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Kanab, Utah's Weekly Newspaper, Serving Kane County, Utah & the Arizona Strip

Southern Utah News Front Page: May 28, 2020

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Memorial Day 2020

William Clayton Petty, M.D. U.S. Navy (Ret.) was the speaker at the Kanab Memorial Day program.


The following is the speech given by the guest speaker at the 2020 Memorial Day program in Kanab.

 By William Clayton Petty, M.D. U.S. Navy (Ret.)

A 19-year-old soldier is making his way through a thick jungle in Vietnam. He is on a mission to hide landmines on the path he is treading in hopes of killing enemy soldiers. He is thinking about his beautiful young wife and the new baby he has not yet seen.

Hours later a 19-year-old soldier from America is walking down the same path and steps on a landmine, which explodes and causes him serious injuries.

The medic immediately applies bandages to stop the bleeding from both stumps of his legs, the stumps of both his arms, covers what is left of his eyes with a cloth, puts cotton in both his ear canals to absorb the blood flowing out and covers the portion of his face where his lower jaw used to be. The medic then calls for a Medivac helicopter and administers morphine to this young brave soldier.

The Medivac helicopter arrived at the 24th Evacuation Hospital only 30 minutes after this destructive injury. An experienced team of trauma doctors and nurses rush the young soldier to the operating room. A team, composed of an orthopedic surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a general surgeon, and an ophthalmologist quickly evaluated the patient.

After six hours of extensive surgery the soldier leaves the Operating Room supported by a ventilator. Now he has no legs, no arms, no eyes, his lower jaw is missing, and both his tympanic membranes are gone. Four days later it is determined he could not survive transport to Japan and, certainly, not to mainland USA.

A decision was made to stop ventilation and this once vibrant, patriotic, 19-year-old soldier died for his family, his moral values, and his country.

The 24th Evacuation Hospital had a phenomenal record for trauma care. Less than two percent of the wounded soldiers who arrived alive on the helicopter pad, died.

American soldiers throughout South Vietnam knew they had a 98 percent chance of survival if they could make it to an American hospital. No stateside or combat hospitals in previous wars have come close to this record.

I paid a price for being in the war: repeated, repeated, repeated, days and nights bathed in the blood of wounded soldiers. Piles of amputated arms and legs. Repeated, repeated, scenarios of blown out eye orbits, gunshot wounds of the head leaving gaping holes in the skull and permanently comatose soldiers. Acrid smells of intestines full of holes hanging out of gaping wounds in the abdomen. Urine flowing from holes and gashes in the urinary bladder, and gross disfiguration of faces caused by gunshot and land mines. Contending daily with dirt and grime, sometimes including maggots in the wounds of American soldiers.

Young men crying and begging to let them die rather than have to face their sweetheart without a leg, an arm, or a penis, or a severely disabling facial wound. Men who revered our help in saving their life but knew the limitations in our ability to restore what had been blown away.

Constant exposure to this carnage changed me. Did I get used to the blood baths, disfigurement, and ruined lives of soldiers? No. A hole was left in my heart. I did build up a barrier of acceptance: lt was my duty. Work, work, work, saved me from having to intellectually confront the dichotomy of the Vietnam War.

Many years passed away before I faced up to the consequences of pent-up emotions successfully buried in Vietnam.

New perspectives of my life values were formed. I leaned on my strong religious background. I questioned the stupidity of war but recognized the frailties of man. Despite obvious lying by the leaders of America, I was able to retain love for the Constitution and the foundation of freedom in the United States. Love increased immensely for the dead and wounded soldiers, and my peers caring for the wounded.

Many ask, why don’t you just forget about the Vietnam War and get on with your life? Easy to say, but hard to do. To forget about what happened in Vietnam would be a moral injustice for me. Forgetting the enemy may be possible, forgiving the despot leaders of America may be possible, but forgetting the teamwork and the wounded is just not possible.

In July 1993, a letter from a former wounded soldier treated at the 24th Evacuation Hospital was sent to the organizer of the first reunion of those who served at the 24th Evacuation Hospital during the years 1966 and 1972. Let me share his words with you:

I am writing this to thank those who had a hand in treating me and setting me on the road to recovery. But I am not writing this just for myself, but for hundreds who were carried through your doors…to say thank you to those who were there when they were needed. Who am l? lf there is an average soldier, I guess I am it. This is partly why I am writing…for the average soldier.

I arrived in ‘Nam the first week in April 1969 and was wounded during my third firefight on April 30. I ended up on the doorstep of the 24th Evac, a wayward traveler in need of a “good Samaritan” and I found many. The doctors went to work. The corpsman shuffled me from x-ray to surgery. The chaplain gave me constant support. The Red Cross girl wrote a letter to my family. Especially the nurses (those Florence Nightingale’s) who put the human element back into healing.

…I then realized l was not just in professional hands, but in caring hands of those who wanted me healed…A lot of us are still alive because the men and women of the 24th reached out with healing hands to help strangers. I can’t thank you by name…so consider this a thank you from the unknown patients of the 24th to the unknown healers of the 24th.

Thanks for being there and going through the fire with us. We do remember and we always will.

On this Memorial Day this physician remembers the dead, the mutilated, and those who served. Quotes from what I said at my retirement ceremony from the military summarizes best by feelings today:

Where do I look for the bastion of the core values of America? To me the military did, does, and will, remain the bastion of the elements of freedom. Duty, Honor, Country, the legend of the West Point Coat of Arms, reverently dictates what each citizen should do, what they can do, and what they must do, to preserve our precious liberty.

When I went to Vietnam as a young anesthesiologist, I learned a number of lessons:

Lesson: Patriotism is not a fear of something; it is a love of something.

Lesson: Observing the continual 24-hour carnage in the operating room of the 24th Evacuation Hospital affirmed to me the truism: War is HELL! Why? Because men lose their morals, they lose their spirit, and they lose their lives.

Lesson: The families left behind make the greatest sacrifice because of our absence.

Lesson: Plato was right: only the dead have seen the end of war. I firmly believe the United States of America is the “home of the brave” and the “land of the free.” Our Father in Heaven protected the soil we walk on in this land for centuries, awaiting the arrival of men and women, like Washington and Jefferson, destined to establish a republic.

My desire has always been to serve my country, my family, and my God. May the flag of the United States always remind the world that men and women have the freedom to choose. I do hope some of my words have renewed the glimmer of fire in your hearts to the descriptive terms representing the United States of America: Liberty, Freedom, and Democracy.

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