IT WAS THE DAY THAT WOULD DEFINE their lives. Rory Bailey, then a 21-year-old Army private newly arrived in Vietnam, remembers only scaring pain and then darkness. But for Carolyn Tanaka, the nurse assigned to care for Bailey in the emergency room of the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam, there was a sight that would haunt her forever. “The man did not have a face,” Tanaka recalls. “I was standing over a hole that used to be a face, suctioning it to keep this man from drowning in his own blood.”
Twenty-five years later, the man without a face and the nurse who helped save him met again—at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the new sculpture erected in Washington to honor the 11,500 women who served in Vietnam. The reunion last week was no accident. Tanaka, 57, and Bailey, 46, had been in touch for five years, ever since she spotted him in an article in PEOPLE. But taped letters and phone calls weren’t good enough; Tanaka, who lives in Fresno, Calif., kept wondering whether this horribly disfigured man haled her for saving him. It was not a question she felt she could ask directly, but Tanaka believed that once she saw Bailey in person the answer would be apparent. So she invited Rory, now living in Valparaiso, Ind., to join her at the official dedication of the Women’s Memorial on Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day. “I had to find him and see him,” Tanaka says. “I’m only sorry it took me so long.”
She got her answer almost immediately. As Rory stood wailing by the memorial, she walked up, moving with a nurse’s bustling efficiency. She immediately hugged him and did not let go. “It’s a miracle,” she said. At first, Rory, always adept at hiding his feelings, held her Light and said nothing. Then, quietly, he volunteered the words she had longed to hear: “Thank you. If you hadn’t been there, things might have been different.”
Tanaka’s eyes grew teary. “He was so positive and so upbeat,” she says. “I could not believe after so many multiple surgeries he still could be so positive. Rory has a great sense of humor considering all that he has been through.”
Unquestionably, Bailey has been through a lot. In 1974 he became a national symbol of Veterans Administration bungling. At the time, his lower face was still a featureless scar: He had no nose, no lower jaw and only a fragment of a tongue. He could not chew and had to survive on a liquid diet. Three years into his treatment, a bureaucratic snafu classified Rory’s wounds as “not service-connected,” and the VA refused to pay for further plastic surgery. Public outrage precipitated the intervention of then-President Richard Nixon, pressuring the VA into changing its policy.
Since then, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of reconstructive surgery, Bailey’s face has been slowly improved. In the most recent series of operations, surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., took a portion of Rory’s hip bone to reconstruct his eye orbits and upper jaw. They also stretched skin from his forehead to shape a nose. Eugene Keller, Bailey’s surgeon, hopes Rory will eventually be fitted with upper teeth, enabling him to chew.
But even after 200 operations, Rory Bailey attracts stares. His face is dignified but masklike. The destruction of all facial muscles has left him unable to move his cheeks or eyelids. Fortunately, he can move his lower jaw and what remains of his tongue, enabling him to talk. If he has made it through some tough times, he says, “it’s because God is helping me out.”
Though he reaches out to God, Bailey accepts help from few others. Over the years he has lived with a variety of relatives, but today he lives alone in a redwood ranch house about 10 miles outside Valparaiso. To supplement his veteran’s pension, he knits robes and hats to sell at craft fairs. He enjoys country music, fishing and puttering with his CB radio. He has suffered occasional depressions, which he attributes not to his war injuries but to a difficult childhood in rural Maine, growing up with seven brothers and sisters in a tiny house with no electricity. His parents’ divorce, when he was in high school, pains him still.
Carolyn Tanaka had an even more traumatic childhood. The daughter of Japanese-Americans, she spent 2½ years with her parents and three siblings in an Arizona detention camp during World War II. “Living conditions in Vietnam were palatial in comparison,” she says. Tanaka graduated from Fresno Hospital’s nursing school in 1958 and 10 years later, at 31, enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam, where, despite the U.S.’s earlier treatment of her family, she served as a captain for 18 months. Although she had trained as an emergency-room nurse, Tanaka knew little about caring for the wounds of war. “The weapons are designed to mutilate the human body,” she says. “There isn’t any training that could have prepared us.”
But Vietnam did prepare her to be a fighter, and Tanaka has been fighting ever since. Now partially retired, Tanaka, who has never married, is the central California coordinator of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, battling for funds and raising awareness of the role women played in Vietnam. She calls the Vietnam Women’s Memorial a long-overdue “…thank-you to all the women who have served in every war, beginning with Florence Nightingale.”
Last week at the memorial, Tanaka took Bailey’s arm and gently guided him to the nearby Vietnam Veteran’s Wall, where she spotted a familiar name: Ronald Doolittle. “He was the best medic I ever trained,” she murmured, rubbing Rory’s fingers across each letter. Bailey’s brother Neil watched the pair walking arm in arm, occasionally stopping in front of the cool ebony stone. “I thank God,” Neil said. “that my brother’s name isn’t up there.”
GIOVANNA BREU in Washington