Theresa Morel Hudler

“I joined the Army to serve in Vietnam,” says Theresa Morel Hudler arriving there in 1967. “With my nursing background, I knew I could help.” She rarely found out what happened to wounded soldiers after they left her care, but at a VFW function several years ago, Theresa met a veteran who remembered her. She had removed shrapnel from his legs, saving them from amputation. He recovered, and “was even able to dance with me,” Theresa says. She has remained in nursing and has spent the last 15 years working in a neonatal special care unit.

For more than 25 years this nurse has been haunted by a memory of Vietnam

A CALL FOR HELP

A rainstorm had just ended that late January 1968 morning when the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter settled into the mud by the 12th evacuation hospital at Cu Chi, South Vietnam. The chopper was a troop carrier, a “slick,” not the medevac type we were used to. It was full of wounded men who only minutes before had been in battle. Their comrades had hastily loaded and flown them to us. Most would remain with us, but the urgent cases would be flown to another unit not far from Cu Chi.

Nurses and medics ran under the rush of blades to lift the wounded through the open sides of the helicopter. Triage was begun. There was the sickly smell of blood and mud, the shouts of medics, the moaning of men in pain, the down-winding whine of the chopper’s engine.

I had just finished a 12-hour shift and should have been headed back for the “hooch,” the nurses’ barracks, but someone called to me.

“Lieutenant Morel, come here, please! Tell us what to do with this one!” I slopped through the mud to a medic standing beside a low stretcher.

Crouching beside the soldier on the stretcher, I observed a massive head wound. He would die if we did not get him to a head-trauma unit. I motioned for the IV equipment and leaned toward the soldier’s ear. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll get you out of here. We’ll get you someplace safe. Just hang on.”

Glancing up through the confusion, I saw crewmembers heading back to their slick.

“Wait!” I yelled. “We have to take this man on and take him up north!”

I jumped to my feet and ran toward the chopper, waving. The pilot glanced at his crew; flying the wounded was not their usual duty. He looked back at me and nodded.

Soon hands lifted the litter and slid it into the open chopper, loading it against a projecting bulkhead near the rear. It took up all but a few inches of the width of the chopper’s floor. The door gunners, heads bulky in huge protective helmets, climbed onto narrow benches behind the litter, facing outward, sliding in behind mounted M-60 machine guns.

It was not common for nurses to fly evacuation runs, and I had never been in a helicopter before, but there was no one else free to go. I scrambled up to the metal floor behind the pilot and copilot’s seats. Someone tossed me a flak jacket and a standard steel-pot helmet. I noticed the gunners and pilots hooking their helmet headsets into connectors. The crew would now be able to communicate with each other. I had no headset, no ear protectors. My helmet flopped back and forth as I struggled to snap the flak jacket on over my fatigues and then checked that the patient’s IV was securely attached to a hook overhead.
The copilot told me to bang on his seat if I needed something once we were airborne. He would then swing his helmet mike out so I could speak into it.

I sat down flat on the vibrating metal floor, my back to the pilots’ seats. The doors had been left open; it was as if the chopper had no sides. Sweat trickled down my face and under my uniform. I watched my patient closely as the engine wound up to full pitch. The helicopter lifted up slowly just above the trees, the nose dropping a bit. It moved forward. We were flying.

The engine and rotors throbbed through the metal roof, and the wind rushed past the open doors. The sounds were deafening. The roar increased as we began to move a hundred miles an hour. We bobbed just above the contours of the terrain, up and over the jungle, down over rice paddies and canals.

Suddenly the pilots shouted something about enemy troops below. Simultaneously the gunners opened up with their machine guns. The pilot began to fly evasive maneuvers--banking the chopper steeply, first to one side and then the other. The staccato pounding of gunfire, the roar of the wind and the whine of the engine mixed in an earsplitting clash.

I forced myself to concentrate on my patient. Hours earlier, I had begun my shift with my daily visit to the chapel area. Now I prayed again, crying out silently: O dear God! Don’t let my patient die here in all this! Let us get him to a safe place!

Suddenly I noticed the IV had come loose from his arm. He would die! I banged on the pilot’s seat to get him to level off, but he did not hear me.

I clawed across the pitching deck to the litter. As I leaned over to reach for the IV needle, my helmet slipped forward. It would come off and hit the wounded man! I pulled it off with one hand and flung it behind me.

Now I was bent over, helmetless, tearing tape with my teeth and one hand, trying to hold the IV in with the other, screaming silently over and over, O dear God, don’t let him die here. Don’t let him die here!

Suddenly the gunner on my left stopped firing. He pivoted sharply 90 degrees and bent over until his head covered mine and his mouth was within an inch of my ear. Why is he here? Does he want to speak to me? I wondered in the split second he was poised there. Then there was a ping and a pang. A bullet headed for my left temple ricocheted off his helmet with enough force to knock him out. The gunner slumped unconscious over me and my patient.

His weight was suffocating us. I shoved his body to the left and rolled onto the litter handles, inches from the open door. I didn’t know if he was tethered or secured in some way or not, so I grabbed him with my left hand, still holding the IV needle with my right. I was crying.

O dear God, he’ll fall out! Don’t let him fall out! Help us, dear God! The prayer screamed through my heart.

It was a little while – a minute? An hour? – before the other gunner realized what had happened. He spoke to the pilots on his mike, and they broke off firing and flew straight to the hospital. We landed. I unclenched my cramped fingers from the gunner’s fatigues and the patient’s IV.

Medics pulled the gunner down and placed him on a stretcher, then slid the patient’s litter to the ground. I headed first to my patient. The IV was still attached and he was stable, still alive. I touched his arm. “Peace,” I whispered.

He was rushed off. I never learned if he survived.

I ran to the other litter and bent over the gunner, grabbing his wrist, feeling for a pulse.

With his helmet off, there was no sign of a wound. In fact, he was only dazed. His eyes opened and focused on me as I bent over him.

“What is it?” he asked. “What do you want?” This was the soldier whose helmeted head covered my bare one in a single bullet-splintered second. I just looked at him; what did he mean?

He spoke again, struggling to rise up on his elbow: “You called me!”

A few days later the gunner and I met to talk over what had happened. The Tet offensive was now fully under way. He offered me the bullet-scarred helmet as a souvenir, but I insisted that he keep it. I do not remember his name. But over the years, even as I repressed most of my Vietnam memories, I always remembered that when I needed protection, a gunner heard my call for help so loud and clear over the cacophony of noises in the helicopter that he stopped firing, turned and bent down to see what I wanted.

Tearing tape with my teeth, I had not spoken a word. I had only prayed in silence, to a God who heard and answered me.