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My Foot Still Taps To That Throbbing Pain In My Soul
By Dennis Kroll
Reprinted from The Veteran, Summer 1981.
On June 2, 1970, Charlie Co., 1st of the 501st, 101st Airborne Division went on a company-size combat assault. The grunts were unhappy about the plan and all of us squad leaders had complained to 3-3 about the logistics of the operation. For an lz, command had picked an old firebase, a hilltop devoid of cover. We were hit by mortar fire as soon as the first wave went in. Recon aircraft reported over 80 incoming rounds. And this was precisely what the grunts were concerned about. My squad had 50% casualties.
The next morning I woke up in 85th Evac Hospital in Phu Bai. The Top and a chaplain were pinning a Purple Heart to my pillow. Other wounded brothers were cursing them and some threw their medals at them.
A couple of days later I was sent to Camp Drake, Japan. The ward I was on had around 100 beds. All the wounded on the ward were enlisted men except for one 1st Lieutenant who refused to be on the officer's ward.
Two to four times daily (depending on your condition) the corpsman would change dressings and clean wounds. The military used wire stitches a lot—they were stronger, lasted longer and were cheaper. The twisted ends of the wire would always snag the dressings as it was removed. This was only warm-up pain for the procedure. I was at the end of the first row, so after the first week I only had to hear a quarter of the ward get changed, then I'd escape. Everyone tried really hard not to scream a lot; it got real nerve wracking to listen to your brothers begging the corpsman to be more careful.
The only thing they gave me for pain was Davron. I spent most of my first two weeks flat on my back, hands tied to the bars above me, tapping my foot to the ever-throbbing pain. I had been out in the boonies for 2 weeks without washing; it was 2 weeks in Japan before I could get someone to wash my hair. I finally got a Red Cross volunteer to do it—she couldn't believe how dirty I was or the requests from others who wanted the same thing. If I hadn't been able to chew through my restraints and escape I'd have gone hungry and shit in my bed more than once.
I had heard about "Sparks" for a week. "Sparks" was an E-6 corpman. He got his nickname from carrying around a small battery when he changed dressings. If you screamed too loud while he changed your dressings and cleaned your wounds he would put the battery between two wire stitches. He didn't do it all that often, but he loved to torment the brothers by taking it out of his pocket and threatening them. I think his rationale was that he didn't put the stitches in, so he didn't want to hear about it.
About two weeks after I was there my "doctor" operated and took skin from my thigh to graft on to my hand and wrist. A couple of days later I was running a temperature; the dressings were removed from my hands and the grafts were very infected. The "doctor" said the grafts would have to be removed and tried again. I thought I would go in for another operation, but five minutes later he returned with a corpsman. The corpman asked me if I wanted a pillow. I didn't know what to expect but I knew pillows were used to suppress screams that might cause stress for other patients. The corpsman held the pillow over my mouth and pinned my shoulders down. I looked up and saw the "doctor" take an unsterile pair of scissors from his pocket; then he just scraped the skin grafts off. I remember biting a hole in the pillow, screaming for him to stop, and then nothing more. A period of time passed and the "doctor" came back. I was lying on sweat-soaked sheets trying to rationalize what had just happened, and he said, "I didn't think that type of graft would work—now we know. We'll try again in a couple of days."
I tried to kick him in the crotch but missed. The next day on rounds the Colonel said I could get an Article 15 for striking a superior (superior?). The Lieutenant next to me defended me by saying I was irrational at the time. I told the Colonel that if he'd get the "doctor" closer to me I'd show how I wanted to do it the first time. The incident was dropped "for my own good," and no one would listen to me about filing charges against the "doctor." Half of the second graft took and I was sent home after a month's time.
I was sent to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. It was pretty weird there also. After one operation to straighten a mangled finger, I was sent to a convalescent ward which was nothing more than a barracks. An ensign put me on a detail shoveling gravel in front of the hospital. When I complained about my cast breaking up, the ensign told me to shut up and if I wanted a weekend pass. That weekend 2 of the pins came out of my finger. After 6 months I was discharged with no disability. When I asked the Doctor about disability he told me I was just as good as when I went into the service, and I could always get a job pushing a broom.
It's been 11 years since my Vietnam experience. I've had more botched operations by the VA (some of them good), same-same type of attitude toward my brothers and myself, and my foot still taps to that throbbing pain inside my soul.
Dennis Kroll was a leader in the Madison VVAW chapter.
Annie Bailey and Dennis Kroll leading march at Dewey Canyon IV.