Homeward Bound

photo of Michael Hurder in front of a chopper
Courtesy photo from Michael Hurder

The flight crew turned out to be nice folks and agreed to dump the restraints if I promised to be good. I nodded. They let me free. I got out of the litter and into a window seat beside a kid named Cisco, who was holding a colostomy bag. He looked at me and said, “Pardon my luggage, man. It doesn’t leak.”

I traveled this last leg with 68 others; 70 if you count the two bodies in the belly of the plane. Two Marines were escorting those bodies home, eleven injured, including a guy still in a stretcher who was hurt badly and needed the litter instead of strapped into one like I was. The remaining 55 souls were heroin addicts and under guard.

The pilot greased our landing on my last leg from Fort Dix, NJ, to a tiny airport near Hanscombe AFB, MA. We taxied over to this chain-link fence that separated the airfield from the civilian world. Two grey Navy busses, an ambulance, and two hearses were parked next to a Quonset hut. I figured these transits would carry us to the next stop in this marathon of a tour home. I got excited; I could smell the hotdogs at Fenway Park.

As we taxied the last few yards to disembark, I saw this drop-dead gorgeous blond nurse waiting at the foot of the rolling staircase, and my jaw dropped. Out of my seat, I climbed over Cisco and parked at the door, hospital PJs, robe, funky blue slippers, and all, before the orderlies even stirred.

I approached the door to the world. I dreamt of this day for the past fourteen nights while traversing half the globe on medevac flights home. It was May 1st of ’72, and we landed, finally. I felt pumped. Well, as pumped as I could be.

My coconut still wrapped after my third head injury, and my left arm, numb and in a sling, made my medical transport necessary. The blonde nurse walked up to the stairway, down which we would return to sanity. God did I ever love the USA.

By now, the whole plane roused awake. Those on the same side of the aircraft as me hooted and hollered, egging me on with the nurse. I blushed, ducked my head, and started laughing at myself—almost felt normal for a second. Then the door cracked open, and the sun hit me in the face, momentarily blinding me. I rejoiced; I couldn’t help it.

I stepped out onto the top stair and heard the engines, still spooling down. I also caught what I guessed as voices chanting.

Curiosity got the better of me, so I forced my eyes away from Blondie to discover that we stopped next to a civilian employee parking lot full of shouting longhairs.

The MPs passed me coming up the stairway as I slowly descended. The dissidents brandished signs that read horrible things, and they chanted anti-war, anti-soldier, anti-American slogans at us.

One sign got me dead in the heart… “BABY KILLERS.” I was in shock. Then I started shaking. The Marines beside me told me to relax and ignore them. The guys behind us, equally upset, joined in a unison flip of the bird to the crowd. We started yelling back at them; even the guy in the litter was ticked off and screaming too.

Near the bottom of the stairs, as Blondie reached for my arm, I stopped, turned, and screamed an obscenity at the top of my lungs, and then the missiles flew.

They threw bags of dog poop at us. I crouched and looked for a weapon when the projectiles flew. In shock for a heartbeat that would have cost me my life two weeks before, I finally reacted and covered.

The guys behind me on the stairs carried an amputee on a litter. They couldn’t duck. They tried to cover him as best they could, but one bag of dog crap got through. I still dream of jumping up just in time to save him from that humiliation…but I didn’t do that.

Rage! I wanted blood. I started for the fence, and every other GI that physically could ambulate followed me, including Cisco, colostomy bag, and all.

A chain-link fence separated us from the protestors, but not for long. At the fence’s top, the barbs ripped my paper-thin PJs from my neck halfway down the leg on one side. My arm was still in a sling, and the bandages unraveling from my noggin, I quickly made it over the fence, followed by the rest of the med-evacuees.

The Marines followed as they feared for us. They shouldn’t have worried. Two to three hundred activists on the other side of the enclosure, stunned, turned to run away. Not being military-minded, they didn’t know about choke points.

The lot was clearing fast, and all we could see were rear-ends and elbows, but the protestors got bunched up at the gate, and we caught them. It was an all-out melee, and we were the only ones fighting. The longhairs were screaming or crying or unconscious.

Cisco, who tackled a kid from behind and pinned him down, used his colostomy bag as a weapon. He repeatedly pounded on this kid’s head and yelled with each strike… “I hope this breaks in your face.”

Another kid on crutches ended up with one bent crutch doubled from swinging at an agitator, occasionally missing and hitting the pavement. It was a massacre. As bad off as we were, we tore into them. The Marines, trying to separate and protect us, tossed people left and right like rag dolls.

Finally, The MPs and the local police, who were supposed to have controlled the demonstrators, arrived. The police did nothing to keep the longhairs from throwing projectiles at us, and now they took us to jail, threw us in a cell, and let all of the civilians out of the gate.

Eight of us went to civilian jail that day. The protesters went home or to the hospital.

Freezing! My shredded paper PJs barely covered my rear end, and I couldn’t get warm. My shoulder, pulled out of socket again, throbbed, and my headwrap held in place by a few threads. One of the Marines saw me shaking and gave me his tunic. He said I’d earned it, that I’d fought like a Marine that day.

The cops ignored us, even the kid with the colostomy bag, which needed servicing. We were dying, and no one cared. The next day a Navy Captain from Chelsea Naval Hospital arrived and threatened to sue the entire city police force and the Mayor if they didn’t release us immediately.

Security Police came and picked up the Marines to continue their escort duties. I tried to give the tunic back, but the Marine just said, “I told you. You earned it, Soldier. Semper Fi!” I saluted him.

Ambulances picked us up. The kid with the colostomy bag yelled as we left that we’d be back, and they’d all be sorry shortly after he got there. The cops laughed. All six of us stared back at them until they stopped laughing.