan” said the leader of our group. We’re going to have fun with these guys and play a game. Hang one of these numbered tags around your neck. Let’s see if they can match husbands and wives. Don’t everyone stand by your spouse. The winner gets a pocket comb and everyone gets cupcakes. The sugar in the icing helps grow new skin so encourage them to take all the cupcakes they want.”
Trailing the group into the first ward, a gut-clenching horror kicked in. Sitting on the side of a bed was a man with eyeballs fried egg-white; others had burnt-off fingers and ears. Charred skin shriveled in ridged rows across faces and visible parts. Most wore only a white diaper to keep clothing off their wounds. Large rectangular areas of bright red flesh showed on thighs where skin for grafting had been removed. Deep craters were punctured through layers of flesh in one man’s chest. His bed rocked slowly forward and back. I saw much more, but this is description enough.
It quickly became apparent that these boys, these heroic soldiers, were delighted by our presence and the sweet treats we brought. Looking into a man’s eyes was like peering into his soul. Even when glazed by pain, a sparkle of personality communicated, “Hey, guys. I’m in here. I’m really glad to see you.” Smiling quickly became easy.
As we played our silly game and struck up conversations, we had as much fun as they did. Only one soldier matched us with the right spouse. This sharp eyed fellow noticed the matching wedding rings of one couple and guessed correctly on the rest of us, and won a comb. Then he ran down a rear hallway to the next bay and was waiting to play the game again when we arrived. We disqualified him with lots of laughing and bantering.
We met the Red Cross nurse when we were leaving. She was pushing a cart delivering a colorful birthday cake decorated with racing cars. A lady from an Episcopal church, she said, made and decorated a cake for each soldier on his birthday. The donor wanted no recognition; she only wanted to know the boy’s interest and birth date so she could style the cake appropriately. Her ministry was a delight to the soldiers and staff.
I’m glad I saw her behind-the-scene labor of love. It spoke to my heart more telling than a pulpit sermon.
And I’m glad I saw those men, as difficult as that experience was. The land of the free and the home of the brave will never be a casual expression with me.
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Brooke Army Burn Center, San Antonio, Texas continues to provide renowned burn care.
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