I was 19 years old in 1968, an Army medic assigned to an aid station near the South Vietnamese hamlet of Tan An. Because of my youth, death and fear had never reached deeply into my experience. That would all change with the Tet Offensive, one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Ordinarily, the medical corps was not expected to fight on the battlefield. In previous wars, the medic's role was noncombatant, giving aid at the front to wounded soldiers before they were evacuated to field hospitals. Vietnam was different. The rules broke down. Everyone and everything was a target- even aid stations. Medical corps or not, we were expected to defend our position against the enemy.
For several nights, we had been warned of a Vietcong offensive and ordered into a foxhole. Each time turned out to be a false alarm. Once again on the night of February 28, an alert was given. "Horn, Jacobs," our first sergeant said to me and another medic, Bill Jacobs, a good friend, "take up your defensive positions." It was one of the last orders he would ever give, or Bill would ever hear.
We picked up our M-16 rifles and climbed into the foxhole, a five-foot square of earth, fortified by sandbags piled four feet high. For 10 or 15 minutes, we made small talk to pass the time before the all-clear announcement we knew would come.
Then came a terrifying sound overhead that caused my stomach to tighten like a fist-the telltale whoosh of incoming mortar rounds. All at once, the silence of the night was pierced by cries of "Incoming! Incoming!"
The first round pounded the earth 100 feet from our foxhole. I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me. Beads of sweat trickled down my face. Bill and I huddled against the ground as the explosions grew closer. There was another unnerving whoosh. Nut instead of hearing the burst of an exploding round, I saw a blinding white flash, whiter than anything. All at once, I was floating, weightless. Time stopped.
When I came to, I was lying on my back several yards away from the foxhole. The stench of gunpowder mixed with burning flesh clogged my nostrils. I could hear my M-16 popping off rounds from the intense heat of the mortar explosion. Around me, the fighting raged on, the sound of mortar fire mixed with the screams of the injured and the moans of the dying.
My mind slowly pieced together my predicament. I had no sensation below my waist. My back rested in a puddle of hot, sticky ooze which I realized was my blood making mud out of the earth. Blinded by sand and debris, I called upon what I was sure was the last of my courage and allowed my hands to reach below my hips. I felt two jagged objects, like broken tree limbs. With horror, I realized they were my thighbones of each leg. My hands quickly retreated to my face, cradling it, as if I were trying to comfort myself the way I might have comforted an injured soldier brought to our aid station.
I lay helplessly in the dark, alone. Shells exploded all around me and smoke thickened the air. My mouth was as dry as powder, and every cell in my body thirsted for water. I shivered uncontrollably. My mind wandered to my family back home in Massachusetts. I wondered if I'd ever see them again, if I'd ever go home again.
Despite my injuries, I was in no pain. I grew almost tranquil as I slipped closer to death. But that feeling soon gave way to panic as I sensed the rumble of an approaching tank, one assigned to our station. I was almost directly in its path. What if the crew didn't see me? I tried to raise a hand and call out, but all effort was useless. Passing a mere 10 feet from my head, shaking the earth, the tank churned up the dirt as it got into position. It had just missed me.
The tank turned the enemy back, and moments after the guns fell silent, I was attended to by a fellow medic. Bill was dead. Even through my blurred vision, the look on the medic's face told me I was in real bad shape. In the treatment room, drops were put into my eyes. They tried to start two intravenous lines, but couldn't because I had "bled out"-not enough blood was circulating in my arms to keep a vein up. There was nothing to do but load me on a chopper to the 24th Evac Hospital.
The triage room at the 24th was controlled chaos. The enemy had struck several installations that night. Doctors and nurses worked their way through a sea of critically wounded and dying soldiers, identifying the ones who could be saved and starting treatment. The lingering wet smell of blood and gunpowder hung in the room. My pant leg still smoldered. This was truly hell on earth. The medical staff labored intently over me. I watched them frantically cut away what was left of my uniform and apply tourniquets to my shattered legs. Deep within my being, I felt a tide of pure hysteria rising, something far beyond ordinary human fear or even panic, something more closely akin to one final desperate effort to fight off death.
At that instant, as I hovered between life and the hereafter, a face appeared above me, the face of a man in his late fifties at least, perhaps early sixties. A universe of calm seemed to exist behind his eyes, and his presence blocked out the misery around me. He pressed a warm, reassuring hand on my shoulder and said in a voice that flowed from him, "You will be all right. They are going to insert IV needles into veins on both sides of your neck. You must remain very, very still." Almost imperceptibly, he grasped my head. I barely felt the needles going in. Rather, I concentrated completely on the placid visage before me, my gaze locked into his.
Blood poured into my body-one unit, two, four. With it came life. And pain. I began to thrash uncontrollably, hardly able to withstand the agony in my legs. The stranger's gentle hands continued to hold my head firmly. If the needles infusing blood into me tore open the veins of my neck, all hope was lost. Suddenly, panic overwhelmed me. "I'm going to die! I'm going to die," I screamed. "No, you are not going to die," the man said in a calm, soothing tone. "Look at my face. Take slow, steady breaths and look at my face." I fought desperately against my terror. I didn't take my eyes off his face. The thinly etched wrinkles that furrowed his features made me think of wisdom and strength. His eyes were the color of a perfect spring sky, and just as clear. His hair was gray, with a hint of white, and close-cropped, only about a quarter of an inch at the top. His appearance embodied everything I needed at that moment-protection, reassurance, peace. Even if I had wanted him to turn away, I couldn't. Something about him held me utterly in his power.
Finally, the doctors had replaced my entire blood volume twice over. I was prepared for surgery. I didn't know if they would save my life, let alone my legs, but the last words the stranger spoke to me before I went under were, "Son, you will be fine." And I was. Four days later, I awoke in one of the wards at the 24th. I had no feeling from the waist down, so I was considerably relieved when the nurse pulled aside the blankets and I was able to see my legs, broken, bloodied and bandaged, but still there. There was never a prettier sight than my blue and swollen toes. Quickly enough the feeling came back, and with a vengeance.
I became insistent on thanking the man who had stood over me and guided me through triage. The nurses knew of no one who fit the description. They said there wasn't a person older than 40 in the whole hospital, and certainly no man with gray or white hair. I asked to see the chaplain, and he agreed to make some inquiries. He returned with the same answer. There was no such person. "Then who or what did I see?" I demanded. "I don't know, Larry, but if you need a name, call it the face of God."
I've thought about that alot in these 30 years since, and I don't believe I actually came face-to-face with God. I don't think we are meant to, at least not on earth. But there are beings who travel between heaven and earth. It is in their faces we can see the face of God.