Saturday, April 24, 2010

Night flight to Saigon to save a dog's life

It was one of the most touching moments in my tour in Vietnam. I made the journey in late 1968 -- probably in October. I was with the 212th M.P. Company at a small detachment at the Soc Trang Army Airfield.

Countless times in my 30+ years as a reporter, producer, author and teacher, I've looked into the eyes of people I was interviewing and realized that they weren't there with me -- they had taken a mental journey into the past. They were somewhere else. I eventually learned to remain as silent as possible so that they could stay in that place -- any questions would quickly bring them back to the present.

Ten years ago I attended a memorial presentation at the unveiling of a statue honoring the bravery and dedication of the thousands of dogs what served our country in combat. I remember how, during the ceremony, I found myself in one of those trances -- I was in another place, in another time ....

The strange thing is that I wasn't with my dog Fritz, I was with a 105-pound German shepherd named Samson. I was back on a gunship in the middle of the night sky on our way from Dong Tam to Saigon. I was trying to take Samson to the veterinary hospital at Tan Son Nhut Airfield so a real veterinarian might keep him alive. Samson was suffering from encephalitis -- he was burning with fever and having trouble breathing through the muzzle. I had tied his paws together to keep him from trying to stand up.

Samson's handler was on R&R somewhere and had no idea that his best friend was fighting for his life. All I could think of was my own dog in a similar situation. How far would someone else go to save my dog Fritz? I was determined to get Samson to a place where someone could help him.

It had all begun a few hours earlier when someone discovered Samson nearly passed out in his kennel. Only a day or two earlier I had been "volunteered" to be the acting-vet tech at our little 12-dog detachment in Soc Trang, south of the Mekong Delta. The nearest veterinarian was in Can Tho. On the phone, he told us to get the temperature down (we put him in a bathtub-sized dip tank with ice water) and rush him to Saigon. A local dust-off (Med Evac) pilot agreed to take us as far as he could -- to the airfield at Dong Tam. It was after midnight, when he dropped us off and flew away. Even though I had neither the orders nor the authority to request a helicopter for the dog, I still insisted that the CQ runner (enlisted guy on duty) awaken the officer-of-the-day. I don't know how I did it, but I convinced the mafor in charge to authorize a Huey helicopter gunship to take us the rest of the way.

The pilot and copilot were not happy about the run. They were reluctant to help me load the stretcher into the copter. Of course, there were no side doors and no way to tie the stretcher down. I sat on the floor and held onto the back of the pilot's seat as we took off on a most frightening ride. As they'd bank to the right or the left, the stretcher would slide toward the open door. It took all my strength to keep the stretcher and myself from falling out.

There was nobody manning the M-60 machine guns at either of the open doors. But we were traveling fast enough and high enough that the bright red tracers rising from some ground fire was of little concern to the pilot and copilot.

We eventually landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base at an evac hospital for people. Two Vietnamese ambulance drivers were afraid to load the dog into their 3/4-ton ambulance. Eventually, I convinced them that the dog was tied down, shey finally helped me and then drove us to the triage area.

Two more Vietnamese workers opened the rear door of the ambulance and were equally shocked to see that the patient was a dog. One of them helped me carry the stretcher to one of the empty racks in what seemed like an ocean of occupied stretchers. Soon about 15-20 medical personnel were crowded around us pointing, laughing, and talking.

It was about that time Samson completely stopped breathing! All I could think of was doing that leg-lift-chest-push artificial respiration I had read about somewhere. But his front paws were tied together with gauze. I couldn't get them untied. All I could think about was Samson's handler coming home from R&R to find his dog was dead.

Everyone around me were just spectators -- amused spectators! By this time I was crying.

"Would someone please help me? Please?"

It was then that an angel -- a nurse -- yelled, "Get the %@*% out of my way!" and shoved her way through the crowd.

"What can I do?" she asked. I told her I couldn't untie the gauze. She reached in a pocket a pulled out some scissors and freed Samson's front legs.

She quickly caught on and started lifting his right leg while I pushed on his rib cage. Within two minutes he started breathing again. At almost that moment, some veterinarian technicians from the veterinary hospital arrived in a jeep, and I helped them load Samson into it. It happened so quickly that I never had a chance to thank that beautiful angel. She had vanished.

By sunrise it was clear Samson was going to survive. I knew I could face Samson's handler.

Decades later, on February 21, 2000, I sat listening to the poignant comments at the War Dogs Memorial dedication at March Air Force Base. I looked at all of the guys around me and I could feel the love each one had for his dog, and the lengths to which they would have gone to save their dogs' life or save the live of any other handler's dog.

After all, I'm convinced every dog handler who attended the ceremony was able to be there because of his dog -- and maybe because of the dogs of his fellow handlers. And I wondered how many lives Samson went on to save when he went back to work. And I wonder what ever became of that beautiful nurse.

If she only knew the importance of her work that night.

If you ever encounter a former Army nurse who says she served in Vietnam, please ask her if she remembers saving that dog's life.


Susan A. Kitchens said...

What a story! Thank you for this story of yours and for that incredible gem of Interview Zen State. That's what jumped out the most -- your description of that mental faraway place that you guide interviewees to. I'm writing a series of posts on how to interview people, and that zen state of interview is the subject of my website today, thanks to you.

I'd love to learn more from you about the art of the interview, and how you guide people to get into that state. Off topic for this post about your journey to save the dog's life, but please come by and comment if you'd like to share any info. Am also reachable by the contact link on the site.



Randy Cotter said...

Great story Don. An Army friend of mine sent me these links - thought you might be interested:

Don Ray said...

The links led me to great stories and wonderful, heart-warming photos. Thanks so much for sharing these with me and everyone who finds there way here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that wonderful story. It was so Heart warming to know that in the time of war dog needs man just as man need dog. I also want to say to you Thank You for serving in such a terrible war. I know alot of people do not comment on it, but you still put your life one the line. Again Many Thanks