Chapter 10 This Too Shall Pass
September, 1968 roughly fifteen years after the Korean War
A group of young men filed into a room much resembling a classroom with a chalkboard and large windows although it contained chairs instead of desks. This was not a schoolhouse. This was the Togus VA Hospital in Chelsea, Maine. This establishment was the first of its kind in the United States. It had started as a home for Civil War veterans before the property had expanded and a hospital was established.
These men were a ragged bunch. Some had missing limbs. Most of them had long hair. A couple were clean shaven but for the most part they had some variety of facial hair. One could see a variety of expressions on the faces in the room. Some looked relieved to be there. Some had lifeless, hopeless eyes. Some looked like they were conquering a grave fear simply to set foot in this room. One by one they took their seats.
A thirty something gentleman in a nice pressed suit entered the room and walked up to the chalkboard. He wrote the words "Old Business" on the left side and "New Business" on the right. Under "Old Business" he wrote "Expectations vs. Reality". He turned to face the group.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said with a smile. "I see a couple of new faces in our little group today. For those of you who are new, my name is David. I'm a psychologist with the VA. I'll tell you just a little about myself. I say a little because this group is all about you and I'm not here to talk quite so much about myself. I was in Vietnam too but my enlistment expired a few months before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. While there are some things you've experienced that I can personally relate to, it would be cruel to even suggest that I've suffered the level of hardship of anyone in this room. When I got back, I just hit the books real hard to get my PHD and to my own shame, I must admit that I gave little thought to the men and women still over there. What led me to establish this support group roughly two years ago was the suicide of my younger brother, Tim. He was over there too and when he came home I guess he felt like there was nothing to come back to; like he was living in a country that he couldn't relate to anymore. Here I was, a licensed mental health professional, and I never even realized the trouble my own flesh and blood was in. I swore to myself that I would dedicate my life to helping any Vietnam Vet who reached out. All of you are here voluntarily and I applaud that decision. You have the maturity to seek support from me but most importantly, from one another. In here, in this room, we are a family. We respect each other's confidence, we respect each other's feelings and we feel free to share with the group. Now we have a guest speaker with us today whom some of you have met before but some have not. Before we move on, any new business?"
A man raised his hand.
The only black man in the group stood up. "David, I still can't find a job. You said last week when we spoke privately that we could go over this in the group today."
"So I did," said David. "Anyone else having difficulty finding work?"
About two-thirds of the men raised their hands.
"Last place I went to said to me, and I quote, 'drop dead, baby killer' when they discovered my vet status," said one man in the room.
"And there's no excuse for that," replied David. "The VA has legal aid services and maybe next week I could bring in an attorney as a guest speaker to go over what the laws are regarding employment in this state and what your recourses are. Now I promise you, we will go over this in more detail." He walked over to the chalkboard and wrote "Employment" under the right-hand column. "Any more pressing business you'd like brought up after our speaker? No? Ok. Gentlemen, I want to introduce all of you to Dr. Hawkeye Pierce. Dr. Pierce is on staff here as well as General Hospital in Bremen. He was a combat surgeon in Korea and saw things I never even dreamed of in my time in the military. He's a frequent guest speaker for groups like this and he's a very gentle and compassionate man. Dr. Pierce, you have the floor."
Hawkeye had been sitting in a chair in the corner. At this point his hair was now completely white. He was wearing a lab coat and well-pressed khaki pants but also had on one of his signature Hawaiian shirts. He stood at the front of the room and addressed group.
"First of all," he said, "I'd like to see a show of hands. David, I know you were ROTC but this goes out to the rest of you. If you're comfortable answering, how many of you were drafted?" Every hand in the room went up except David's. Hawkeye had his own hand up. "Ok, so I was sent to Korea in 1950 only months after I'd been board certified in chest surgery. I was there before the fighting even started and I was there for the whole thing. Just like David, I would never presume to say I know what anyone in this room went through. I worked in medical units near the front but I never had to pick up a gun and go fight. You did and not by choice. I'm going to say this here and now. I'm sorry. I don't know if anyone else will ever say this to you in your entire lives. I sure as hell know your draft boards won't. I want you to hear it from me. I… am… sorry. I'm sorry for the disruption to your lives. I'm sorry you were taken away from your loved ones and sent to hell on earth. In my opinion, no one, no government, no president, no one had a right to do that to any of you. I'm sorry. I also wanted to express appreciation to all of you. You are very special people who don't deserve the suffering you are going through now. I firmly believe it will get better if you let it.
