White Coat Underground

Friendly Fire

This is an essay from several years ago, but with so many WWII vets dying, I thought I’d keep this little bit of oral history around.

About an hour before my patients begin to show up, I sit at my desk and enjoy a cup of coffee while looking over the charts for the day. On my list was a new patient for the 9:00 slot. I opened his computer chart and saw that he was not new to the VA, only to me. He had been to a series of doctors over the years, and was noted to be hostile and dissatisfied with each. This is often how people seeking help become labeled as “bad patients”, and are even “fired” by doctors. There are certain code words and phrases in medical charts that help identify “bad” patients; among these are “poorly compliant” and “habitual no-show”. From reading the chart, he was all of these, so it was with a bit of dread that I awaited his arrival.

Mr. Williamson showed up in a blue blazer, slacks, and a blue cap adorned with the name of the Navy boat on which he had presumably served. He was a large man, imposing even at 73 years. He sat down, folded his arms, and waited for me to speak.

“So, what brings you in today?”

“Well, it’s the same goddamned thing every time! Can’t you read what’s in that damn computer?”

“Well, I can see what other people say, but I’d like to know what you have to say. Any pain anywhere?”

“Of course I got pain. I’m 73 years old, and the VA fucked me over good, just like the Navy done!”

“Well, I just met you, so I don’t know about any of that, but I’ll tell you what-why don’t you pick one thing that’s bothering you the most today, and I’ll listen to you, and try to help you with it. No promises beyond that. I can’t tell you I’ll make it better, but I’ll try.”

“OK, it’s my damn knee. Hurts just as bad as it did the day I hurt it.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Well you know how it is. I acted like a damned fool and joined the Navy. Thought I’d have a real job. Not many folks in my town had jobs back then. So I joined up, ready to do whatever it takes, and guess what? Me and all the other coloreds get assigned to manual labor. They didn’t care what skills we came in with, and they sure enough weren’t going to give us any new ones. They just put us on ships and docks and told us to lift shit all day. And if you complained, there was plenty worse work you could get.”

“Did you work out at Port Chicago?”

Port Chicago was a Naval magazine in the San Francisco Bay area where several hundred black seamen were killed while loading live ammunition onto ships. They had complained about the danger, but had been ignored or threatened. After the accident, many refused to go back to work without a change in conditions. They were court martialled, but finally pardoned many years later.

“Just before the accident, which was no accident, most of the guys stationed with me shipped out there, figured it would be better work out west. I stayed here. Most of them’s dead now.”

“What was it like for you back here?”

“We got treated like slaves. When they’d put us on a train, we’d have to ride in the first car, the one where all the smoke from the engine goes in. The German POWs rode in the good cars. And when we’d stop for meals, the POWs ate in the restaurants, but we had to find sandwiches and eat them on the train.”

“We were willing to die fighting. Black men who got combat training went around training with wooden guns. Army’s probably afraid they’d use real one’s to kill white officers. Fact is, I think the ones who did get to fight got so good at killing Germans ’cause they were killing white people.”

None of this was in his medical chart. His eyes stared forward as he spoke. He appeared angry, sad, hurt, and very distant. He had not yet spoken of his injured knee. He never did. His pain was as sharp at that moment as it was 50 years ago. He had volunteered to serve his country, and found the enemy was treated better then he was. Like many soldiers, his memories had him pinned down in the past. When the year is 2001, 1945 is a very lonely place.

Comments

  1. #1 Donna B.
    February 20, 2009

    How terribly sad. I hope I am right in saying the military has changed very very much since 1945.

  2. #2 Drugmonkey
    February 20, 2009

    Not so remote, my parents were toddlers.

    Wonderful to keep this story alive, Pal.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    February 20, 2009

    A fabulous and moving repost, doc. My wife and several of my physician colleagues have had similar experiences with patients at our VAMC, especially here in the South. Our culture does not value or take care of our veterans in a manner commensurate with their sacrifices and service, and even more so for African American soldiers.

    I fear that economic pressures increasingly prevent docs from having this kind of quality listening time with their patients. Simply being able to tell their stories, express their frustrations, and share their experiences. Not all healing is physical.

  4. #4 Arikia
    February 20, 2009

    Friendly FireS is also a band from the UK! This is irrelevant, of course. Lovely post though!

  5. #5 Zuska
    February 20, 2009

    Well, you may not have fixed his knee but you listened, and that may have been far more important. Jesus. How many more stories like this are there out there that we never hear.

  6. #6 The Perky Skeptic
    February 20, 2009

    Wow. That is poignant. It disgusts me that American soldiers were treated like that– by other American soldiers, no less!

  7. #7 ctenotrish
    February 20, 2009

    Did you ever get to his knee? Do you know what happened to him? I am so sad that it ever happened, and more so that it can be seen still today . . . . I am glad that you listened to him. :..(

  8. #8 storkdok
    February 20, 2009

    Thanks for sharing this story. You are right, many times it isn’t what patient’s come in complaining of, they need to talk, and when no one will listen to you for over 50 years, who wouldn’t be angry and defensive. To never have an apology for such discrimination would make anyone angry. I’m glad he found you.

    In my specialty, and also because I’m a woman, I have had many, many women of all ages over the years come in for a gyn checkup, and when I asked if there was anything else I could help them with, the floodgates opened and they would tell me deep dark secrets that they hadn’t told anyone, some from 70 years ago. We need to listen more than lecture.

  9. #9 DLC
    February 21, 2009

    The military officially desegregated in 1948.
    The commanding generals issued orders and that was that.
    Or it should have been. Of course, it wasn’t. Society, the military included, never moves forward as fast as it should.
    But, we keep moving, if even by inches, and that’s good.

  10. #10 thalarctos
    February 24, 2009

    How many more stories like this are there out there that we never hear.

    A Filipino patient of mine, a WWII vet, tells how wounded Filipino soldiers on the battlefield, fighting alongside US troops, would routinely be passed over by medics looking for wounded Americans. For him, it’s as vivid as if it happened yesterday.

  11. #11 Art
    February 26, 2009

    I think people need to understand that the grievous wrongs of the past last for a lifetime. The wrongs committed today will be with us for a very long time. Considering that people are living to ever older ages this time is getting longer.

    I think this has to be kept in mind when looking at bullying, discrimination and abuse.