IN FLANDERS FIELDS
JOHN McCRAE, PHYSICIAN, WARRIOR, POET
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
As I am writing this, it is nearly the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—Armistice Day in 1918, celebrated as Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Veterans Day here. Solemn ceremonies are taking place across the country and all over the world to honor the fallen and to celebrate the living. Reading and watching some of the news stories about these events brings not only tears but also memories to me of a different kind of war—the war in Vietnam. I came of age during the height of that conflict. My friends and I listened as student deferments ended in 1971 and the results of the first draft lottery without them were called out in our college football stadium. We were the “Hell, No, We Won’t Go!” generation.
Insulated as I was by my sex and the fact that I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that could send me and my siblings to college, I had no direct contact with those who actually served until much later when I was in medical school. In 1976 I was on Dr. Michael DeBakey’s cardiovascular surgery service as part of my general surgery rotation. The cardiac fellow was a man named Denny—I’ve long ago forgotten his last name, but I’ll never forget a certain day in the operating room. The fellows, who had already completed their general surgery training, were responsible for opening and closing the chest, and then assisting the “boss”, Dr. DeBakey himself, during the bypass surgery or valve replacement. There is always a certain amount of banter in an operating room, especially during non critical parts of the operation, and on that particular day the talk turned to the prosecution of Vietnam war criminals. Considering that I was completely ignorant on the subject, I should have remained silent. But instead I voiced my opinion that the “baby killers” should all go to jail. At that particular moment, the heretofore mild mannered and quiet surgical fellow raised his head, glared at me and said, “You don’t have ANY idea what you are talking about. I was there. I flew the helicopters that carried the wounded from battle. I saw things that you will never see in your life. Now get the hell out of my operating room.” Sometimes humiliation is truly the best teaching tool.
More than thirty years later, I live in a military town. Many of my colleagues and some of my best friends have served, and continue to serve both on active duty and in the reserves. I have worked hard to establish a good relationship with the VA Hospital here, and so I am privileged to treat veterans in my practice. They are treated with the best technology available, but even more importantly they are treated with the respect they deserve for having served their country. I have cared for many of them– retired generals who are West Point graduates and enlisted men from small midwestern towns, veterans who are homeless and those who have been tremendously successful businessmen, lawyers and teachers. But when I treat a Vietnam veteran, I feel a special sense of responsibility though our parallel lives were lived through very different prisms, our histories unshared. There but for the grace of God….
A heartfelt thank you to all of our veterans.