"Now today's topic is coming home. So… my experience is that most Korean vets went home to a country barely aware that the war even happened. This was my experience. Your experience, however, is that you came home to a country in chaos that can't think of anything else. I was given indifference. You were given hostility. Does anyone want to talk about the journey home?" The men in the room looked deeply uncomfortable. "Mind if I tell my story? No? Ok, I'll start and if anyone else feels comfortable talking, feel free to chime in."
"Hey no batter!" yelled Simmons from the outfield as an Air Force pilot stumbled into the batter box. "Show him how we do it in this man's Navy, Wexler!"
Dr. Wexler, the ship's oral surgeon was on the mound. He fired off an underhand pitch. The batter stumbled forward and was hit by the pitch.
"Take your base," said the umpire.
"Are you kidding me?!" yelled Simmons. "He was crowding the damn plate!"
In the stands, Hudson looked up to see Barker sitting in the upper bleachers by himself. He climbed up several rows and sat down next to him.
"You aren't playing?" asked Barker.
"I couldn't even pick my own nose if I spun around ten times first," replied Hudson. "I certainly couldn't hit a softball. I probably couldn't see it."
"And yet I've seen you play your best darts game three sheets to the wind," said Barker.
"You look down in the mouth, Wilson," said Hudson. "Peace is upon us. I thought that would give you cause to smile."
"Min-Seo won't be coming with me," replied Barker. "She has family in Taiwan. She wants to be with them."
"Ah. Back to the old battle axe then?"
"Not a chance," replied Barker. "If she wants the house, the car, the dog, the money… hell, she can have it. I don't believe any man is entitled to happiness. But if I went back the misery is more than either of us could handle."
"So, what will you do?" asked Hudson.
"New beginning," replied Barker. "I've been assigned to Madigan."
"Madigan?" mumbled Hudson. "That's the Army hospital in Washington State, right?" Barker nodded. "Well I've been to the pacific northwest before, Wilson. I have to say it was some of the most scenic countryside I have ever seen."
"Is that a fact?"
"You were always an outdoorsy type," said Hudson. "You'd be in heaven up there."
"I don't know anyone up there," replied Barker.
"Well you know me, and I promise to visit as often as I can," said Hudson.
"You're a good man, Bruce," said Barker. "I'm lucky to know you. By the way, we need to talk about Hunnicut and Pierce."
"Are they reducing the points?" asked Hudson.
Barker shook his head. "Not by one single point. With a minor dependent and a Bronze Star, Hunnicut does pick up some extra points by default but they'll both be in for a few more months. Frankly that concerns me. I thought about what you said about how we don't want to set them up for failure after everything they've done to save American lives. I can't picture either of them adapting well to any military instillation I've ever been to. I'm not a man that doesn't believe in gratitude."
"Alright clam digger," said Simmons. "Bottom of the ninth, tied score."
"If you put any pressure on me I'll come over here and puke all over you the next time I get dizzy," replied Hawkeye.
"Pressure? What pressure? Just the hopes and dreams of all your mates riding on this. Where's the pressure?"
"All over you," repeated Hawkeye. He walked towards the batter's box and began to spin. All of his teammates and the fans in the stands shouted encouragement. He quickly shook the cobwebs out of his head and stepped into the batter's box. The pitch came and he hit a line drive. He easily took second.
Galanis stepped up to bat next. He swung and missed.
"The hell with this," muttered Pierce. He took off like a shot and stole third while the catcher's attention was diverted.
"Hey, wake up out there!" yelled the Air Force coach.
Almost as if on cue, Simmons began to loudly whistle Brahm's Lullaby. BJ came up to bat next.
"Hit the small round thing," was Simmons' only bit of advice.
BJ spun but fell to one knee. He got back up quickly, got into the batter's box and hit a deep fly ball to center field. It was caught but Hawkeye tagged up and easily made it home.
The Foltz crew began to chant "WE FINALLY WON A GAME! WE FINALLY WON A GAME!"
"Oh, sure when you bring in ringers," scoffed one of the Air Force players.
"Ringers?!" said Hawkeye incredulously. "I'll have you know I couldn't hit the barn side of a broad."
"I'm glad we'll never do this again just so we don't have to hear that bozo heckle us anymore," said another player pointing at Simmons.
"Why that gentleman is the very model of sportsmanship," replied BJ.
At that very moment, Simmons went over to the Air Force dugout and exposed his butt.
Hawkeye looked at his watch. "Little early for a full moon, don't you think?"
"And here I was worried he'd be a sore winner," replied BJ.
The team celebrated nearby with some beers. Some were drinking them and some (including Simmons) were shaking them up and spraying their teammates.
