“That Black Military Sedan”
Gideon D. Asche
“♬ Apple Cider ♪— ♬Warm Apple cider♪ — ♬ Who Wants Some Warm Apple Cider♬…”
The Medic sang and chuckled out loud as he walked past my bunk toward the latrine with one of my roommates’ urinals in hand. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than I, and I was barely a teenager.
You couldn’t tell though; his eyes and expression were those of a much older, much sadder man. – Combat aged him prematurely.
We were living in the officers’ section of a military housing community in Sacramento, California. A combination of Air Force, Navy, Marine, State Dept., and Army brats infested the lawns and pool areas during non-school hours.
We were a community with something in common. Not just that we were all government dependents of some kind, it went much deeper than that.
We all shared the same greatest fear – The one thing that petrified each of us and gave us nightmares. “That Black Military Sedan” – Two Soldiers in dress uniform in the front seat, stoic in expression, focused on their morbid task.
A cloud of terror would descend upon us. Children would sprint home and pray it didn’t follow. Then, when it turned down a different street, we would run to see whose daddy was never coming home. We would try to be a friend, but there was little consolation to that child who would never see their father again.
Within weeks they would pack up and move back to wherever home was before the war. A replacement family would soon appear, usually including some kid who hadn’t been in the game and had no clue.
Sometimes only a few days passed before they got a visit from that Black Military Sedan. I think those were the worst. The poor kid never had a chance to develop emotional callouses and prepare for the inevitable.
Every night the numbers on TV climbed. A tiny window in the corner of every news broadcast showed a running total of KIA/MIA for that day and “To Date.” The effect was a numbing of our emotions, or maybe we just learned to suppress them. We all knew that one day, one of those numbers would be ours.
I was already one of the “Old Dogs” in the neighborhood. Tet wasn’t my first encounter with war as a child. That Black Military Sedan came for my parents two years earlier. My brother was an Army Paratrooper, and my mother’s first Gold Star.
My only real ambition at the time was to become an Olympic ski racer. A general lack of skill gently convinced me the Olympics were not in the cards, but I remained an avid competitive skier right up until the day one of my knees exploded in a fall.
Being a Diplomat’s kid meant I went to the Military hospital at Mather AFB. After an evaluation, I was transported to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco for surgery. Letterman General Hospital was the west coast clearinghouse for casualties returning from Viet Nam.
A lack of pediatric beds landed me in the men’s orthopedic ward with 30-plus wounded soldiers, no more than 4 or 5 years my elder. Most of these “Boys” were Seniors when I was a Freshman – all of them were much older in their eyes, and all of their eyes were full of sorrow.
In the bunk closest to me was a young man whose most obvious features were the three stumps of missing limbs and the facial scars. It was hard not to stare at his facial wounds and tubing. They made it impossible for him to speak. He didn’t communicate much.
Save the partial remains of a butterfly tattoo on the stump of his arm, and the military haircut he could have been any senior at my Highschool. The fact was, he was in Highschool less than six months before.
He spent most of the day drifting in and out of a Morphine-induced fog, but I saw a smile in his eyes once or twice as we watched the Flintstones together. I’m sure it reminded him of a time more innocent and less painful.
He went into a seizure one evening – I hit the emergency call button and started shouting for help. Two Combat Medics rushed into our room. I watched, and heard, him die as the two medics did their best – It was the first time I heard that death rattle.
It bothers me still that I can’t remember his name.
I spent another 11 days at Letterman General for physical therapy. Twice a day, I was taken to a room where, other than the medics, I was the only one with four functional limbs. Prosthetic devices were lined up on one wall organized by type; forearm, lower leg, full arm, full Leg. The shocking visual only overshadowed by the indelible image of an 18-year old flailing his stump in the air as if the arm was still attached.
They called it Phantom Limb Syndrome, the mind and nerves think the limb is still there, they can actually feel it, and the patient will frantically wave the stump around trying to figure out why it won’t function. Then, more often than not, silent tears of realization.
It leaves an impression on anyone observing.
I knew from a very early age that I would be a Soldier and the experience at Letterman General helped me form the callouses and emotional scars I would need later in life. It helped me accept the inevitabilities of my chosen profession and the fact a crippling wound was much more likely than a KIA status.
Today, I am well into my 7th decade, I have my own adult experiences and nightmares from the cacophony and chaos of battle, yet the most disturbing memories are not of my own stark raving fear.
They’re not even of either time that Black Military Sedan came for my mother, but of the young Soldier who died of his wounds in the bunk next to me at Letterman General Hospital when we were both children.
Even now, I get a knot in my chest and a tear in my eye when I see a Black Military Sedan with two men in dress uniform in the front seat – Knowing that some child’s world is about to shatter.
I was lucky to get away with a few emotional scars and a story to tell… But what about the Israeli child who spends the first few days of every school year decorating their “Class Bomb Shelter,” transforming it from a cold, austere cement hole in the ground; into a cold, austere cement hole in the ground decorated with kindergarten art.
What about the Syrian refugee who, as a simple matter of survival, has little choice but to become part of the problem?
What about the family fleeing persecution for nothing more than who they were born, or the 18-year old from some little town in Colorado, who resorted to the “Spray -n- Pray” method of target acquisition in an ambush?
He thinks he may have killed innocent civilians, maybe children. – I assure you; it will haunt him till the day he becomes one of the “22.”
It is the children who feel the first effects of war, losing a parent or sibling . It is always the children who feel the first hunger pangs when a city is under siege; it is the children who are the first ones used as human shields or recruited as cannon fodder, and it is the children who will grow up and continue the cycle of hate.
Tell me, brother…
What will we tell our grandchildren…
…when they ask us – “Why?”