Wounded in Action
by David Dulin Dentinger
Company A, 2/12 Cavalry

                                                                                        

 

February 21, 1968  - WIA
 

This story begins the moment I picked up an armed white phosphorous grenade.  Why I did that is another story entirely. I didn’t remember the cook-off time for a Willy Pete.  I know I learned it in AIT (Advanced Infantry Training), but that seemed like forever ago. Well, at that time it was a moot point, because as I released the grenade, it detonated. It still amazes me after all this time how one can go from perfectly whole and healthy, to having life threatening injuries or even death in a fraction of a second. Unlike most other ways of being burned, white phosphorous knows only one degree, and that’s third degree.

I didn’t recognize the sound coming from my own mouth; it was a low guttural sound like I had never heard before. I couldn’t produce that sound today, no matter how hard I tried. The partial plate holding my three front teeth went flying from my mouth. I had lost those teeth in a swimming accident when I was 15; now, I had lost them again.

After the initial shock that lasted one or two minutes, I was able to assess the situation. My left hand, left arm, and left leg from my belt to the top of my boot took most of the blast. Thanks to a flak vest and my steel pot, for the most part my back and head were spared from the burns, although some of the burns on my hip were caused by the melting nylon fiber flak vest. My body’s natural endorphins protected me against what should have been unbearable pain. I remember staring at my hand, or what was left of it, with amazement. It was like looking at someone else’s body. There were splatter burns on other parts of my body including my face, scalp, and right leg that would have been terrible under any other circumstance, but, in this case, they were minor.

A dose of morphine not only eased the pain but gave me a peaceful, euphoric feeling. As the medics Doc Wright and Doc Jones were treating me, I thought to myself: “If these guys can keep me alive and get me out of here, I don’t think I’ll be back. I’m going BACK TO THE WORLD!”

I had often felt that I would leave Vietnam either wounded or dead. Given those choices, obviously I would have taken being wounded, even as serious as it was.

It seemed like in no time, I heard a dust-off chopper coming. My good friend and medic Doc Wright threw me over his shoulder as if I weighed nothing. As he carried me a great distance to the chopper, he tried to assure me that I would be OK. However, I detected obvious doubt in his voice.

February 21st - The Ride Out
Out of concern that my smoldering body might ignite the canvas seats on the chopper, I was asked to stay on the floor. So, there I sat in nothing but my dog tags, holding on to one of the standards that supported the seats. The chopper lifted off with four wounded troopers. One of the wounded soldiers was lying across the floor of the chopper with an obvious chest wound, motionless, with his mouth wide open. I thought he was dead. Later I learned that the trooper was Michael Hunter. He had a sucking chest wound and was taking very shallow breaths.  

Apparently the helicopter had some mechanical problems because it wasn’t flying in a normal manner. Based on my limited knowledge, I believed that the tail rotor was damaged. The pilot had to struggle to keep the chopper flying straight, and when we arrived at the MASH. unit, the helicopter dropped like a rock onto the landing pad. Hunter’s wounded body fell out onto the pad. Thank goodness he survived the fall.

February 21st - MASH Unit
I was taken off the chopper, placed on a stretcher, and rushed into the MASH unit. As the doctors and nurses treated me and asked questions about my injuries, I drifted off. That’s all I remember about my emergency treatment. 

February 21st - the Hospital Ship - USS Repose
I was in and out of consciousness as I was moved about; finally ending-up on what was apparently a ship. There were pipes overhead that were wrapped and painted white.  Later I was told that it was the hospital ship, USS Repose.

When I woke up some time later, my vision was very poor. The phosphorus smoke had burned my corneas; it was like looking through frosted glass. “O, great, now I’m going blind”, I thought, but with compresses on my eyes and drops in them, my vision slowly returned to normal.                           

February 22 - On the Way to Japan
Early the next morning I was taken on deck, loaded onto a Chinook, and flown to an air base, probably Cam Ranh Bay. There, I was put on a very large cargo aircraft (a C141 I believe) and flown to Yokohama Japan.   

February 23 - 106th General Hospital
When the large cargo doors of the airplane opened, a rush of cold air filled the cabin. What a change from the warm, humid tropical air that I had experienced the past several months. “I guess I’m not in Vietnam any more”, was my thought. I was loaded onto a bus configured to carry litters and then transported to the 106th General Hospital.

Based on my experience of being slightly wounded on January 7th, I knew the Army was going to let my family know about my injuries in a timely fashion.

Knowing that the telegram would be inaccurate (and it was)

I wanted to talk to them first. I asked to be taken to a phone and was told that a phone would be brought to my bedside in the morning. That was not acceptable! Another patient told me there was a phone down the hall, so I eased out of bed on my stomach and hobbled down the hall to the phone. It was only about 25 feet, but they were the toughest 25 feet I had ever traveled. I couldn’t believe how tough it was to move that short distance. Of course I told my mother on the phone that my injuries weren’t that bad. “After all”, I said, “I walked all the way down the hall to the phone".

