The boy, he was really a boy after all, looked up from the gurney. "Where am I?" he asked, rasping voice. "Back at Da Nang, marine." the corpsman said, pushing the gurney toward the makeshift ICU. It had served as a holding unit for incoming for the last 12 hours. It was New Year's eve, noon.
He had 4 hours before been in a bunker when the first wave of infiltrators had swept across the first perimeters of Da Nang airbase. He'd been manning a section facing north, towards the gate. A young man his age had tossed into his bunker a satchel charge, landing at his feet, removing most of his legs from the knees down.
The corpsman in a bunker across the street had seen the hat less black clad young man go by, toss a parcel into the narrow space in the sandbags and run on. He tracked him with the open front sights, then put the M-16 down, running across the road to the smoke pouring out of the slots.
Inside, both legs were shredded above the knee caps, remnants of the patella, fibula in shards. Blood was spurting out from the artery just above the knee. He tied his belt around one leg, the marine's around another, and sat back. The kid's legs above the tourniquets looked larger, the vessels were damaged above the wraps. A sudden memory came back, a package the station hospital had gotten from Bethesda shortly before.
In the office of the station hospital a block away was the package. MAST trousers, compression pants that would cut off circulation below the waist.
He got them on the kid, one of the legs buckled at the knee, the kid passed out, but he got them on and inflated them. Slowly the young man regained color. Two IV's were in, ringers lactate and the equivalent of today's packed cells. He regained consciousness.
Karen was there by then, a nurse, a lieutenant in the Navy nurse corps. He'd gotten the marine over to the pre-op, a long canvas tent with sandbags around.
"Hell happened, Mike?"
"Land mine I think, dunno. He's lost a quart or more, got these on him, it stopped it."
Stepping back he watches two surgeons move in, look, shake their heads and leave. He sits down on a folding chair. He'd been up 20 hours since the first blaring alarm had gone off. Most of that time he'd been in an emplacement firing over sandbags a vague shapes, not knowing who he was anymore.
He sees the young marine regain awareness, look around, craning his neck. He asks where he is, how he is. Karen smiles down at him. "You're fine, marine. We've got you." His neck lifts up, he looks down. "My legs are gone?" Karen looks at him, he sees this from across the room. "Yes, they are gone. But you can do this, you can." His head slowly goes back, then comes up again. He sees the MAST trousers. "What are those?" he asks. Karen puts a hand on his shoulder. "Those are stopping the bleeding." she says.
Surgeons come in, look, examine. Words in huddle are exchanged. They move away. He sits there, watching. A year before he'd sat with her in a theater in DC, watching a Bergman film festival. He felt like that, watching.
"I'm getting cold." the marine whispers. Karen goes over to him. "I know." she says, "We'll have to operate soon the doctors say."
The marine looks off, staring up. "It's weird, I've never been a man, you know?" His head turns and looks at the Navy nurse. "I've never been with, um, a woman. I'm not a man, like the other guys in my squad."
His eyes, from the side, 10 feet away, look pleading to him, sitting like there like silent Greek chorus. He's looking up at her. Then she smiles down at him.
Karen, the stocky 30-ish blonde nurse from San Diego looks down, her hand on his head, smoothing his hair back nods. "Yes, yes you are. A man." She leans down and kisses him on the forehead. He smiles. "Wow, can we have dinner?" Karen nods. "Yes."
Two surgeons come in, followed by a tech with a tray of instruments. The anesthesiologist puts a mask on the marines face, they deflate the trousers.
He walks back to his bunker, wondering if that nurse that gave him so much comfort, will remember in years to come, the boy she'd reassured, that she'd put together before he finally came apart.
In later years and decades, the boy watching became the man who took the nurses place. Sometimes he could do more, and that made him happy. He always remembered her though, the person who with nothing real to offer than herself, and the truth, eased someones way.