Reverence to the Brave, Honor to the Fallen
Early this morning, the fifth hour of this thirtieth day of May, I stand in the presence of God, in the quiet darkness before first light. The air is cool and still. The gentle embrace of soft, gray fog rests on the hills all around, and upon the silent lake to the southwest. Far to the east, dawn is spreading across the Great Plains where my love lies waiting for the beginning of another lovely day.
For many people, Memorial Day is just another day off. For a few others, it is a day of reverent remembrance, a day to honor the fallen, a day to remember the brave men and women who have gone into harm’s way, who have given their lives for the love of others. Today, this day, I see fragments of time passing in memory, pieces of stories from a long time ago. They touch me on the shoulder, like friends from behind.
My mind is blessed with the memory of many men and women warriors of great distinction whom I know well and admire greatly. But today, this day, I am mindful of a few warrior women who are especially remarkable to me.
I think of Seyha, the Khmer (Cambodian) nurse of Duyen Đoan Hai Muoui Lam (Coastal Group 25) of the Vietnamese Navy with whom I served for part of my time in Vietnam. In the Khmer language, Seyha means “Lion” (and also refers to the month of August). Seyha was mother lion to the Vietnamese sailors of Coastal Group 25. She was the only woman I ever knew who was a member of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. This Memorial Day, I especially honor Seyha, the Lion. You are in my thoughts, and in my heart, and in my conversations with the Maker of All Things.
Just fifteen years earlier than my time in this same part of the world, during the French Indochina War, other warrior women fought and died, and are remembered with profound reverence by those who were there to witness their strength and honor.
Among them is Suzy Poirer, who was wounded while at the wheel of her ambulance on the Cao Bang road. There is Aline Lerouge, a fearless ambulance driver seen on every road, who once plunged her ambulance into an icy river in Tonkin. During a firefight, Aline saw the driver of the halftrack in front of her killed by a sniper. Immediately, she handed over the wheel of her ambulance to another nurse, jumped into the halftrack and kept on driving. A few hundred yards down the road, she got closer to the firefight. Aline jumped out of her halftrack, lay flat in a ditch, and started blasting away at the enemy. Return fire sent a bullet through one of her lungs. Another ambulance driver named Marguerite Calahan was once seen calmly walking by her trucks during an ambush, while the escorting troops were taking cover in the ditches beside the road.
Other warrior women of this gathering of lions are named Sage, Minouche, Robinet, Odette, Mathy, Poupart, Baugé, and Sorin, all of them nurses, all of them full of caring, tenderness, and devotion to soldiers wounded in Vietnam. To each of these nurses, a wounded soldier was treated as a treasure. Nothing was too good for “les blessés” (the wounded). Warrior women like these are lions you always want to have on your side.
One of the most amazing warrior women of all time in Vietnam has got to be Geneviève de Galarde. At first she was criticized by some of the old soldiers as “just another girl who’s not even strong enough to lift a stretcher.” “Seems there’s always a bit of jealousy in these affairs,” said her boss, Médecin Chef de Bataillon (Dr. Major) Paul Grauwin.
Geneviève was a nurse during the horrible Battle of Dien Bien Phu, hell in a very small place. The brave men there in that black hole were far more worthy of honor than the general staff, that directed the battle from far away.
Geneviève was a flight nurse who became stranded at Dien Bien Phu when her plane was destroyed on the ground by artillery fire in the midst of the siege. She was the only woman in the entire garrison. Geneviève accomplished the most detestable, unglamourous, difficult jobs with the gentlest of smiles and the greatest of cheer. She worked with the most seriously wounded, the soldiers who had lost an arm or a leg, or both, or who had a piece of their large intestine protruding from the wall of their abdomen so that their feces could come out. She was calm and reassuring under artillery fire. She went from one wounded man to another as if nothing remarkable was happening. Her sweet, soothing voice always knew just the right things to say.
Geneviève often asked permission to attend to wounded soldiers in other parts of the camp. Of course, she always came back covered with slime and mud. She would say to her boss, Dr. Paul Grauwin, chief medical officer at Dien Bien Phu, “I saw the wounded of the Second Airborne today. They’ll come to see you tomorrow, all those who can walk. I visited the T’ai and the Ninth Group. I went to supply and the Airborne Commandos, and the Eighth Assault.”
Geneviève usually made a complete tour of the entire camp. With artillery shells falling constantly, she had to cross open areas under fire, jumping over shell holes, forcing her way through barbed wire entanglements. “You could have been killed,” she was admonished. “Oh no!” she said. “If only you could have seen how happy they were, and how pleased I was!” When the soldiers saw her, they were all the same – Senegalese, North Africans, Vietnamese, T’ai, French, they all emerged for a moment from their fighting emplacements to see Geneviève. ”At the very least, you could have been wounded and brought back to me on a stretcher,” worried Dr. Grauwin. “Oh no! You see, I had my helmet with me,” she explained.
Geneviève de Galarde is one of the long line of extraordinary, young warrior women of history who I hope to meet some day. At that amazing moment, when eyes meet eyes, I think all the air inside me will stop. There will be a hushed moment of knowing. It will be for me a moment of profound blessing.
Actually, I have to say, that when David and Heather, and Jackie and I visited Paris in March 2005, I would like to have paid my respects to Geneviève de Galarde, who lives there. But time was short and other plans interceded. It was not to be . . . at least not on that occasion . . . perhaps someday, soon. But for now, a blessed Memorial Day to all . . . Reverence to the Brave, Honor to the Fallen.