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Ex-GI found a miracle amid terror

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  • Ex-GI found a miracle amid terror,...219825,00.html

    Ex-GI found a miracle amid terror
    By Diane Carman
    Denver Post Columnist

    Leon Rodriguez is haunted by ghosts. If he closes his eyes, they appear as
    vividly as when he first saw them unloaded from the helicopters at the 24th
    Evacuation Hospital in Vietnam. He clenches his fists and tries to will them
    gone, but they never go away.

    It's why he chooses to focus instead on the miracles.

    At his southwest Denver home, a flag is hung by the front door and a
    Kerry-for-president sign is in the yard. On the walls everywhere are photos of
    his children. They're smiling, happy, each one a miracle.

    But especially Barbara. Barbara cheated a long, brutal war of one more death.

    For years, Rodriguez has kept the story of Barbara to himself. But now, he
    said, people need to hear it.

    It began about 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, 1967. Sgt. Rodriguez was in charge of
    surgery at the 24th Evac. Barbara's parents and her 6-year-old brother were
    brought into the hospital after Cambodian insurgents attacked their village on
    the edge of a rice paddy. Green Berets had rescued them. Barbara's mother was
    "gut-shot," Rodriguez said, and rushed into surgery.

    But before the surgeons could save her life, they delivered her tiny twin
    girls, several weeks premature but hardy and undeniably beautiful.

    The army nurses scavenged the Quonset hut for two boxes, some blankets, hot
    water bottles and makeshift clothing. They placed the babies in the closest
    thing to incubators to be found that near to the front and put the boxes on
    either side of the mother's bed in the recovery room. Her husband and son
    curled up and slept on the floor beneath the bed with a small bag containing
    everything they owned between them.

    The next day, the larger of the two babies died. Her immature lungs had failed
    her. The other baby survived by accident. During the night, the blanket
    protecting her from the hot water bottle had slipped. She touched the bottle
    and burned her arm. The pain kept her crying - and breathing - all night.

    In his scrapbook, under the picture of the preemie in the cardboard box,
    Rodriguez wrote about the miracle: "This sweet baby brought joy and hope to
    members and patients of the 24th Evacuation Hospital."

    The family stayed in the hospital until the mother had recovered. Then the GIs
    took them to a refugee camp near Saigon. They left the baby behind.

    "I have no idea why they abandoned Barbara," Rodriguez said. They were
    Montagnards, Vietnam's indigenous people. They were known to be superstitious.
    They had no home. She was so small. Maybe they couldn't take care of her.

    Rodriguez said nurses, doctors, even patients at the 24th doted on the baby
    he'd named Barbara. The engineers built her a crib and a highchair. In the
    midst of mayhem, where the average number of craniotomies - only one of the
    many surgical procedures done at the MASH unit - was 180 a month, everyone
    watched out for her.

    By December, the fighting was becoming more intense and casualties were
    mounting. Rodriguez said orders came down to save every available bed for
    wounded soldiers. So during inspections, Barbara had to disappear.

    Nurses and patients would slip her from ward to ward, keeping her quiet and
    away from the eyes of officers.

    She was growing more and more healthy and beautiful. Rodriguez had fallen in
    love with her.

    Finally, one night he got on the radio to his wife, Else.

    "She's a baby who needs parents. Over," he said. "We're parents who need a
    baby. Over." Else's response was immediate. "She would make our family
    complete. Over."

    With that, the Byzantine process of adopting a baby at the height of the war

    Rodriguez hired an interpreter and combed the refugee camps searching for the
    Montagnard family. Unable to find them, he entered negotiations with the South
    Vietnamese government to get the adoption approved without the parents'

    By spring, Barbara had her very own Vietnamese passport, a small green,
    hardcover document with a black-and-white photo of a black-haired, brown-eyed
    baby girl, and a visa, signed by a U.S. State Department official while the
    U.S. Embassy in Saigon was under attack.

    At last in June, after a year at Long Binh, Rodriguez caught an embassy flight
    back to the world. He held his baby girl in his arms the whole way.

    Later, when they all were back in the states, Virginia Devine, one of the Army
    nurses who cared for Barbara, and her husband, Col. Robert Leaver, an army
    neurosurgeon, were godparents at her baptism.

    Now, 36 years after celebrating his first Father's Day, Rodriguez is telling
    the story as if it were yesterday. He remembers the names of the fellow
    soldiers, the feeling of the sweat running down his back in the operating room,
    the overwhelming fatigue after weeks on end of 16-hour days spent fighting for
    life in the theater of death.

    "A couple of my friends in Vietnam wanted me to write about all this," he said.
    "It's highly personal. It's never been written."

    Twelve years ago, the 24th had a reunion at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
    More than 400 people - surgeons, nurses, corpsmen, even former patients - came
    to share old stories. They invited Barbara to speak.

    "It was wonderful," Rodriguez said. They remembered her and what she meant to
    the unit. She thanked them. "It was such a thrill for her, for everyone.

    "War is a constant catastrophe," Rodriguez said. "Most of the time we were
    overwhelmed, triaging as fast as we could. There was a constant threat. It was
    hot. We were sweating. Sometimes we'd have to hold the nurses back when a child
    would arrive on a litter to make sure the patient wasn't rigged to a bomb.

    "Those are things the chicken hawks have never seen."

    Rodriguez served 20 years in the Army, two tours in Vietnam. At 66, he still
    works as a physician's assistant in the operating room. He's still married to
    Else, still capable of getting all mushy about his kids, still an unabashed

    "Maybe now you can see why I'm talking about this after all these years.

    "I want to do something to protect my kids, something for the future," he said.

    "People need to understand. No one should be coloring the facts to justify
    going to war. No one should go to war on superficial evidence. We need to know
    the truth."

    The truth, Rodriguez said, is that with all its suffering, its casualties, the
    deaths, the ghosts and even the occasional blessed miracle, war is not

    "It's not a game," he said, his hands clenched into tight fists to keep the
    ghosts at bay.

    "It's madness."

    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"
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