The Soldier’s Heart

Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.

Early every morning, for over 34 years, I jogged (and later walked) the same three mile route through Clairemont, around Marston Junior High School to the south end of the Buena Vista Gardens Apartments and back home. During that time, I’d wave at a big man who was even slower than me. Eventually we were both headed the same direction at the same time. His name was Chris Schuehle and he grew up a few miles from my hometown in Minnesota. We became friends and walked together. He was a disabled Navy veteran, but never discussed his experience in Vietnam.

A few years later, he told me that his niece in Minnesota needed to do a Veteran’s Day report about a veteran. Chris had never shared the details of his wartime wounds with his family. He asked me to help write his story for his niece. He titled it, “The Soldier’s Heart.” This is an abbreviated version:

Chris Schuehle, Paul “PJ” Kalin, Don Olschafskie, Tom Meenan (Vũng Rô Bay, Vietnam, 1968). Photo courtesy of Don Olschafskie

“A constant high-pitched tone was ringing through my head. I felt disoriented. It was June 1968, South Viet Nam, an Army Med-Vac Unit. My right hand was in a cast and I was bandaged extensively. Both of my eardrums had been fractured, fluid drained onto the pillowcase. My eyes were swollen shut and bloody. I could barely see or hear.

Slowly, the events of the past few days became clear. I was a member of an obscure Navy team. We had a couple of gunboats and a fast Boston whaler which we occasionally used for water skiing. Our job was to patrol rivers and harbors. It was my turn for a break. I spent the day with ‘PJ,’ a fellow crew member. We found a group of Korean marines barbecuing a six-foot monitor lizard on the beach. It tasted better than expected. I remember looking up and seeing a large rock monolith. To us, it looked like the mountain… and the country was giving us the giant finger. In fact, we called it ‘Finger Mountain.’

I couldn’t sleep that night, so I joined PJ, his best friend, Tom Meenan, and ‘Molly’ Brown in the communications bunker. We were all good friends. Then I glimpsed a bright light in the corner of my eye. An RPG (rocket propelled grenade) exploded and I was blasted to the ground. I found my M16, chambered a round and fired in the direction of the muzzle flash. Another RPG came in. We knew the drill. After the frag, the VC would enter shooting and finish off anyone still alive.

Bullets went into Tom; his screams stopped. Two or three slugs went into Molly, but I think he was already dead. A muzzle pointed right at me. My life would be over at 21 and my mother would be heart broken. The shooter slipped – possibly in my blood – and he shot off one of my knuckles. I’d also been hit with shrapnel. What now? Time became my enemy. Finally, I heard American voices. The wounded and dead were trucked to the beach. Helicopters landed to Med Vac us out.

Hours later, I woke in an intensive care unit. My ears were ringing, but I could hear a wavering moan. It was a young man lying in the gurney next to me. His face was unmarked. He looked younger than me. He was just a boy. His mouth was moving. He was screaming, but to me, it was only a moan.

Below his perfect face was a full plaster body cast. I turned to call for help, but the doctors and nurses had already arrived. They explained his cast was too tight. His screams subsided as the pressure was relieved.

That afternoon, the commanding officer came by… a full bird (colonel). He asked what the hell I was doing there. Apparently being in the Navy was causing confusion. Later, a doctor stood in the middle of the ward and called out names. A medic presented a small box to each patient and saluted. The GIs were being awarded the Purple Heart. The doctor passed my bed and gave a sympathetic shrug. I’d have to wait to get mine through proper channels.

After dinner, the doctor returned and gave me a Purple Heart. The young boy beside me had died. I was given his Purple Heart. I could only think of his poor mother. The Army would send a replacement medal to his family.

When I left Viet Nam, my only possessions were the pajamas I wore, a faded blue bathrobe, shower shoes, an envelope of medical records, a Red Cross box… and the soldier’s Purple Heart.

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