A Life Revisited
"Every day is Christmas"
Remembering My Father—Veterans’ Day
My father enlisted in the US Navy on 12 April 1917 (22 going on 23). The US declared war on Germany on 5 April 1917. He “joined up” a week after war was declared. His service number was 199909. His service record reads:
Brothers Worlds Apart in 1966
Gigged by Cpt. Alexander Haig
Meeting a Classy Lady
I was one of the fortunate survivors—I survived the crash with a broken hip and was being medevaced through channels with the first stop out of Vietnam being Clark AFB [in the Phillipines].
I had been placed in a spica body cast to immobilize the hip, and I relate this story from the perspective of being in that full, rigid, horizontal body cast, completely dependent on others for just about everything. I attempted to recall years later as much of what happened when we arrived at Clark in a short piece I wrote for our class’s 50th Anniversary Year Book, part of which was to collect the Vietnam experiences of our class. I would like to read this excerpt from that piece to you:
After landing at Clark Air Force Base, we were transported to a modern base hospital by a blue air force bus that accommodated our stretchers in the now familiar stack. No sharp memories about all this except the realization and recognition of the signs that we were now out of the battle zone, and everything, including the nurses’ uniforms, were back to normal white. The overall pace and outlook were clearly becoming “stateside” and away from the war zone. I was placed in a transient ward with about twenty other immobilized patients—the usual ten or so beds along each wall with an aisle in the middle.
I had been placed in the first bed along one of the walls. I can remember being visited by a nurse who did the usual check-in patient profile—temperature, pulse, blood pressure. I remember another set of X-rays being taken and added to my manila envelope. This last set was done by a portable X-ray device that was brought to my bed and the X-rays taken right there in the ward.
I was next visited by someone I thought was yet another nurse. This lady wore what appeared to be a nurse’s uniform dress but with an apron. She was pushing a wheeled cart with several metal wash bowls containing warm water. Since I was in the first bed, she started with me and asked if I wanted a bath. We had traveled for what seemed like all day, and I was tired and feeling somewhat travel weary—all this over and above the discomfort I was feeling in that body cast. It had been several days now since I was placed in the cast, and my body and skin beneath the cast were telling me how abnormal this situation really was.
I tried to make light of the situation and told the lady, passing my arm over the body cast, “Whatever is exposed of me, I would be grateful for a bath.”
The exposed parts of me outside the body cast were my head, shoulders, and arms, the two-by-two-inch square cut out on my chest, my left leg below my knee, and my right foot. The lady never hesitated and immediately took a washcloth, dipped it in the warm water, soaped it up, and began to wash the exposed upper part of my body. Even under these extraordinary circumstances, it is somewhat embarrassing and awkward to be washed by a stranger—and a woman. If I wondered what I was going to say or how I was going to feel, the lady put me completely at ease.
She immediately began to ask me questions as she washed me. “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where were you hurt? How were you hurt? Do you have family? Where are they?” Somewhere in the conversation, she mentioned she had noticed my West Point class ring and asked me what class I had been in. She told me her husband was a West Point graduate as well.
As she spoke, a flash thought went through my mind that this lady was the wife of a West Point graduate who went into the air force after graduation (you could select air force as a career choice back then). He must be stationed at Clark Air Force Base, and she was a Gray Lady volunteering her help with the Red Cross at the base hospital.
Then I asked her, “What is your husband’s name? I just might know him. Where is he stationed?”
The next two events happened almost simultaneously. As I asked the last two questions, my eyes glanced over at the little, rectangular metal name tag she had pinned to her apron. It said, “WESTMORELAND.” This incredible recognition was coming over me just as she was saying, “My name is Kitsy Westmoreland and my husband is General Westmoreland. He’s in Vietnam right now, although he was just here for a short visit and left last night.”
As the full recognition hit me, I blurted out, “Mrs. Westmoreland, you do me great honor!”
She replied, never stopping for a second giving me my “bath”, “No, no—you give me great honor.”
The remainder of my bath was spent trying to understand how the wife of the commanding general of US Forces in Vietnam, a four-star general in the US Army, was giving me a bath! In the most unpretentious and straightforward manner, Mrs. Westmoreland explained how she and her two children had tried living in several places while General Westmoreland served in Vietnam, but in these places, and particularly in their last location in Massachusetts, the harassment and ominous phone calls became too much for her, especially as it related to their children. The decision was then made to move the family to the Philippines and to be as close to her husband as she could. He was occasionally able to slip away from Vietnam to visit them, as he did just recently.
After finishing bathing this awe-struck major, Mrs. Westmoreland said she would return and talk to me some more, and then she proceeded to the next bed and asked its occupant whether he would like a bath. And that’s the way it went for the next hour or so before she finished her task and really did return and talk to me again. We talked for a few more minutes about families and West Point, and then she left me.
I had watched Kitsy Westmoreland go from bed to bed around that entire ward, and as best as I could observe, she had given a bath to every one of those twenty or so occupants. This was a mixed, transient ward I later found out. There were no rank or service differences on this ward—just hurting military men, wounded or injured in Vietnam. I remember there being officers and enlisted men—all races—soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen. This was a staging and decision point in the medical evacuation channels out of Vietnam. The seriously ill and wounded would be identified and sent directly home to the United States; the less seriously wounded and injured would be sent to Japan to one of two general hospitals there for treatment and surgery and possible return to Vietnam.
I was told by one of the nurses that Kitsy Westmoreland met this flight every day, and she greeted the wounded and injured coming out of Vietnam just as she did for me—with a warm smile and a bath. For the cynical reader, I want to say that this act was clearly much more than a token or symbolic gesture by the wife of the senior US military officer in Vietnam. This was very hard work that filled a real need providing comfort and relief to immobilized wounded and injured military men coming out of Vietnam. This was the act of a classy lady who matched her feelings and beliefs with actions and example. I doubt that most of the men she bathed and comforted ever knew her name or who she really was.
That ends the excerpt from my little written piece—and my story about Kitsy Westmoreland, a member of our West Point family. This story will not be found in the New York Times or the Washington Post, not in 1966 and not today. This story, however, is very important to me, and I wanted to share it with you because it says everything I want to say to you about Duty, Honor and Country—the motto engraved on the sides of our class rings—and how Kitsy Westmoreland lived it.
40:00 She describes life in the Philippines.40:30: “I worked in air-evac”
46:00 She tells about helping a soldier who said, “I always wondered what generals' wives did when their husbands were overseas.”47:10 “It made me feel more useful.” 52:20 Her best experience as an Army wife: “Being here [West Point].”
55:53 “I would say to the young wives, ‘Go get a job, quick…go get something that you like, to volunteer.'”