"Gentlemen," said Hudson," I want to congratulate you on not extending our losing streak to three years. At least I would congratulate you had I not bet on the other team." Everyone laughed. "I'm joking, I swear." He walked over to BJ and Hawkeye. "Can I see you boys for a moment?" He took the two off to the side. "First of all, I could never thank you guys enough for what you did for us. Barker wanted to stay around and talk to you but he had to fly out of Kimpo."
"Bet his arms will be tired," joked Hawkeye.
"At his weight, one would think so," replied Hudson. "So, here's the thing. As you are well aware you both, through no fault of your own, owe Uncle Sam a few more months of military service."
"I'm not on speaking terms with that uncle and want to join a new family," said Hawkeye.
"Preferably one with a pool in their back yard," added BJ.
"Hawkeye, I saw your reports from boot camp and from Fort Sam Houston," said Hudson. "It's no small miracle that you weren't court martialed."
"Well we all know my ability to practice medicine effectively is entirely dependent on my ability to recite from the Army Field Manual by memory," he replied sarcastically.
"And how ever could we operate without marching for ten miles?" added BJ. "It puts the pep in my step."
"I'll trade you the pep in your step for the spring in mine," replied Hawkeye.
"I get it," replied Hudson. "So does Barker. The problem is that most stateside bases would pose a problem to you in that regard. Barker's taking over at Madigan Army Hospital in Tacoma. If we send you there, at least he has some ability to keep you out of the stockade as long as you don't screw around too much."
"That's not exactly a world away from my neck of the woods," replied BJ with a smile.
"It is from mine," said Hawkeye. "I'm on the opposite coast."
"Pierce," said Hudson, "I will personally buy a train ticket for your father to come out and see you. Regulations be damned."
"When do we leave?" asked BJ.
"Well you're with us until we get back to San Diego," said Hudson. "This is the last voyage of the Foltz as a Navy ship. The boat itself will be turned over to the Coast Guard for harbor patrol. I can say with some degree of pride that it will still be used to save lives rather than take them. Now most of our beds are empty. We have to head for the Port of Tokyo where we will be picking up patients from Tokyo General until the beds are filled up. The ones in the Army or Air Force, we drop off at Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu. Anyone else we transport to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego at which point you boys head up north and report to Madigan. I'm sure we'll have a bit of shore leave in Japan and Hawaii.
Hawkeye addressed the group again. "Now I'm sure that my last day in Korea with beer and softball was nothing like evacuation you probably had from Vietnam. The voyage from Seoul to Tokyo was just shy of a week in duration. We arrived in the middle of the night but I wanted to see the city in the day. BJ and Simmons got called into surgery the next morning, so I ventured off on my own. We were going to see the sumo matches but I wanted to do some sightseeing. What happened next changed my life almost as much as the war itself. You might find this next part difficult to believe but I swear to you every word of it is true."
Hawkeye exited a restaurant with a full stomach and a happy demeanor. He strolled down a cobbled street in no particular direction. Suddenly he heard the sound of crying. He stuck his head into an alley and saw a young woman crouched down sobbing.
"Are you ok?" he asked. There was no reply. "I know it's foolish to assume you speak English but still, I just want to make sure you're alright."
He came closer and closer and peered at the woman. When he got very close the woman suddenly sprang up quick as lightning, produced a knife and repeatedly stabbed Hawkeye in the abdomen. Hawkeye fell to the pavement clutching his gut and as he did so, the woman ran up, stole his wallet, and ran off.
Barely any noise came out of him despite his best efforts. He was too weak to rise.
"Oh God, no," he said to himself. "Oh God, don't let it end this way. Don't let me die on my way home from a damn war I survived. Don't let my father have to bury his only kin because I was stupid enough to wander into the wrong section of town." He still couldn't move or make enough noise to get anyone's attention. "Even if they found me I have a stomach full of udon. I'd never survive the surgery." He breathed deeply. "HELP!" He still couldn't make enough noise. "I realize I've had my doubts about you. And I realize even believers aren't supposed to put you to the test. I don't know what else to do. Now would be a good time for you to hop down here and save me if you're real." Nothing happened. "I still had things I wanted to do. Then again… I'm sure all those young men I couldn't save did too. I guess this is it."
"Who's that?" asked Hawkeye.
"Your voice sounds familiar," said Hawkeye weakly.
Someone grasped Hawkeye's wrist and put his arm around their neck and pulled him to his feet. Hawkeye couldn't see his rescuer. The person dragged him several blocks and set him down.
"Who are you?" asked Hawkeye again. This time the person came into view and looked Hawkeye directly in the eye.
"Like I said, a friend."
"No." Hawkeye's eyes went wide. "It can't be. Am I dead?"
