for Nellie Coakley*
Fire—the long year in-country.
The beginning shyness—with life with death.
How to go to parties and socialize
with guys just in from the Field
who won’t talk to you?
What the Red Cross woman taught you—
They’ve just been through mud, blood, loss, terror
They’ve got nothing else to talk about.
What can they do but sit there silent?
Until you come up and talk to them?
The panic on-duty alone at night—when the wounded come in.
You must decide—should I wake the doctor?
The rasping breath of this one—ARVN**—an echo of the pounding
in your head when you turn
him over because his color’s bad—a dusky ash—and see
he’s got a gaping hole in his back—the blood pooled beneath him.
And you are galvanized—shouting orders to the medics,
turning lifting a life to save a life that’s flowing
away from you…………away….
The trick of memory that makes you put
all the lost parts back onto the mutilated bodies
so when you picture them decades later,
they lie on their stretchers whole—two legs
where you know there were none, no jagged flesh.
no meatloaf stumps, no red blood blotching their fatigues.
Their faces clean, serene, like sleep.
And you tell us how you’ve learned you can pry
the metal door of compassionate forgetting,
that heavy creaking pain-door
built to fortress you away from truth in a time
when holding truth too close could stop you
from going on to the next broken
boy—you can pry that door open now. Can look
and see, can see and say how many
died, how many went home maimed. You can
reconstruct them now, their brokenness,
their messy, sodden moaning mutilations.
You can see them now, can help me see
how love holds brokenness and wholeness
together in your heart.
Is this what healing is?
*Nellie Coakley served in Vietnam at the 7th Surgical Hospital from 4/1/1968 to 3/1/1969,& at Walter Reed Hospital from April to December, 1969 as head nurse of the orthopedic ward. She left the Army as a Captain and worked as a War Trauma Counselor when she told me her story in May, 1999. I am grateful for her permission to retell it in this poem. from a conversation in her home on 5/11/99.
**ARVN—Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) soldier‘