Roger McLaughin:  Does a Dead Man Cry?

Roger McLaughlin was washing some dead soldiers in Vietnam, when his buddy asked, “What about tear glands? Can they still work after death?” It did appear that one of the dead was crying.

Roger McLaughin served in Vietnam as an Air Force medic. In 1971, following his tour of duty, he wrote the article below for the New Era magazine which has just been republished inSaints at War, Korea and Vietnam. Following the war he became a student in hospital administration at the University of Colorado and an early morning seminary teacher.

            The sun cascaded down in soft, warm waves of delight against my hardened muscles. The light and warmth gently massaged me from the lazy slumber by bringing to mind this morning’s inner glow-this morning’s miracle.

            It was a conference Sunday. Don, Tracy, and I were the only Mormons left on base. We were on call and couldn’t get the day off to go to Nha Trang to conference. Since we were all in the same unit, we met after breakfast and had our own sacrament and testimony meeting. It had been a simple service, with two of us to bless and one to pass to the two who had blessed. It was solemn and very special to us.

            After our little meeting, Tracy left to go to the squadron post, and Don and I spent the next hour and a half at the Base Exchange, visiting and drinking thin, powdered milk malts. They weren’t good, but the longer we were in Vietnam, the better they tasted. Then Don and I decided to go over to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and see the Vietnamese tailors about making some poncho jackets to take home.

            Don commented that Tracy wanted one, so we jumped in the cracker-box ambulance and drove down to the flight line to get him. Don went inside the rescue shack but soon returned with the news that Tracy had gone over to the morgue building to help with some KIAS (killed in action) that had just arrived.

            We sat there for a few minutes trying to decide whether or not to go and get him; if we did, we might get put to work. We could simply go on over without him. We decided we wanted him along, even if it meant working for a while on our day off. We were going to relax, even if we had to work all day at it.

            As we entered the building, the air conditioning felt like a tidal wave of relief from the smothering sun outdoors, which had soaked our fatigues with sweat. We stood there and enjoyed the cool breezes, joking about how if we got too cold, the sweat might turn to ice and then, of course, we wouldn’t have to work.

            An army master surgeon, who had come through the door that led to the back rooms, asked us politely what we wanted. Don answered that we wanted Tracy. He pointed a thumb over his shoulder and said he was “back there.” We walked through the doorway to the huge back room where Tracy was working. A strong odor of medical cleansing chemicals permeated the coolness.

Medical Evacuation helicopters were called, “Dust Off” in the 101st Airborne and were choppers that flew into combat unarmed. The Army decided to paint the “Dust Off” helicopters completely white, with giant red crosses, making them even better targets.

            Tracy was standing over a nearly nude body lying on one of the cold metal tables. Corpses were on eight other steel tables. Some of the bodies were still clothed with muddy, blood-soaked fatigues. Others were nude except for a towel draped across them. The room was well-lighted, and there was no real feeling of being in a morgue, except for the presence of the bodies.

            Tracy looked up and smiled. “Hey guys, what are you doing here?” We smiled back and told him about the jackets we were going to have made. He lit up like a diamond and assured us that he did want one, but he couldn’t go with us until he finished cleaning the bodies.

            We asked how he had got this duty. He told us how he had been helping Dustoff go after casualties down by Dok. He helped pick up a bunch of guys and had taken them to 71st Evacuation Hospital (EVAC): when he had noticed these corpses in the emergency section, he volunteered to bring them here to the morgue and get them ready to be shipped stateside. The master surgeon appreciated the help, as his troops had left earlier that morning to go to Pleiku City.

            We understood Tracy’s desire to help, and we pitched in to help him with the four remaining bodies so we could go over to MACV compound together.

            Don and I grabbed cleaning solution rags, and picked out the nearest casualty to work on. We talked about the way these guys had been killed and about the war in general.

            First we took off their fatigues, then washed and scrubbed their bodies with a thin green disinfection solution, rinsed them in warm clean water and dried them off. With the three of us working and talking together it didn’t take long to finish cleaning the bodies.

            We were about ready to leave when Don asked, “Hey, Poco, is it true a person’s system keeps on going in some respects after he has died?”

            I looked up at him and replied, “Well, I’ve heard the hair keeps growing for a couple of hours but it really isn’t really that noticeable. The brain can function a few minutes after the heart stops, but I guess that’s about all. Why?”

            “Well, what about the tear glands? Can they still work after death?”

            “I’ve never heard of anything like that but I guess it’s possible-why all the questions?”

            “Well, I thought we might have left some of the rinse water in this guy’s eyes, but I’ve wiped them twice now and he is getting water in the corners of the eyes again. I think he’s tearing.”

            Tracy and I stood up and walked over to the body. As we looked into the face of the

shrapnel-torn boy of about eighteen, a single tear crept and ran down the side of his face and into his ear.

            “This man is alive,” I breathed. The response was immediate, as if we had done this a hundred times. Don grabbed the keys to the cracker-box ambulance and opened the doors for us as Tracy and I carried the body out. We put him on the stretcher and Don headed the ambulance toward the 71st EVAC, the siren blaring our warning.

            As we bounced along Tracy wiped another tear from the boy’s face. I looked at his dog tag to get his name as I wanted to give him a blessing. It was then I noticed on the bottom of the tag three little letters-LDS. I placed my hands on his head and uttered an almost inaudible prayer: “By the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood which I hold and through the power of Jesus Christ, I command you to stay alive until we can get the proper medical attention to restore your life.”

            Tracy looked at me and wiped a tear from his own eyes, smiled a thankful smile, and bowed his head in a silent prayer.

            The siren stopped and we cruised down the asphalt road to the open door of the 71st EVAC Hospital. Army medics helped lift the soldier out of the ambulance and carried him into the emergency room. Two doctors began asking us questions, and we told them all we could. Without a word, they disappeared through the doors of the emergency entrance and we sat on a long wooden bench for more than two hours.

            We were discussing going over to get the jackets when one of the physicians came outside and walked toward us. We stood up.

            “I’m glad you guys waited.” He began, “I want to tell you of a miracle that has happened. That boy in there should by all medical standards be dead. He had been wounded in nine places. He had lost so much blood he wasn’t bleeding anymore. His heart was so weak we couldn’t hear a heartbeat or feel a pulse. He had become so weak his breathing was unnoticeable. He was legally dead. But in reality he was still alive.

Propaganda leaflet, front and rear views. These leaflets were dropped out of aircraft asking the enemy to please not shoot down innocent U.S. Medical Evacuation helicopters, since the enemy might also need to be evacuated.

            “He was so weak he couldn’t move or respond, and so he lay there on that cold table of the morgue and cried. He is mighty lucky you noticed the tears, because he could have died soon. As a matter of fact, he should have died even after you brought him here. Although we gave him four pints of blood and repaired his wounds as best we could, he still lacked the strength to recover, but he did.”

            He paused, then looked directly at us, “In the eight years I’ve practiced medicine and for the fifteen months I’ve been here in Vietnam I’ve never seen such a miracle.” He looked at the ground as he spoke. “You know something, that young soldier looked at me a few minutes ago, smiled a very weak smile and said, ‘Priesthood.’ What do you suppose he meant by that?” Not waiting for an answer, the doctor slowly turned and walked back through the opened doors of the hospital.

            Now as I lie here basking in the sun, I know I’ll go back sometime and explain to the doctor. But right now I just want to rest and experience the joy of having participated in a modern-day miracle.

Taken from Roger McLaughin, “A Vietnam Sunday,” New Era (January 1971): 12-14.

2003 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.