I was twenty-six years old when I was sent to Vietnam alongside 2.7 million men and women of my generation. As an infantry battalion surgeon, she took care of the soldiers’ wounds and helped treat their pain – but for me, going to war was also linked to leaving my first love. I was a doctor and was a licensed practical nurse at a hospital in Hartford, Conan. Going to war would separate us.
The medical school was the academic equivalent of a military boot camp. My fellow interns at the hospital endured a harsh schedule that left us in a state of sleep deprivation; we might enter the hospital Thursday morning and not leave until early on Saturday. At the end of the 48-hour shift on a cold December day in 1965, after eating unanswered meals in the afternoon and a group of critical emergencies, she reached the suite on the third floor for evening tours. I asked the young woman working at the nurse’s center if she could help me or not. And her badge said her name is Karen. She seemed sympathetic to my empty nipple, my back skin and her lively appearance – typical symptoms of a home doctor who was about to collapse. I felt it examining my movements as I wandered my eyes from one patient’s room to another.
I was exhausted and afraid of making a clinical mistake; Karen felt a blessing. Hospital members sometimes enjoy the embarrassing younger doctors of sports, but her angelic smile, gentle way and hint of shyness gave me the feeling that she really wanted to help me instead of humiliating me. But there was a problem: I couldn’t stop seeing her watching me. I was drawn to it and it caught my attention so much that it was almost impossible to continue the mission. I didn’t know anything about Karen as a person – and didn’t care. Intuition and impulsivity are completely tyranny, any pretense of reason. When our tours were finished, we shared a few words on a quick cup of coffee. By the time we said goodbye, I was fascinated by it so much that I didn’t think it right.
Now, after more than 50 years, I can’t remember exactly how Karen requested or what we did on the first date, but I remember we were enslaved immediately. I was in touch with the hospital every weekday, many nights and weekends, so there was no time for traditional dating. Our courting consisted of trying to stay awake, exchange meals outside, watch some TV, sleep, meet secretly at work and spend one weekend in the unassuming Cape Cod resort. Cuttings of a good time were used for cuddling, holding hands, looking at each other’s eyes, fine-tuning a stray hair and making love at times. We spent a lot of time talking, but somehow we learned nothing about the importance of each other. We just lived at this moment and enjoyed being together.
I’ve been dating many women in the past, but this was the first time I had fallen in love. It was instantaneous, with someone I barely knew. And my timing was terrible. I had no savings, and I got $ 70 for every 110-hour work week. Worse, the war has made it impossible to plan for my future. I have not yet decided on a medical major, and I foolishly anticipated from enlistment in the army. I can be sent to Vietnam once the training period ends.
In May 1966, I received orders to report training within two months. I knew that general medical officers like me were sometimes merging with Front Line forces as a battalion surgeon. I was facing the possibility of being injured or killed – but just as upsetting, my scheduled departure was close to the time when Karen’s handsome friend and legendary athlete would return from his tour in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. Karen told me that they didn’t formally stick to each other, but the people who knew them assumed they would eventually get married. If he comes back while you are away, it seems unlikely our relationship will survive.
Army doctors received only four weeks of primitive military training in San Antonio before traveling abroad. Many of them will be deployed to Vietnam during the second year of active duty. I was part of the unlucky third that released sexy olive lingerie to complete orders that were sent directly to us to Vietnam.
Our trainers focused on teaching trauma and tropical medicine, with little focus on fighting skills. Watching the doctors trying to walk in the formation was very entertaining for the other forces stationed in our center. Unfortunately, some of us did not take non-medical training seriously. One afternoon, we were instructed to crawl under barbed wire while live ammunition was fired with plotters over our heads. They had to stop the exercise when the cardiologist suddenly stood waving his white shirts over his head as if to surrender.
The doctors were treating in such large numbers that I was staying in a small roadside hotel. Karen missed me right away, more than I imagined. I thought about asking her to marry me, but I never had the opportunity. She had agreed to my visit in Texas but canceled her flight at the last minute. Her sister told her that it is not wise to commit to a soldier who may return from the war with irreparable damage or irreversibly dead.