     Mom

I was taken to the OR to remove some burned flesh, and, possibly, to remove my left hand. My watch band had been fused to my wrist and had slowed the circulation in that hand. It really didn’t matter at that time what they did to me; my life was completely in their hands. After all, at that point, what could I do? The doctors were able to save my hand, a decision that I was sorry about over the next eighteen months. The burn treatment and reconstruction was no picnic and it involved a great deal of pain. In hindsight, however, I’ve gotten a lot of use out of that beat-up hand over the years. 

When I returned from surgery I was in a great deal of pain. An aide came around with a cart and in it was BEER ON ICE. I asked, “How many can I have?” Two a day was the answer, so I took two. It was the coldest beer I had ever tasted. To this day, without a doubt, those were the best beers I have ever had. I don’t drink much beer now. I know that those two ICE COLD beers can never be duplicated, so I don’t even try.

February 24 - Preparation for the Flight Home
That morning I was told I was to be bathed and prepared for transport back to the World. I dreaded being bathed; I didn’t want to be touched; I just wanted to be left alone. There wasn’t a nerve in my body that was not on edge. Even the slight breeze from someone walking by my bed was painful. Only another person who has been burned can understand this. A Japanese woman bathed and wrapped my burned flesh in the most gentle and caring way. No one could have done a better job. She probably had no idea how much she was appreciated.

I was bundled up like a mummy to be taken back to the airfield for the long flight to Lackland AFB in San Antonio Texas, and then I was going by ground transportation to the Burn Center at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston.

February 25 - The World
When I was taken off the plane in Texas, I looked around. The surroundings were all familiar. Even though I didn’t know exactly where I was, I knew I was Home — the United States of America, the World.  Thank God I made it.

BAMC - Crispy Critter
What I didn’t know at the time was that burns attack the whole body. Every organ is affected by what happens to your largest organ, your skin. As a result, I got sicker by the hour. I was sent to the ICU and put on massive amounts of antibiotics. I was also put on a machine to assist my breathing and to decongest my burned lungs.

Two weeks later I was back on the burn ward with the rest of the “Crispy Critters”, as we called ourselves. I used to say, “I like my friends well done.” I know now it may be hard to believe, but, at that point, I felt fortunate because so many of the patients on the burn ward were much worse than I was. Some were horribly disfigured, with ears, lips and noses burned off. Some were burned over such a large portion of their bodies that there were not many places left that could be used as donor sites for skin. 

BAMC - The Torture Tank
In previous wars, soldiers in military hospitals had become addicted to narcotics due to the prolong treatment for burns; therefore, no drugs were given for pain.  The treatment for the burns was as bad as the burns themselves.

The dead skin on a burn victim’s body has to be removed. This is called Debridement or “to debride”. The burned flesh is the cause of infection, therefore, once a day, I was taken to a large tank in the shape of a snow angel, affectionately known as the “Torture Tank”. After soaking in the tank for a while to soften the skin, tweezers and scissors were used to lift and to remove the dead skin. This was done a little each day, as much as the patient could tolerate, until most of the injured skin was removed. There is no part of burn treatment that is pleasant.

BAMC - Buttered-up
When I returned to my room I was met by a nurse with a jar of substance like cold crème that was called Sulfamylon® burn cream, but we called it butter. The purpose of the butter was to draw infection caused from the dying flesh away from the body. The butter was applied anywhere there were burns. About fifteen minutes later, I felt like I was on fire all over again. To me, the worst pain was between my fingers. That lasted about one hour. All of this was done without any pain medication. If I was to suffer PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), this procedure would be the reason why. There is no part of burn treatment that is pleasant.

BAMC - Visiting Hour
My Mother came to Texas for a couple of weeks during that time, and, in retrospect, there couldn’t have been a worse time for her visit.

I went to the tank at 10:30; I was buttered at 11:30; and the visitation hour and lunch were at 12:00. Because of the risk of infection brought in from the outside, visitation was allowed for only one hour a day, so, when my Mother came to visit, I was in a great deal of pain. My lunch had come, but I was hurting too much to eat. My Mother secretly gave me something for the pain, mostly Darvon, which did nothing. I found out later that my dear sweet Mother could have gone to Federal prison for interfering with my care. Surely they would have understood the demonstration of a Mother’s love for her son.

BAMC - Smokum if ya Gotum
One day a Red Cross girl stopped by my bedside. “What brand of cigarette do you smoke?” she asked. How could I possibly smoke a cigarette with one hand, lying on my stomach for 24 hours a day? She told me to leave that up to her. The next day she returned bringing an ash tray with her along with a carton of cigarettes and a couple books of matches. Affixed to the ash tray was a cigarette holder and attached to it was a long rubber tube. When I wanted a smoke, I would call for someone to plug a cigarette into my holder and light it. When the smoke tasted like filter, I knew it was time to stop.

