Being a buddy to AIDS patients had a different meaning from being a buddy to a soldier on the battlefield.
I volunteered to work with AIDS victims starting about ten years after the fall of Saigon even though I thought at the time that it might mean risking my life for the good of others. At the height of the AIDS crisis, we didn’t know how the disease was transmitted. Volunteering to help men dying of AIDS might mean exposing oneself to contamination. And back then, everyone who contracted AIDS died. But men were dying on the street because no one would help them. I reasoned that if I could face the danger of death on the battlefield, I could do it helping sick men.
Some years later, we learned that AIDS is transmitted when tainted body fluid—usually blood or semen—enters the bloodstream. I was safe from infection so long as I was very careful to avoid needle sticks when I was doing injections. In fact once I did accidentally stab myself with a tainted needle after I’d given my patient a shot. By sheer good fortune, I didn’t contract AIDS.
On the battlefield I loved my buddies. American men, especially those in the military, avoid the word “love” when it comes to other men. But the feelings I had were too strong to be called anything else. I was willing to give up my life for these men, my buddies, and they put their lives on the line for me.
And I loved all my AIDS patients. They were more like my sons than my brothers. I bathed them, dressed them, fed them, soothed them when they frightened, celebrated with them when they happy. My job was to help them die with dignity and with as little pain and sorrow as possible. I still grieve over the loss of each one.
So the word “buddy” has become sacred to me. A popular song published in 1922, about a buddy lost in World War I, expresses the grief better than my words can:
Nights are long since you went away
I think about you all through the day
My buddy, my buddy, no buddy quite so true
Miss your voice, the touch of your hand
Just long to know that you understand
My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you