How Can You Mend This Purple Heart

BOOK: How Can You Mend This Purple Heart
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“There are not many books that can make you laugh and also make you cry—sometimes laughing through sorrow and crying out of joy—but Terry has crafted such a story. I dare you not to fall in love with every character, and I dare you not to come away from this story wanting to hug every soldier you meet. I don't think you'll be able to do it.”

—Jennifer Lea Lopez, author of
Sorry is Not Enough
,
Confessions of a Non-Believer
, and
Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran
http://jlealopez.blogspot.com

“This book was a difficult read for me. I had to take breaks to keep from just quitting the reading altogether. But the real-life story of the wounded soldiers on Ward 2B and the portrayal of their struggles was too compelling to put it down. Their experiences, while unpleasant and very real, made their journey to recovery heartwarming and joyous. Thank you, Terry, for all the blood, sweat, and tears you put into this book.”

—Darrell Kuipers, Vietnam Veteran, U.S. Army

“Thank you so much for writing this book. Vietnam hit Australia in the gut as well. I watched dear friends leave to fight as young men and return aged and broken. The time of shame and guilt that tore your country and mine apart needs to be told to generations that simply do not or will not remember. Your wonderful writing has provoked anger, sadness, and pride. This book is cleansing, powerful, emotional, and a must-read.”

—Stacey Danson, author of
Empty Chairs

“This story truly touched my heart and there were many times I had to wipe away the tears, but I finally finished reading. This is a totally honest book and one of the best first-person narratives I have read about the Vietnam War. It is simple and straightforward, but also a compulsive page-turner. This is not a story for the fainthearted, but it's one that should not be missed. It stands tall with the best books ever written about men in combat.”

—Jennifer Braun, author and personal historian

How Can You Mend This Purple Heart

A Novel

T. L. Gould

To Barb, my beautiful wife.

God spared my life that night at the Amber Wall to guide me into your waiting arms.

You have given a love to me so strong I cannot comprehend it.

You have given me comfort, peace, and a deeper understanding of who I am.

Thank you for the warmth and safety of your shoulder that I have leaned on so many times.

Thank you for your love, compassion, and appreciation for America's Veterans.

And thank you for your endless support, your unbelievable patience, and your personal devotion to this book.

I could not have done this without your belief in me.

You are truly my Guardian Angel.

“In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all…Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better…And yet, this is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again.”

—President Abraham Lincoln

Preface

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportionate to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

—President/General George Washington

IN ITS SIMPLEST
description, the Purple Heart Medal is awarded to any member of the United States Armed Forces who is killed or wounded in combat.

During the Vietnam era, a time span of nearly ten years, 9,087,000 men and women served on active duty. Of those nine million, 2,594,000 served within the borders of the Republic of South Vietnam. Troop strength within Vietnam reached its highest level of the war at more than 543,000 on April 30, 1969.

Combat deaths from the Vietnam War surpassed 58,000 with the total wounded in action exceeding 303,000. Many of the young men were severely wounded. More than 5,000 lost at least one limb, and nearly 1,100 soldiers lost multiple limbs.

How Can You Mend This Purple Heart
is not a story about combat in the jungles of Vietnam. This is a story about young Americans who left their homes and returned to the comforting and healing shelter of a military hospital, wounded, frightened, and proud.

They were boys who returned from combat as men—men who left the better part of their youth, a bit of their souls, and a lot of their flesh in Vietnam. It's a story about the physical and mental struggles of healing from the wounds of war. It's a story about longing to recapture the spirit of boyhood and rekindle the optimism and fearlessness of youth. And it's about their struggle to be whole again—or at the very least, to feel whole.

In the hospital, they learned to live for the moment and revel in the fervor of life with no expectations and no apologies.

The confined space of their shared ward, the sprawling U.S. Naval Hospital, and the nearby streets and bars of south Philadelphia became their home. Like any home, it served as a place to gather, to belong, to struggle, to play, a place to find support, and ultimately, a place to heal.

And every day of healing brought them closer to the day they could go home, a day they would both cherish—and fear.

Graduation

I JUMPED TO
the first step, turned, and waved a clumsy goodbye as the bus driver squished the folding doors between me and my childhood.

Mom's tears had dried sticky on my face and neck. She stood at the end of the dirt drive, apron jumping in the warm breeze, tears streaming, as her third son in three years was going off to boot camp. She insisted on not saying goodbye; it was bad luck. So far, it was working. Her first son was on board a minesweeper, whereabouts classified, and her second son was on board an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Mom was assured that neither one would ever come closer to Vietnam than a few miles off the coast.

Her three oldest children, who had been so close growing up, were now so far away from her, her home, and each other. She never talked about the hardships in her life, constantly moving from town to town and house to house within a town. Ever-smiling with her stubborn Irish optimism, she kept the family a family.

