Aug. 20, 2006
By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
They both served in the Vietnam War, he at the Naval Air Facility on Camrahn Bay and she at the 27th Surgical Hospital Unit at Chu Lai in southern Vietnam.
But their paths never crossed until this year on May 6 when Robert D. Fitzpatrick of Temple presented Paula Quindlen of Troy with 'Haunted Eyes,' a poem he wrote in honor of all Vietnam War nurses.
'Nurses didn't get recognition for everything they did. They still don't,' Fitzpatrick said. 'I had to do something for them. You have no idea the hell they experienced.'
As the poem 'Haunted Eyes' reads:
'She patches up their bodies . . . cleans and feeds them too, if it wasn't for the victories, she'd never make it thru. How many young men have to die . . . to end this awful quest. She works long days and endless nights to fill all their requests. Writing letters to their loved ones with what they have to say, she's in the corner crying now . . . she lost another one today.'
The rate of post traumatic stress disorder for veteran nurses from Vietnam is five times higher than that of the average soldier, Fizpatrick emphasized, trying
to describe the turmoil and pain the nurses witnessed.
But Fitzpatrick’s tribute did not stem from a first-hand experience.
He was never a patient in a hospital or medical unit in Vietnam, nor had ever visited the hospital where Mrs. Quindlen was stationed. Mrs. Quindlen now works as the VA clinical educational coordinator at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple.
For his inspiration to provide “Haunted Eyes” its detailed imagery, Fitzpatrick relied on memories, decades old but not faded.
“I remember talking to guys who got banged up, go to the hospital and then come back saying the nurses are angels. ‘They’re just angels.’ That was said over and over,” Fitzpatrick said.
As the poem “Haunted Eyes” concludes:
“Years have passed since she’s come home but the memories remain. She’s tried to forget all the things she’s done and she still feels the pain. Hundreds of men whom she helped save are grateful for her yet, but it’s the men down in their graves that she can’t forget. She sees their faces in her dreams . . . names she can’t remember, they go by in endless streams . . . passing without number. She wakes up in screaming in the night . . .tho no one hears her cries, from now on she’ll see the world . . . thru those Haunted Eyes.”
Mrs. Quindlen said she was stunned to learn Fitzpatrick had never been a patient at Vietnam.
“The words he wrote describe how it was,” said Mrs. Quindlen, herself an eyewitness to the workings of a Vietnam hospital. “If I had his gift with words, those are the exact words I would have picked.”
Almost three months have passed since Fitzpatrick gave Mrs. Quindlen the poem that hangs framed in her home, but the emotion that “Haunted Eyes” stirs in both veterans seems not a second old.
While discussing the poem and what its images mean, both Fitzpatrick and Mrs. Quindlen spoke with cracked voices and gazed at each other with teary eyes.
“I never meant to make her cry,” Fitzpatrick said while chuckling. “I just wanted her to have it,” he said, his voice returning to a serious tone. “I’m so glad I found her.”
On May 2 this year, the Temple Daily Telegram published a story featuring one of Mrs. Quindlen’s presentations about the history of women veterans.
Fitzpatrick read that story, and four days later, he took “Haunted Eyes,” a poem he wrote in December of 2005 to Mrs. Quindlen’s office in the VA center, where, ironically, Fitzpatrick and his wife regularly volunteer.
“That whole time since the poem had been written, a Vietnam War nurse was sitting down just across the hall,” said the poet’s wife, Sharon Fitzpatrick of Temple.
Mrs. Quindlen and Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, all three, still sigh in awe at the idea of being in the same place at the same time in so many instances, but never knowing it.
Also ironic is the ease with which Fitzpatrick writes his poems.
“I am not a trained writer. The December of last year was the first time I ever thought about writing anything,” Fitzpatrick said.
His first career was the Navy. Fitzpatrick worked for 20 years as an aviation engine mechanic until retiring in 1976, then he embarked on a second 20-year career as an electrician.
“Now I’m trying to make a third career out of writing stuff down,” said Fitzpatrick, 68 years old.
To date, Fitzpatrick has authored 21 poems ranging in subject matter from war memories, sex and lust to the evils of alcoholism and child abuse. Mrs. Fitzpatrick said the poem “Dedication” is the one most special to her.”
“There’s one poem, ‘Dedication,’ that summarizes our whole life together and everything it means to him,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick, said pointing her husband, the man she married in 1979 after a troubling first marriage.
As a finalist in a recent contest sponsored by www.poetry.com, one of Fitzpatrick’s poems, “A Soldier’s Call,” is expected to be published in a hard-back book, along with all the other finalists, within the next few months.
His poetry is also published online at www.poetry.com, which can be found by an author search of Robert D. Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick’s interest in writing wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened, he said.
“I was playing an online poker game with a song writer, and she encouraged me to write some sample lyrics,” Fitzpatrick said. “Nothing ever came out of it, but that led me to poetry.com, which got me started on the poetry, which lets me say everything I’ve always wanted to say.”