Sunday, March 9, 2014

Carlos vs. the MPs

The bullet hit Chuck just below his left ear, a carbine bullet, probably; anything bigger would have caused massive damage. Any size bullet that close to someone’s head is hardly good news. If you have to pick a bullet, though, the relatively low-velocity, short .30-caliber carbine bullet should be on your list.

Chuck went down really fast. He didn’t remember anything between walking across the rice paddy and waking up in the Pleiku hospital -- no memory of the slam against his jaw bone or of falling into the wet rice paddy, no memory of Stevens holding his head out of the water, no memory of the Army medivac Huey that picked him up and took him to Pleiku.

After stabilization surgery and bullet removal surgery, Chuck went to Japan for additional medical attention. Then he was sent to Hawaii for more work and the start of his road to recovery.

It was at the hospital in Hawaii where Chuck and other ambulatory patients in the head-wound ward began placing bets on whether Carlos would make it back before the MPs caught him.

Carlos had been a squad leader with the 25th Division. On a day in 1966, Carlos’s squad was ambushed. Everybody else was killed. Carlos carried each of his dead soldiers to a clearing and then called for pickup.

Officers in Carlos’s immediate chain of command recommended him for a Bronze Star with V. But officers farther up the chain asked questions. How was it that he, the squad leader, was the only survivor of the ambush? If only one American was alive, why didn’t the VC just kill him? Those officers reached a conclusion: Carlos had run. His soldiers were dead, and he ran. He was a coward. He abandoned his soldiers.

But the officers decided the Army could not just up and court-martial Carlos. Officers who knew Carlos recommended a medal for valor. There must be something mentally wrong with Carlos.

The Army sent Carlos to Hawaii for evaluation. Hospital docs put Carlos in a special part of the hospital.

His first Friday evening, Carlos left the hospital and went downtown and got drunk. He drank Saturday and Sunday as well, and returned to the hospital Monday morning.

This will not do, said the hospital people. You must not leave the hospital.

Friday evening, Carlos left. He returned Monday morning. Doctors put Carlos in a room. He left on Friday and returned Monday morning. Doctors assigned a guard for the room. Carlos got out. Doctors reported Carlos to the MPs. The MPs decided they would catch Carlos before he got back to the hospital.

That was when the betting started.

Every Monday morning, Chuck and the other head-wound patients gathered at the ward windows and waited. Soon, someone said, “There he is!” and pointed at the woodline. Sure enough, Carlos stood just inside the trees. After a time of observation, Carlos made his way toward the hospital.

He always got past the MPs, Chuck said.

What finally happened to Carlos, Chuck does not know. The Army sent Chuck to the hospital at Fort Hood, Texas, so he would be nearer his family.

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