Army hospital served by 'angels of mercy'


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Decades ago, when the Vietnam War was still raging and American casualties were mounting, Fitzsimons Army Medical Center near Denver was the hospital site where most of the wounded were sent for medical treatment.

It was a massive medical complex, easily seen from planes approaching Denver’s former Stapleton International Airport. The hospital, which closed in 1999, was named after Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, the first American medical officer killed in World War I.

From the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, more than half of the hospital’s 1,700 beds and the majority of its wheelchairs were occupied by Vietnam veterans, mostly young men who met danger, stared death in the face, and paid an unimaginable price of pain and suffering.

My sister, an Army nurse, was among those who tended to their medical needs, and one spring day in 1971 gave her father and brother a surprise opportunity to meet some of Fitzsimons’s doctors, nurses, and patients.

We visited three wards that housed some of the wounded – most of them amputees. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and suddenly my father and I didn’t know what to say or where to look. In reality, we felt guilty for just being whole.

Fortunately, my sister could sense our unease and, with her natural gift of gab, began breaking down any artificial barriers, introducing us to a series of patients who had come to define her early career existence each day.

Many of the young men had no legs at all. Others had lost an arm and a leg. At least one vet could thank Vietnam for his loss of an eye, an arm, and a leg. One “Old Sarge” had been hospitalized for six years and had endured eight amputation operations. The next one would probably be his last, he admitted.

But, no matter what appendages these warriors had sacrificed, or the degree of their afflictions, not one seemingly had lost his spirit or will to live.

Some of the credit, we figured, must be due to the “angels of mercy” on the hospital’s nursing staff that were ever-present, providing care and comfort around the clock. Proudly, I could say, my sister was among those who gladly responded to their every call.

Among those she introduced us to that day was “Paul,” an Iowa State grad who came back from Vietnam minus an arm and a leg. A year into his recovery, he was anxious to progress to the point that he could enroll at the University of Denver and pursue a master’s degree in business administration as a staging ground for starting his own company.

Then there was “Nick,” a daredevil in a wheelchair who had lost his leg, an eye, and a piece of his skull. His left arm was mangled and was wrapped and harnessed to his torso. He powered a wheelchair with one good arm and was unquestionably of an indomitable spirit.  When he arrived at Fitzsimons more than a year earlier, few gave him much chance of survival. A bullet was lodged in his head after passing through his eye, and his leg and arm had been shattered by various shots from a high-powered weapon.

Just days after being severely wounded a half-world away, “Nick” landed in the care of the medical staff of Fitzsimons. As he awakened from the first of his many surgeries there, this latter day G.I. Joe reportedly opened his one good eye, managed a crooked smile, and quipped: “Hi, nurse. How ya’ doin’?”

It was a question that only an angel dared answer.