I know this would have been the perfect opportunity to quit, but nicotine was the only drug for pain they gave me. I haven’t smoked a cigarette for over fifteen years, but that experience was my reintroduction to smoking.

BAMC - Mummified
After most of the dead skin is removed, the next step in the treatment of burns is called “wet-to-dry wraps”. This is when the burned areas of the patient are wrapped in gauze and soaked in normal saline solution. Hours later, when the gauze is dry, it’s removed, and, as the gauze is removed, small bits of dead skin are removed with it. There is no part of burn treatment that is pleasant.

BAMC -Skinned
After the debridement, come the skin grafts. This is a process where thin layers of skin are removed from other parts of the body and placed on the raw flesh. The donor site, as it’s called, looks like a person has slid on the pavement and received a large abrasion. One of the donor sites on the front of my right leg is approximately 8X10 inches. Like I said, no part of burn treatment is pleasant.   

April 1968 at BAMC after the first skin graft.  The places covered by the gauze are where full  thickness grafts (skin and flesh) were required.

BAMC - All I Want Is My 3 Front Teeth
In late April I was told that I could go home on a 30-day convalescent leave, as soon as my last skin graft had healed. If you remember, I lost my front teeth when I was injured and I refused to go home without my teeth. I hated to be a hard ass, but I was already going home crippled and scarred. I smile a lot; I needed my teeth.
A Captain and his assistant came to my bedside and took impressions of my mouth. The next day the Captain returned with my new teeth. I guess that showed that they really wanted me out of there.

May 1, 1968 - the San Antonio Airport
I know that I looked pretty pitiful sitting in the San Antonio Airport as I waited for my plane; feeling nearly  faded as my jeans. I had to wrap my left leg in order to keep my trousers from rubbing against my new tender skin. I was thin and pale and I walked with a pronounced limp. My left hand looked like a pound of fresh ground beef. My fingers were curled and had grown together and were drawn into my palm.

There was an older man dressed in a business suit who noticeably stared at me from across the room. Finally he came over to me and asked if he could buy me lunch. I still had quite a bit of time before my flight, so why not? I thought we would just grab a sandwich, but he had a different idea. He took me to the V.I.P. lounge where we had a nice lunch as we talked. The time flew by. It flew by so fast that when it was time to board my flight, I was 500 yards from the gate. I thanked the man for being so kind and ran the best I could to the gate. By the time I reached the gate, I looked like I had run 5 miles. Of course I was too late. The plane was being pushed back as I reached the gate. 

I didn’t know what to do. My family would be waiting at Louisville’s Standiford Field for my arrival at 5:35 and I wouldn’t be there.

The ticket agent arranged a flight for early the next morning. She also called the airport limo to take me across the way to the Airport Hotel. I called my family and gave them the disappointing news. I was exhausted, and, in no time, I was asleep. The next morning, I was awakened; delivered to the airport; and taken to the gate in a wheelchair. There was no charge for the room or the phone call. I guess they wanted to make sure I got on that plane.

May 2, 1968 - Flying home to Louisville
The flight path approaching Louisville went right over my old neighborhood and over the school that I attended for the first eight years of my education. Everything I was so familiar with growing up was out my window. My eyes well-up now as I write this, even as they did then. What a beautiful sight! My neighborhood; the streets I played on as a child; my school; and the school yard where I learned to play basketball with my childhood friends.

That day was truly the first day of the rest of my life. I will always be thankful for where I am and for what I have. People who don’t appreciate these things are less fortunate than I. Someone or something may get me down temporarily, but all I have to do is to think of that wonderful day in May, 1968, and that brings me back to level. My thought was: “I’m alive and safe and I have my loved ones around me.” 

I’ll always be appreciative for a warm and secure home with an ample amount of food. What more could any one ask? I don’t yearn for a big expensive house or cars, just the simple pleasures of life — my wife, children and grandchildren, a few special friends, and, of course, good health.

May 1968 to October 1969 - Reconstruction

The next 17 months were spent in and out of Ireland Army Hospital, Ft Knox, Kentucky, where they were rebuilding my left hand.

In February 1969 at Fort Knox

Conclusion
I cannot and would not close this story without praising the Army for my care. From the way the medics were trained, the helicopter evacuation, the MASH unit and hospitals, every aspect of my care was excellent. Even today, years later, the Army and Veterans Administration will address any problem as a result of my injury.

There wasn’t much the doctors could do to address the trauma to my mind; like most of us survivors — I had to do that myself. I still find it hard to understand the poor, poor, pitiful me attitude of so many vets that I’ve talked with through the years. If you’ve survived the war and the trauma associated with the war; then count your blessings. Whatever you have left, it’s much more than some have.

I’ve lived thirty-eight years since that day in February, 1968, and I’m grateful for every day of that time. The sadness comes when I think of those wonderful young men who didn’t survive; who didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy what I have; or the ones who can’t or won’t appreciate this remarkable country and the opportunities made possible by the sacrifice of others.

In July 2006

 

That’s the way I feel about it; after all, it’s my story.

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