"Would I have dragged you over here if you were destined for that?"
Blake smiled back at him. "Abyssinia," he said with a smile. And he disappeared. Hawkeye lay there in utter astonishment for what seemed like an eternity.
"HOLY CRAP! HAWKEYE!" It was Moorer. "My gosh, what happened?!"
"Henry…" said Hawkeye weakly.
"Ok. Now listen, we're going to get you help. You hang in there, you hear me?!"
Moorer picked up Hawkeye in his arms and ran for the ship. Hawkeye could hear various voices in various states of shock. There was shouting and confusion as he was brought onboard.
A young dark-haired boy stood in a graveyard near the ocean. In front of him was a head stone labeled "Eleanor Pierce Loving Wife and Mother". The boy placed the flowers he was holding in front of it.
"You don't have to be afraid, Benjamin," said Eleanor who was standing nearby.
The boy looked over and a few feet away saw a team of surgeons working on a man who looked to be in bad shape.
"Dammit, clam digger, why couldn't you get shanked on an empty stomach?!" said one of the surgeons angrily.
"Ok keep calm," said another surgeon. "I'm going for the spleen. Maybe we can get this under control. You aren't going anywhere, Hawkeye."
The boy looked back at Eleanor. "They seem scared, Mom."
"That's because they love you Benjamin," she said. "Your life is measured by the love you bring into the world."
"I loved you," said the boy. "I always have. But you still went away."
"I never meant to," she said. "I never meant for a lot of things to happen. But I did mean to have a wonderful son like you who would restore life to others."
"Clamp!" yelled one of the surgeons. "We're losing him!"
"Like hell we are," said the other surgeon. "Pack that off and cross clamp the aorta. I'm convinced that's where it's coming from."
"Sorry, Commander," he replied. "Just my nerves."
"Is it scary being dead, Mom?" asked the boy.
"What's there to be afraid of?" she replied. "The only thing you need to concern yourself with is loving other people as much as you can. Let go of the things that are scaring you. It's only a distraction from what you need to do with your life. And remember, I am ALWAYS there. And I will love you for all eternity. You made me a mother. You made my life complete and that will stay with me forever."
"Goodbye, Mom," said the boy. "At least I got to say it this time."
"Where am I?" muttered Hawkeye.
Hawkeye looked to see who had spoken and it was a familiar voice.
"Oh my gosh, it is SO good to see you awake," she replied.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"Honolulu," she replied. "My hometown. You're at Tripler Hospital."
Hawkeye became aware of the nasal gastric tube in him. "How long have I been out?" he asked.
"You would regain consciousness for a few minutes here and there," said BJ's voice from a few feet away. "You were always really out of it and then you'd pass out again. I guess you don't remember. Which is interesting because we got you up on your feet a few times."
Hawkeye shook his head. "No, it's a blur."
"What's the last thing you remember?" asked BJ.
Hawkeye thought back to the graveyard and to Henry Blake before that.
"I'd rather not say," he said.
"They wouldn't let me operate on you," said BJ. "I would have been a wreck, so it was the right call but at the time I was pretty sore about it. I can't take any credit for saving your life."
"You're like a brother to me," said Hawkeye. "You did save my life. Over and over again. You were always there for me when I needed you and I don't know that I could have survived Korea without you."
"Well Hawkeye," said Moorer, "looks like you'll be getting that discharge after all."
"Thank you for my life Jon," Hawkeye said. "I think you are without a doubt one of the most extraordinary human beings I've ever known and I only wish I'd known you longer."
"That goes double for me," said BJ.
"I figured you guys would hate me the first time we met," said Moorer with a weak smile.
"Never," said Hawkeye.
"Hey I had a little something to do with snatching you from the jaws of death too you know," said a voice from the door.
"Do I know you?" said Hawkeye with a grin.
Simmons came over and gently hugged him.
"Thanks for not dying," said Simmons.
"Thanks for not being a lousy surgeon," replied Hawkeye.
"There is whole hallway of people who want to see you," said Simmons. "The captain, Ted, the entire night shift…"
"I can't have a crowd that large in here," said Kelley.
"Well then we'll all step outside," said BJ. "There are two people outside who I know full well are dying to see you and I want to make sure they have a chance. Come on, people."
Hawkeye looked up and smiled. He was laughing and crying at the same time. "Dad!"
Daniel Pierce was just as emotional as he came over to Hawkeye's bedside and put his arms around him. "This is not how this was supposed to go," he said. "I was supposed to be at the airport in Portland waiting for your plane to come in. You'd get off looking sharp in a military uniform. Bunches of families would be running up to embrace young men who were coming home and we'd be in good company among happy reunions."
