VETERANS’ DAY


I wasn’t a war hero.  I was just a ship’s doctor.  Some doc had to be on the larger Navy ships, and I got chosen. I didn’t do much, since young sailors were healthy, other than getting drunk or gonorrhea.  This was in the era when STD meant “something to do,” rather than “sexually transmitted disease.”

Still, I did two appendectomies at sea, under my own spinal anesthesia.  I did a few other useful things, like untwist a testicle (a testicular torsion), something that will make most men cringe to think of it.  I had never seen one before, but when I saw the poor sailor writhing in pain, I knew what it was.  I didn’t know exactly what to do, but warm soaks, intravenous diazepam, and twisting the proper direction unwound the wounded member like a rubber band.

I don’t celebrate Veterans Day, for to me, it is for those who served on the front lines, which I didn’t. I got a haircut and tipped the woman more than I usually do.  She did a good job, I already get a discount for being old, and it made her day better.  An hour later, I got a free triple chocolate Mocha from Dutch Brothers for being a veteran, so I learned what goes around comes around.  Nice lesson.  The real vets to me are the guys and gals at war.  I bet they don’t think of themselves as heroes, just sailors, soldiers, and airmen sailors serving their country.

One of my hiking buddies was a Marine in Vietnam, who fought at Hue.  If you know how to pronounce it properly, you know what that battle meant.  My friend never said more; he didn’t have to, and I was smart enough not to ask.  He has a Disabled Veteran License Tag on his truck, but he can out hike me easily.  He’s quite a guy.  He’s seen hell and come back. I haven’t done that.  But I did help one man during my service.

There was a ship’s executive officer (XO) in my squadron, a Type I diabetic.  I knew that and asked my boss whether a diabetic’s serving on a ship was allowed in the Navy.  Apparently for this officer, it was, so I didn’t say anything more.

The ship had no doctor aboard; an independent duty corpsman was in charge.  I soon learned his ship had failed medical inspection for the upcoming deployment. I was ordered to go over and make everything shipshape, literally.

I volunteered to go aboard for 3 days, when the ship went to sea briefly.  I don’t remember what my wife thought about it, but work was work, and 3 days at sea gave me a lot of time to get things done.  I took a break the first morning and went topside to the bridge wing to get some fresh air.  I don’t remember whether we could still see the southern California coast, but in any case the Captain soon walked up. I saluted, he didn’t, and without a hi, reamed me a new one for trying to torpedo the career of his executive officer.  I didn’t know what he meant and asked him such.  In no uncertain terms, he said, his XO was being handled by a Captain-doctor at the Navy hospital in San Diego, who knew a lot more about diabetes than I did.  I was ordered to stay out of the issue.  He left, not returning my salute.  That’s a bit rude, but I wasn’t about to argue.  The doctor in San Diego did know more than I.  And I don’t argue with Captains.  I also became more careful what I told my boss.  Word gets around.

The ship subsequently passed inspection, and we deployed together, until Hawaii, when we went south and they went west.  It wasn’t until mid-November, 6 weeks into the deployment, in Subic Bay, when we were together.  This would become only time of the whole 8 month deployment we would be.  They were moored on the opposite side of Subic, but I figured I ought to go over and see how things were going.  Whether I walked or took a cab, I don’t remember, and it isn’t important.  When I went aboard, the corpsman practically ran me down.  “Quick, the XO”!!  I knew immediately what was wrong, and when we barreled up 3 decks to the XO’s stateroom, he was sweating, confused, and staggering around the room.  A vial of insulin and a glass of orange juice were on the desk.

To this day, I don’t remember what the corpsman would have done, but diabetics without insulin do not crash in a few minutes the way TV portrays them.  Diabetics with too much insulin do crash suddenly.  I took out a syringe of 50 cc 50% glucose, which I made sure the ship had before they left port, and gave it to the XO IV.  Within seconds, he was normal.

But, in the space of an hour, his career as a seagoing officer was over.  The Chief Staff Officer (CSO), the Commodore of the Squadron’s right hand man, drove the XO to the Navy Hospital at Subic; I sat in back. The XO didn’t need hospitalization, but he could no longer stay on the ship.  Fourteen years of service, and at best, he would do his 20 years and retire, maybe as head of a shore duty facility.  To this day, I don’t know if he was mustered out.  I hope not.

On the way back to my ship, the CSO, whose name I still remember, told me that I was right in wanting the XO off the ship before deployment. I learned a lot that day: first, that I was needed.  Had the XO been given insulin, which might have happened had I not been there, he would have died or been permanently brain-damaged from hypoglycemic encephalopathy.

But I learned something far greater: this was an “I told you so” moment, and I did not gloat.  Instead, I had a pronounced feeling of sadness.  The man should not have been aboard ship; that was clear.  I didn’t know as much about diabetes as the doctor in San Diego, but I knew a lot more about shipboard medical issues.

I learned that being right comes with a price of being sad about it.  If I am right about climate change, I bet I will be sad, and won’t gloat, for how does gloating fix the problem?

Today, for the first time, I wondered how the CO of the ship felt.  I never saw him again.  In any case, sir, I hope your career was successful.  The main point was that your XO didn’t crash at sea, where things would have been a lot worse.  We were lucky that day.

To the CSO, I salute you and your wise words.  Your calmness helped me learn that doing the right thing is far more important than gloating about it.

Happy Veterans Day.

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