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The Night Watch

by William T. Edmonds (1994)

2330 Hours.

She had come on late having just finished her shift on her regular ward; one of the nurses had taken sick and the CQ had come to get her. The other nurses and corpsmen were clustered around the Charge Nurse desk when she entered the Surgical Intensive Care unit.

"Can I help?", the Lieutenant asked cheerfully.

The group looked up suddenly, almost guiltily.

"Would you check on bed twelve?", asked the Charge Nurse.

"Sure, no problem.", the young Lieutenant responded moving down the line of beds to number twelve.

2400 Hours.

She was surprised to find twelve had been moved to the darkened end of the ward. She could barely see the figure occupying the bed.

"Come here often soldier?", she asked the shadowed figure in the bed.

"Nurse?", a muffled voice asked. "Could I have some water? I'm awfully thirsty."

"Sure thing.", she replied as she poured a small amount of water in a small cup, sticking in a straw.

As she held the straw to his lips she could see that his face and head, but for his left eye, was covered in bandages. He had that familiar smell of bandages, antiseptic and open wounds. He stopped sipping for a second to take a deep breath ending in a cough. He sipped more water. The Lieutenant looked up to see those clustered around the desk watching intently; when she tried to make eye contact they looked away quickly.

"Thanks.", he said.

His voice sounded young. All their voices sounded young she thought; not that she was that much older than her charges. She followed a family tradition into the Army, her mother had been an Army nurse in Europe and the Pacific. Her dad, a decorated paratroop officer, had sworn her in and pinned on her first bars. The transition from delivering life as an OB nurse to triage and deaths by combat trauma had not been that hard, both ends of the same plain. "Can I get you anything else?", she ask as she sat the cup on the tiny OD side-table with its single soft light.

The figure in the bed shifted as if trying to get comfortable.

"I just can't seem to get to sleep.", he said with a tone of slight exasperation. "Could you stay and talk to me? Nobody has had time to talk to me since I got here."

The Lieutenant looked down toward the unit desk; the nurses and corpsmen had begun working the rest of the ward, content to leave her with this one patient.

"I would like that.", she told him. "It's my speciality."

He settled with a sigh at her words.

"You have a nice voice," the bandaged face said then continuing with a slight hesitation, "would you hold my hand?"

"Thanks.", she replied as she took his left hand into her right hand. His hand was cool, almost cold. As she covered it with both of her hands, he relaxed noticeably.

"I just haven't been able to sleep.", he repeated. "Maybe if I just talk a bit I'll be able to fall asleep and get some rest."

"Where are you from?", the young Lieutenant with the long raven hair and a voice rich with wisdom beyond her years, asked in her low contralto. She would get calls from GIs, when she was on duty in the early hours of the morning, who wanted nothing more than to hear the sound of her voice.

He began to talk. He talked about his hometown, high school and dating his sweetheart and their plans. Time passed. He talked about how he was drafted and what he would do when he got back to The World.

"Would you fix my covers please?", he asked suddenly. "My legs and feet are really uncomfortable, maybe that's why I can't sleep."

"My pleasure.", she replied checking her watch for a time-check for the chart.

0200 Hours.

The young Nurse stopped for just an instant, taken aback by her discovery that the bottom half of the bed was empty. Lifting the sheet and blanket she made a show of rearranging his covers. There were no legs under the blanket, a traumatic amputation to the groin. The right arm gone. She tucked him in tight, the way a mother tucks in a fitful baby.

"How's that?", she asked him as she retrieved his chart from the end of the bed.

"Boy, that's much better!" His voice sounded stronger. "You know, I was really surprised to wake up in the hospital."

She reached over and took his hand again as she read his chart. Loss of both legs, right arm to the shoulder, perforations by shrapnel of the liver, bowels and stomach. Removal of the spleen and blast burns on the lower torso.

He had been on the ward for almost five days. She understood why no one wanted to come to bed twelve, it was a death watch. The young Corporal should have died four days ago, yet he clung to life with irritating tenacity despite his horrendous wounds. None of the ward's regular staff had the heart left to watch his slow death; their frustration at being unable to save him a painful and personal indictment each time they saw him.

The Lieutenant checked his vitals and noted them in the chart.

0300 Hours.

"I feel real bad about the way I talked to my mom.", he said. "I wish I could tell her that now."

He began talking about his mom, and the things he wanted to tell her and hadn't said. He talked about how he missed her, how he hadn't written often enough and how he sure would like one of her hugs.

"She knows.", the Nurse said as she gently stroked the back of his left hand.

"She does?", he sounded surprised.

"Mom's have this special gene," she said, "that allows them to know what their sons really mean."

The swaddled remnants of some mother's son lay quietly holding the Nurse's hand.

"I feel sleepy now," he said, "good night mom."

"Good night son.", she replied.

"I love you mom.", he said in a sleepy voice.

"And I you.", the Lieutenant answered.

She held his hand as he slipped away; from the foundation of her faith she performed the Last Rites. Making the sign of the cross she leaned over and kissed his forehead.

"Sleep well."

Lieutenant Sefton noted the time of death in the Corporal's chart and initialed the entry.

0415 Hours.

As she walked back to the desk, activity stopped.

"The Corporal in bed twelve," Nurse Sefton said, "succumbed to his wounds and died peacefully in his sleep at 0415 hours."

"Thank God," an anonymous tortured prayer from one of the Corpsmen.

"Thanks Lieutenant Sefton.", said the Charge Nurse. "Sorry to stick you with that."

"No problem.", Sefton replied. "I'm going to find some coffee."

"I'll get it Lieutenant!", the words trailed the Corpsman as he hustled from the ward to find coffee for Nurse Sefton.

0430 Hours.

Three hours left on the shift and a couple of hours until dawn at the 85th Evacuation Hospital (Semi-Mobile), Phu Bai, Republic of Vietnam.