QANDAHAR

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Chapter 8

2:21 p.m. EST. March 8, 2009

President’s Residence, the White House

Lorraine Valerie Forster placed a picture frame on the living-room mantelpiece above a sputtering, wood-burning fire. Stepping back, she gazed at it for a moment, her left arm crossing over to hold her right elbow. The slightly discolored Polaroid was matted above the center line of the five-by-seven, black-wood frame. Her right hand moved slowly upward until her fingertips rested on her forehead. The President cocked her head to the right. Both arms dropped when she leaned forward and peered at the framed glass.

Under the square photograph was a simple, four-line inscription:

Lt. (j.g.) Elizabeth Ann Singer

U.S. Navy Nurse

Republic of South Vietnam

1967-68

“She’s why I’m standing here today,” Forster said, turning around to face Constance Stowe and Helen Brown. “My older sister, yes, my older sister.” Brown was curled up in an easy chair in front of the fireplace, her hands in her lap. Stowe was sitting on a three-seat couch sipping from a can of diet soda. The three had finished lunch a half-hour before. Around the lunch table they had put the finishing touches on what was to be the President’s opening statement at a press conference scheduled the following morning.

___________

All of the personal mementoes, knickknacks, articles of clothing and other items belonging to Lydia Templeton and her late husband had been removed the day before from the Presidential Quarters in the White House. They were packed and trucked to Andrews Air Force Base, from where they were flown in a C-130 military cargo plane to Charleston, South Carolina. The crates

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were hauled to the Templeton family home and unpacked before the former First Lady and her two daughters returned from President Templeton’s funeral.

As movers left the White House with the Templeton family possessions, another crew had in place all of Forster’s personal belongings inside the Presidential Quarters by the time she landed at Andrews Air Force Base after attending the funeral.

When President Forster flew to Charleston for the funeral, she’d carried with her in a brown- leather briefcase the photograph of her sister.

__________

“But for the life of me,” said the President, sitting down on the couch next to Stowe, “I never thought it would come to this.” She shook her head and gazed at the ceiling. “Never, never.” She reached over, touched Stowe’s hand before grasping it.

“Constance,” Forster said, “after Richard called me that night from Kansas City, I hunted for that photo. I vaguely remembered that years ago I’d put it in the bottom of an old leather suitcase, you know, the ones with the wide, leather straps. And there it was, under some old and yellowed linen tablecloths that were my mother’s.

“I picked up the photograph and looked at it for, oh, I don’t know how long. It must have been several minutes. But I cried. Oh, I cried a stream. I was wailing, sobbing so. I think I cried more than, oh, more than I did after Daniel died. Strange isn’t it? I had expected Daniel’s death. He’d been sick for so long.” Forster let out a deep sigh. “But Beth Ann ... it was such a shock.”

Stowe scooted over next to Forster and put her arm around the President’s shoulders. Tears were running down her cheeks. She pulled Forster closer and kissed her cheek. Brown got out of the easy chair and picked up Forster’s right hand, caressed it. She too was sobbing. “We both love you ... so very much,” Brown said.

Forster smiled at Stowe and then turned to look at Brown. “You two are the first ... and the last to know this,” said the President. “I never wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I never

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wanted to be a politician, and I’m not one now. Yes, I know that’s what all the media are saying: like father, like daughter. But I decided to fly to Kansas City because of Beth Ann. I couldn’t end the awful tragedy in Vietnam, but now I can end the war in Iraq and bring home our young men and women. If I hadn’t gone to Kansas City, I would have missed the chance to end it now.”

Beth Ann Singer, a 25-year-old Marquette University graduate nurse, squeezed the young

Marine’s right hand. His left arm up to his elbow had been amputated the night before, hours after North Vietnamese Army units mortared his Delta Company squad’s position near the old Citadel in Hue. It was February 10th, ten days after the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Republic of South Vietnam.

The Marine’s eyes closed, his chest heaved, his head slumped into a blood-soaked pillow. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. She wiped away the sticky, deep-red stream from the side of his cheek and pulled a sheet over his head. Blood stains had spread through the bottom of the sheet that covered what remained of his legs. Both had been amputated at the knees.

Beth Ann stood over the Marine’s emaciated body and wept. It was the eleventh death she’d witnessed in less than two hours. Two corpsmen and a Navy doctor came up behind her inside the Battalion Aid Station tent near the air field at PhuBai, less than a half-mile from the Third Marine Division’s headquarters. By helicopter, the aid station was less than a half-hour south of Hue, Vietnam’s former Imperial capital.

“Nurse,” the doctor said,“stand aside.” Beth Ann wiped away the tears with her shirt sleeve. Still sobbing, she turned and quickly walked out of the tent.

The doctor leaned over the triple-amputee’s body and pulled back the sheet. He closed the eyelids after he slipped off the Lance Corporal’s metal identification tags. Then the doctor looked up at a Playboy wall calendar and wrote the date of death on a heavy-cardboard KIA name tag, handing it and the metal I-D tags to one of the corpsmen. The corpsman jotted down the Marine’s

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name on the cardboard tag, copying it exactly as it was spelled on the metal tags. Then he pocketed the metal tags.

The other corpsman had shaken out a body bag and placed it on the tent’s blood-spattered, plywood floor, opening it. The two corpsmen gently, almost reverentially, picked up what was left of the Marine’s body and lowered it into the black body bag. The taller corpsman zipped up the bag and attached the cardboard name tag to the end of the zipper. Together, they carried the body bag and its lightweight contents out of the tent to a storage locker kept refrigerated by a constantly humming, gasoline-powered generator.

Beth Ann stood outside the tent lighting up her second Kool menthol cigarette. She drew in the numbing smoke and then exhaled. For the last hour there had been a lull in medevac traffic to the aid station. Then from inside the tent’s radio room she heard a buzz of voices. Another two choppers from Hue were scheduled to arrive in less than ten minutes.

She walked around in the cool night air and looked skyward, finishing the cigarette. Maybe it would rain, she thought, and wash away the blood from the aid station’s operating room floor. She was the chief operating room nurse and would have to get scrubbed quickly before the next load of wounded and near dead Marines arrived.

Beth Ann heard the deep, curt whooshing sound in the distance, off to the west somewhere. Then a thunderous clap popped her eardrums. A mortar round hit a parked helicopter not fifty yards away. The blast illuminated the cold storage locker, the aid station’s tent and three parked Jeeps. A concussion wave almost knocked her off balance. But she spread her legs and planted her feet to steady herself. Before her hand grabbed the tent’s wooden screen door she heard another short whooshing sound, but deeper this time, like a shrill out-of-tune whistle. It was the last sound she heard.

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