The Man Who Walked 3,500 Miles to Kill Me by William Zoesch

 

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Sometimes a passage in a book gets ingrained in a reader’s mind. That happened to me with the following words from William Zoesch:

“His brain was not going to tolerate an insult like this, I thought having seen enough head wounds of all types to last me for the next fricking millennium. His CT scan showed the bullet track through his brain, bone fragments lay where his personality once was, and then exited out through his right motor sensory strip.”

The patient bled out on an operating table.

Dr. Zoesch (rhymes with “flesh”) spent four years (1969-73) in the Army, with one year in Vietnam. Then he returned to college and studied Emergency Medicine. From 1984-92, he was a doctor in the Air National Guard. And from 2003-07, he doctored for the Army Reserves, with a year in Afghanistan. His separations from the services include two honorable discharges and a resignation of his commission.

Zoesch records his combat zone experiences in The Man Who Walked 3500 Miles to Kill Me: Reminiscences from Vietnam and Afghanistan (Lulu, 378 pp., $18.95 paper; $9.95 Kindle). The book evolved from diaries he wrote thirty-two years apart.

He incorporates the two diaries into one storyline and thereby deals with both wars simultaneously. Zoesch intersperses his life as a captain in Vietnam from June 1971 to April 1972 with his time as a colonel in Afghanistan from September 2004 to September 2005. We leap back and forth between the two countries, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. But every entry is dated.

Initially, the book’s organization works and similarities between the start of the author’s two tours are comparable. But once Zoesch reaches his units, his jobs differed so greatly that they lack relativity. Nevertheless, the book abounds with enlightening and entertaining stories.

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Operating room at the 24th Evac Hospital in Vietnam

In Vietnam, Zoesch ran TOCs at Long Binh and Xuan Loc. In Afghanistan, he ministered to the wounded and sick at Bagram Air Base and Kabul. The common core of Zoesch’s two combat tours was long working hours and fatigue brought on by too little sleep.

Zoesch’s Vietnam War memories offer new twists to old facts. For example, he explains how a Claymore mine works to illustrate the damage one did when a Thai soldier used it to assassinate another soldier over a woman. In Zoesch’s world, the unit mascot is a dog named Roach who kills other dogs on sight, even other mascots. And in the tiny Bearcat officers’ club, a barmaid with self-induced catatonia is allowed to pass out on the floor for hours at a time. Most interesting, Zoesch’s running battle with finance concerning back pay ends in a “High Noon”-type showdown.

As a TOC boss at Bearcat, Zoesch worked closely with his Thai and South Vietnamese counterparts. He developed great respect for the Thais and believed their combat skills were under-appreciated and under-publicized.

When President Nixon reduced in-country troop strength in 1972, Zoesch moved to Xuan Loc. Shortly after he arrived, a  South Vietnamese battalion took heavy losses, something he had not experienced. Later, Zoesch became aware of additional problems such as heroin trafficking and the use of torture and murder as interrogation techniques. After the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, however, he focuses on the war.

In remembering Afghanistan, Zoesch’s recitations of treating wounds and illnesses resembles a medical textbook. He uses words such as beta-agonist, auscultation, and rhabdomyosarcoma, which might confuse the average reader. But he clarifies them with detailed and lucid explanations. As the months roll by, his diary fills more and more with descriptions of unusual medical cases, one involving an illness that doctors claimed “had not been seen in forty years.”

The doctors at Bagram worked twenty-four hour shifts and tended to Afghanis as well as to GIs. The breadth of costly medical aid and transportation provided to the civilian population, including life support, surprised me.

At age fifty-seven, after four months of eighty-plus-hour work weeks, Zoesch grew deeply depressed. Then he moved from Bagram to Kabul, which he likens to going from a penal colony to a city. An R&R to Doha coupled with his appointment to command the clinic in Kabul rejuvenated him. He continued to treat patients while becoming an administrator involved in policy making and politics until finishing his tour.

In both wars, as he neared the end of his tours, Zoesch reflected on what he had seen and done and philosophized about what the future held for America. His book’s Epilogue presents a sound case against the rampant use of American power to democratize the world.

The book’s title refers to a Mongolian Muslim soldier who said he had walked all the way to Afghanistan (3,500 miles) to kill infidels—Americans in particular. He made the pronouncement as a POW while Zoesch treated his battle wounds.

Here’s one more passage ingrained in my mind:

“Along the north side of our tiny airfield, there was a scene there etched into my memory ever since—twelve black body bags covered by swarms of flies. Squatting about five meters away were three Vietnamese soldiers eating their lunch from bowls with spoons. That to me was Viet Nam in one cataclysmic blink. I have seen filled body bags in Viet Nam and Afghanistan but that one moment in time survived and summarized all of the rest.”

—Henry Zeybel

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