"Ok first of all, there is no way in hell I'd be in a military uniform on a civilian transport," replied Hawkeye with a smile. "I'd be sporting the best Hawaiian shirt I own."
"Well you finally got to see Hawaii," replied Daniel. "Too bad you're flat on your back."
"Well with you discharged as soon as they let you out, the three of us can have a nice little vacation here," said Daniel.
"The three of us?" asked Hawkeye.
"Damn right," said Jan's voice from the door. She walked over to his bed.
"You'll have to forgive me if I don't get up," said Hawkeye quietly.
"I love you," she said. "I want to spend the rest of my life loving you."
"I love you too," he said. "You talked me into it. A lifetime sounds great."
Hawkeye looked back up at the room full of veterans. "I spent a few more weeks at Tripler recovering. I managed to avoid infection or blood clots," he said. "The ship had to sail home and Peg Hunnicut and Erin were waiting for BJ when he got off the ship. I would have loved to see that reunion, but I can live with missing it. It was their moment and I had mine.
"In the years since the war my life has gone through a lot of changes. Jan and I married. BJ spent a few more months as an Army doctor at Madigan and Peg and Erin stayed with him in base housing. After he got out, he and Peg had two more kids and Jan and I had four. If you told me at one point that I'd be a husband and father some day I'd have laughed at you. In fact, everyone who knew me would have laughed. But I am. My oldest just started eighth grade this year.
"I haven't been able to stay in touch with everyone as much as I'd have liked to. I know Colonel Potter, my old CO, passed away a couple of years ago. I know Radar, our first company clerk at my old unit married a drug store clerk and Klinger, our second clerk, married a Korean refugee who made it as far as Germany. Since the likelihood of such an event was so low, I can only attribute them meeting to fate. I guess some unions are meant to happen no matter what.
"BJ wanted to get board certified in thoracic surgery but the time commitment would have been too much and he wanted Peg and Erin to have as much of his time as possible. Jan, my kids, my dad and I still fly out to California every November to spend Thanksgiving with the Hunnicuts.
"Ben Simmons and I decided to open a practice together in Maine and he's on staff here too. Moorer and Hudson stayed in the Navy a little longer but by 1955 they predicted the war in Vietnam and left the service. They have a practice together with five other former military surgeons that is affiliated with the University of Southern California Health System. Every man I've mentioned including Radar and Klinger are all too happy to help Veterans and if anyone needs a pen pal or someone to talk to on the phone you have but to ask and I will give you their contact information.
"Like I said, the massive indifference that each of us received when we got home was shocking. Honestly, it's why Ben left New Hampshire. He found it incomprehensible that World War II vets got a ticker tape parade and we got a yawn. And then there's you guys. You guys were greeted by angry mobs who wanted to tear your head off.
"In some ways I've gotten more conservative since the war ended. I still don't believe in the draft and believe a nation should have a volunteer army. I believe in America. I believe in other countries too, but I wouldn't want to live in any of them. I believe in God. People think I was hallucinating the day I got stabbed but I know full well I didn't walk several blocks on my own accord to the spot where Jon found me. I have mixed feelings about my war since it did stop some profoundly evil people from taking over South Korea but life in that country is still no picnic. Only time will tell and the history books decide the winners. I do firmly believe that our involvement in Vietnam is a catastrophic mistake. The Just War Theory by Augustine of Hippo states that a war must be waged with a probability of success. Is there a single person in this room that believes we'll win? No one? Me either.
"See I know I've changed as a person and America has changed as a country. The difference is I think I've improved whereas I think America hasn't. This was a prime opportunity for people to become socially conscious and if you ask most of the hippie generation that's what they would claim to be. Well let me lay it out for you. We have two dead Kennedys. We have the three top leaders of the Civil Rights movement slain (which as someone who attended the March on Washington really pisses me off). We had that catastrophe at the National Convention in Chicago last month. We have a nation more cynical and violent than at any point in my life span. And we have a generation of young people who treat our veterans like dog crap and then claim to be enlightened. I'm not telling you anything you don't know. I just wonder if they'd paid a bit more attention to us when we came home from Korea, things would be different. We can ask 'what if' questions all day but it serves no purpose. We're home. We can't control the world around us but we can make our own decisions. We have the freedom to make good ones.
"Anyway, that's my own long rambling coming home story. Now I want to hear from you guys. What's it been like?"
© 2020 Joseph Kerner
M*A*S*H is the property of 20th Century Fox (film and television series) and Simon and Schuster (novel). Any character portrayed in this story is fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.