Dysentery

My recent meanderings in this blog about Vietnam unearthed a memory that has long lain forgotten: my first bout with amoebic dysentery.

I don’t remember what year it was—sometime between 1962 and 1975—during one of my shorter trips (four to six months) to Vietnam. I remember thinking at the time that whatever was wrong with me was a minor nuisance rather than a serious illness. I went on working with the troops on the battlefield supplying them with intelligence on the enemy derived from the intercept and exploitation of their radio communications. What I was able to do for them was far more important than my bowels being in an uproar.

When I finished my tour, I returned to the U.S. My wife took one look at me and gasped. It never occurred to me that my appearance had changed. When I got to my house, I slipped into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I was shocked. I was so thin I looked like a man starving to death. I stripped and stepped onto the bathroom scales. I weighed 135 pounds. My normal weight was around 180. I decided then and there to see a doctor as soon as possible. He diagnosed me with dysentery.

Over time, I healed and regained the lost weight. I saw the dysentery as an annoyance like so many others I had to put up with during those years, including athlete’s foot and crotch rot. I counted myself lucky that small disorders were the worst that happened to me. I could so easily have been wounded or even killed on the battlefield. Men fighting next to me died, but I somehow escaped injury.

The worst physical problems I suffered came with the fall of Saigon. For days on end, I was holed up with the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end as I got the other 41 guys and their families out of the country safely. We had little to eat because we couldn’t get out to get food. We couldn’t sleep because we were regularly battered by the rocket and artillery attacks launched by the North Vietnamese as they prepared to seize Saigon. We finally escaped by helicopter after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets. The chopper I was in was fired upon but managed to fly to the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. When I got back to the states, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery (again), severe ear damage (from the shelling), and pneumonia, due to inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue.

But through it all I was never wounded. Talk about luck. The worst I had to put up with was dysentery. I can’t complain.

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