He was a big, burly man with a gruff voice and a temperament to match. His abdomen was a sprawling landscape of scars. And he was sick --- seriously so --- and needed to spend a little time with me in a cold room with hot lights. As is often the case, his surgery and recovery were complicated by chronic anticoagulation, a history of thromboembolism, a little heart disease, and a few other things that in the end caused me more worry than actual problems. Him? He was never worried, never complained, and treated the whole episode as a mere annoyance.
When he was at the point where discharge from the hospital was little more than a mild consideration percolating around my frontal lobes, I talked with him about perhaps staying for one more day to be sure he was ready to go home. I laid out my reasons --- he had just started having good bowel function, his protime wasn't therapeutic, he had enough medical problems to make me a bit nervous, etc. He listened, patiently, and then simply stated "I would really like to go home today. Today is March 4th, and it's my anniversary."
What a cold-hearted bastard I would be if I didn't let him go home for his anniversary! Even so, he had really not fully recovered to the point where I was comfortable with the idea of his going home. Deploying a delaying tactic while I fumbled for a reasonable excuse to keep him hospitalized one more day, I asked "How long have you been married?"
"No," he said, "it's not that kind of anniversary. On March 4, 1973 I landed in the U.S. after 6 years and 6 weeks in a Vietnamese POW camp."
His prescriptions and discharge papers were filled out in record time.
As it turns out, I cared for this retired, decorated Air Force Colonel one more time, when he required abdominal surgery yet again. I did not quibble when he asked to go home a day earlier than my comfort level. He was kind enough to give me a copy of a movie that included his experiences, Return With Honor. Though certainly not forgotten, following his recovery I had not seen the Colonel for several years. His obituary was in the paper this week, and I learned much of what I knew without asking:
Shot down in 1967, suffering vertebral fractures, facial fractures, and blindness in his right eye. Spent 6 years and 6 weeks in the Hoa Lo prison, the "Hanoi Hilton." Flew F-89's, F-101-'s, and F4 Phantoms, but was grounded due to his injuries; he did not retire from the Air Force until 1981. Recipient of the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, POW Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with Cluster. In short, a hero.The Colonel was rightfully proud of his service, and his anniversary was something he cherished in a way that I will never know. I hope he has landed safely.