On August 27, I was transferred to Vietnam on a chartered commercial plane. We climbed onto the tarmac in a steamy heat, equipped with a uniform designed for war in Europe. Tropical fatigue and jungle boots weren’t in the regular supply chain yet. We were also unwilling in more dangerous ways than just our equipment.
My infantry unit was conducting search and destroy missions in Tai Ninh province near the Cambodian border. “Search and Destruction” at times seemed to mollify the army, which uses us as bait to lure enemy soldiers out of hiding. At age 26, I was relatively old for my unit, and a 19-year-old nurse and doctor called me to note. My forward auxiliary station was about 500 feet from the surrounding automatic rifles. I was the only one who seemed worried about getting a M16 rifle and a .45 caliber pistol but I didn’t have any weapons or combat training. Medical personnel were instructed to carry weapons in the field and not to wear the red cross emblem. Our leadership thought that we specifically targeted the Viet Cong. After the first few weeks, she only carried a likable side weapon. It seems I am more likely to injure myself or one of my M16 comrades than either of the enemy.
By late December, Karen’s romantic messages were gradually becoming less frequent. She told her boyfriend about our love story in the hospital, and her anxiety and contradictions about our relationship became more acute. Then, immediately after the New Year, a sensitive but last-minute apology letter told me that she was engaged to get married this summer. This was not a surprise, but it was very disappointing. I loved her and wanted her to be happy, but I wanted her also with me, not with someone else. It seemed especially ironic that the priest who performed her wedding was my drinking friend, and that the obstetrician who gave birth to her children in the end was my intern partner and my best friend.
I uploaded a Karen photo of luck while I was inside the country, but I no longer check it. It is time to move from this failed relationship and focus on more urgent issues. My life and that of men in my unit were at risk, and I was responsible for treating life-threatening injuries with novice skills and just a little more than the contents of the doctor’s bag. There was also a dilemma of knowing that every time he declared sick enough well of duty, he had written a prescription for his death.
When I returned to the United States, I didn’t try to find out about Karen or her new married life. It seems inconceivable that our short infatuation at the hospital occurred just one year ago. I started dating again and met the woman who I will eventually marry and raise two children.
After more than four decades, I come across a compliment praised by Karen’s ex-husband. He had retired as brigadier general in the Air National Guard. I have been divorced for quite some time. I found Karen’s email address on social media and sent her a note, and we agreed to meet for lunch. (I was happy in a second marriage, and my wife Sue realized that this was an important time in my life and she did not express any objections to the meeting.)
After a critical conversation and a few glasses of wine, Karen and I talked about the time that had passed since we were together. Our sympathy for the ups, downs, and intricacies of each other’s life stories. I have been through forty years of clinical practice as a pediatrician. I have been married to Sue for more than 20 years. I love my role as a grandfather, teach medical students as a clinical professor, and campaign actively to improve the health of veterans. Karen had quit nursing when she married her boyfriend, but she went to work in the office at a primary school and liked to be surrounded by children. She has two children grown from her country and two grandchildren. Karen smiled when she confessed that she was the first woman she loved. I never told her about it in our short time. Simplicity seems almost impossible in today’s world, where everyone feels the need to learn everything about another person’s life; yet it was the element that made our infatuation so special. After revisiting old memories with Karen, I found myself imagining all the ways in which a plane might have fallen, a wrong bullet, a hidden Troyeri, or even Karen’s conversation with her sister had rewritten the ends of our stories.
The scars of the war that erupted long ago and the years after that changed our lives and softened our intensity, but not the warmth of our feelings. Without speaking, we held each other for a long time of reflection. I found myself, 77 years old, feeling the loss of this innocent first love. After that we wished each other happiness before drifting alongside to embrace the spirits we chose and the separate receptions before us.
Jeffrey Brown is a retired doctor who teaches as a professor at the College of Medicine. He has written many published books and many articles. While serving in Vietnam as an army doctor, he received the bronze medal of star Valor.