Her seven children were her whole life, her whole world. Always among the poorest and toughest kids wherever we lived, our mom lived the richness of life caring for us. And now, her three oldest children were gone. Kenny left for boot camp just one week after his graduation from high school. Bobby followed almost a year later. Now, it was my turn.

I tried to imagine how empty and lonely the house must have been. I watched her from the rear window of the Greyhound as she walked slowly down the dirt path back toward her little corner of the world. Roger and Nancy had raced out to the mail box by the road to wave goodbye. Kathy was watching over Mike in the side yard; Mom had joined them, taking them both in her arms to wave goodbye.

The bus crested the hill and Mom, my younger brothers and sisters, and my childhood disappeared below the hazy arch of blacktop.

The summer of 1968 had just made the turn toward autumn and I was now a statistic in Uncle Sam's register.

The Greyhound made several stops along its stuttered route to St. Louis. The small towns relinquishing those among them that wouldn't be missed, and each one who joined our bus ride, I was sure, wouldn't miss them either. It was four hours of silence and self-imposed solitude. None of them had anything to say that I wanted to hear.

St. Louis felt oppressive and heavy. I could feel it crushing down on me like one of Dad's wrongful beatings. It was my second time in the big city. The constant, pressing weariness was even heavier this time.

My first trip had been four months earlier for my physical to join the Marines. It was two days of belittling and humiliation. Two days of groping and touching by government doctors. Two days of being passed from one pair of cold hands to another with some smartass checking off squares on a clipboard.

I passed the physical for the Marines, but I wouldn't be joining them.

Sometime in late spring, I had been accepted into Southwest Missouri State University with the intention of studying art. My dad had opened the envelope addressed to me from the Selective Service with the cherished 2-S student deferment inside.

No kid of his was going to be a faggot artist. As a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, his boys were to do their military duty no matter what war the country was fighting. You go. You serve. Be a man about it and do what your place in society has dealt you.

We had a good knock-down, drag-out fight. Not over his personal mandatory draft, but because he opened my mail. I took my black eye and swollen knuckles and moved out the next day; my best friend's parents set up a room for me in their basement.

I turned my anger and hate for my dad into spite. I would show him who the real man was. I would join the Marines.

The week following my verbal commitment to join the Marines, my girlfriend pleaded with me to change my mind. “Jeremy Shoff, you'll end up in Vietnam by February!” she warned. “The Marines go straight to Vietnam. Every one of them! You don't want to get killed in this stupid war, do you?” She saw the Vietnam War through the same eyes as my mother.

By this time I was no longer angry, the hate for my dad was buried, and my girlfriend's influence over me had grown. Her pleading had succeeded, halfway. I hadn't signed with the Marines as yet, but I had forfeited my deferment. The decision to join the Navy was consequential.

I was grateful to be in St. Louis for only one night. I sheltered myself in the cramped hotel room. I wasn't hungry. I wasn't sleepy. I just wanted to be alone.

The next morning, I was on a train for the remainder of the trip to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. The most memorable part of the train ride was throwing up my breakfast somewhere between the dining car and my seat.

With the train ride over, I somehow managed to locate the right bus somewhere in downtown Chicago. One hour later, I was standing at the front gates of the sprawling Naval training facilities. Boot camp was twelve weeks long and I came out a different person—mission accomplished.

My next duty station was basic electronics school at the Great Lakes Training Center just over the fence from boot camp. I was transferred to the school's barracks where the next class would not begin until January. I stayed on base until just before Christmas and went home for my first official military leave.

The two weeks back home were heaven. Mom had to take me to church to show me off, I got drunk a lot with old friends, and I started smoking.

By this time my best friend had enlisted in the Marines and was leaving after his high school graduation in May. He and I had played “Vietnam” dozens of times in the woods behind his house. Load up the rifles and pistols, grab a bag of tin cans and bottles, and set up our own little patch of war zone. Our targets would stare menacingly at us from the tops of fence posts, hanging from tree branches, and lying low in the high grass.

We would take our positions behind large rocks or fallen tree trunks and open fire. Crawl through the brush and surprise them from behind. Once we had exhausted our ammo, a stolen stick of dynamite from the supply shed of his dad's rock quarry would finish the job.

He joined the Marines for the sole purpose of going to Vietnam. I told him to be careful. He told me he was glad I was Navy.

I endured electronics school during the frigid months of January and February and received my orders for radioman school. By the first week of March, the sixth radioman class of 1969 was mustered outside the barracks at Bainbridge, Maryland, for our first march to the school building. Everyone filed into his spot in formation and the platoon leader would take roll call. It would be a ritual performed every morning before class and every afternoon for the march back to the barracks.

BOOK: How Can You Mend This Purple Heart
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