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The Hero with a Single Face

by Michael Murry

Even in the most unexpected of circumstances, genuine heroes do appear among us. I can remember one such instance when I worked with a truly brave, principled, and compassionate man during my service in Vietnam.

As the base translator/interpreter at our remote river outpost, I often had to work with a young Navy doctor who ran our little base medical facility. I can’t remember the lieutenant’s name anymore, so many years have passed, but I do remember his wispy blond hair and well-trimmed mustache. He would sometimes call on me for translation assistance anytime a wounded or injured Vietnamese required medical attention and the doctor needed important information from the patient.

One time, a Marine colonel brought in one of his wounded American soldiers along with a wounded Vietnamese, supposedly an enemy prisoner. The lieutenant did what any good doctor would do and immediately determined which patient needed what treatment and which one needed attention in the most urgent way.

The wounded American had taken a bullet in one of his legs or arms, as I remember, but otherwise he seemed able to manage for the moment. The Vietnamese, for his part in obvious agony, had a gaping wound in his abdomen and had clearly lost a lot of blood. So the doctor quickly gave the American soldier an injection against infection and discomfort, stopped the bleeding from his injury, and turned to treat the more severely wounded Vietnamese.

Then the shit really hit the fan, so to speak.

The wounded American soldier tried to attack the wounded Vietnamese man lying on his back on a wheeled operating table, and the Marine colonel told the doctor not to treat the Vietnamese until the man had “talked first.” As an enlisted man caught between two superior officers and facing the prospect of participating in the forced interrogation of a badly injured man, I didn’t know what to do or how I would do it. Things had suddenly gotten really bad really fast.

The young doctor saved everyone involved with a display of resolve such as I had rarely witnessed. He told off the Marine colonel in no uncertain terms: said that he ran his dispensary and said who did what in it; and told the colonel to get his man under control or take him elsewhere.

Things then proceeded as they should have; two injured people got the treatment they required; no one died; no interrogations took place under illegal or immoral conditions; and I didn’t have to find out if I had the courage and sense of honor sufficient to stand my ground and do the right thing as the lieutenant had done.

I’ve never forgotten that experience, nor several others like it that I remember from days I would just as soon forget. I only know that I try to keep the memory of a young Navy lieutenant alive in my mind as a constant reminder of how ethically and courageously some people can act when the situation calls for it. I have no doubt that such heroes still exist in this world and that they go about their daily jobs little dreaming of what good they will do when someone else, enemy or friend, needs them the most.

The late Joseph Campbell wrote a book on mythology called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I think of that title whenever I think of that young Navy doctor who served so many different people so well and quickly, so long ago. I can’t possibly say that I’ve seen all the thousand faces of heroism, but I know that I’ve seen one of them.

Copyright © 2010 by Michael Murry

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