Last week while in a short line of cars waiting to be inspected, I noticed on the rear window of the truck in front of me a sticker saying, “Combat Medic.”
Since we had more than a few minutes to kill, I exited my daughter’s car, walked up and tapped on his driver window. When he lowered his window I saw a man much younger than me in Army camos and I boldly asked with a smile, “Are you a real combat medic?” He said yes.
I told him, “I know something you should know.” He asked what I meant, and I told him the short version, “The guys you patched up in combat will think about you with gratitude for the rest of their life. Some of them will wish they could find you to shake your hand.”
He asked if I had been in combat and I told him I was old enough to be his dad — which was too kind a self-assessment — that I flew Cobra helicopters in the Vietnam War, that some of my missions were flying gun cover for Dustoff (medevac helicopters) picking up wounded, and when I was shot down Dustoff came to pick me up to take to a hospital.
I told him I knew many other guys who wish they could find the medic who kept them alive, or the Dustoff crew that picked them up, to thank them personally for getting them through the meat grinder.
I told him quickly about Nick Donvito in Syracuse, N.Y., who was shot up bad and presumed dead at first. Nick still says his tour in Vietnam will never be complete until he finds the Dustoff crew that hovered not far from the firefight still in process and pulled him up through the jungle trees in a basket on a hoist wire.
Nick asked me to help him search, and I posted a message on the Dustoff Association website. At the same time I posted details of my own shoot-down in a hot spot known as the Iron Triangle.
I got no response on Nick, but I did get a response from Pete Atack in Rhode Island, who said he was flying the Huey gunship that covered the Dustoff picking me up that day, and that he took 22 hits in his own firefight keeping the bad guys off us while I and my fellow pilot were loaded on the Dustoff. Thanks, Pete.
Finding a particular Dustoff crew from Vietnam is close to impossible since they flew so many missions, too busy keeping their brothers alive to keep records.
I told the young man it wasn’t just the medics and Dustoff crews, it was also the doctors and nurses and orderlies in hospitals that struggled every day to physical and emotional exhaustion to keep a steady steam of mangled young men alive. I don’t think they realize how much their patients think of them with gratitude even into old age, and I know the same thing is happening now in Afghanistan.
In combat, medics do their frantic work under the worst of conditions, in the filth of the battle as they try to stop bleeding, mitigate the pain, sometimes start IV fluids along with some distraction and encouragement, especially if a man is dying, even amidst gunfire.
At the worst possible time they hear the shout, “Medic!” and they dash into the inferno to do their job, no matter how much they want to dig a hole and hide.
RJ DelVeccio lives in North Carolina. He was a Marine combat photographer. In his first hump in the steep mountain jungles of Vietnam, in the sudden violence of his first firefight he found himself setting aside his camera to help a medic work on a Marine with a sucking chest wound. Del remembers they tried hard, and how the medic beat the ground with his fists in frustration when the young Marine died, and how a man seemed to become heavier when dead as they switched off carrying his body in the steep hills.
Wayne Franz was trained as a medic. When he arrived in Vietnam and sent to a Dustoff unit, he expected some orientation and training. The sergeant he reported to told him to drop his duffle bag in the corner, pointed to a helicopter running up on a pad and told Wayne to hustle because they had a mission and needed him.
Wayne ran to jump aboard with apprehension since he had never been on a helicopter, and with no handholds feared he would fall out as it jerked off the pad and made tight turns at treetop level to avoid enemy fire, then suddenly flared to a stop and touchdown in an LZ where ground troops ran out to push aboard two of their wounded on litters.
Wayne didn’t have more than a second to wonder what to do when the aircraft leapt off the ground to get out of there, zigging and zagging then popping up just over the trees, while in the back Wayne applied bandages and pressure to stop bleeding, trying to remember his training on IVs and praying in his mind, “Please, God, don’t let either of these men die before we get to the hospital,” and before he knew it they were on the hospital pad and the ground crew reached in and took the litters to rush them inside.
Wayne stepped off the helicopter with blood dripping off him wondering what the hell just happened. That was his first mission.
Norm McDonald grew up in Utah. When he was a young hippie who wanted nothing to do with war, he was drafted and found himself a machine gunner in Vietnam since he was big and could easily carry the heavy M-60. He said he became rather good at his job. Near the end of his tour Norm took a large and very sharp mortar shrapnel fragment deep into his foot through his boot. In the dirty, warm humidity, his treated wound turned to gangrene and he was shipped to a hospital.
They cut out the nasty tissue, left the wound open to heal and changed the minimal dressing daily. Norm said there was one nurse who was so pretty he couldn’t help staring, and while changing the dressing on his foot one day, when she tugged to loosen it, a small artery tore and he had a small fountain of blood spurting out of his foot with each heartbeat while the nurse freaked and her frantic efforts to stop the bleeding had no effect.
A doctor was called over, worked on Norm for a while in what he said was a painful repair, then they cleaned up the blood splatter all over his bed and the floor. The pretty nurse came back, hugging him and holding on for a while as she told him she was so sorry. The pain had subsided by then and Norm thought, “Well, that was worth it!”
Norm said there was another nurse from Utah and they talked some about home. One evening down near the nurse station she was with doctors struggling to stabilize a new patient when Norm dozed off. When he woke in the middle of the night, that bed was gone and he knew that patient had died.
Norm worked himself into his wheelchair, grabbed the guitar someone kept in the ward and wheeled down to visit his friend, finding her quietly crying. He parked himself next to her, she leaned her head on his shoulder and they didn’t speak a word while he played some rifts and chords and pieces of melodies for her until she got up to get back to work.
Donna Rowe lives in Marietta. She was an Army captain at 3rd Field Hospital in Vietnam, in charge of the triage unit. Donna is not very tall but she is a very large bundle of dynamite and she ran a tight ship. She is proud of her record of never losing a patient while they were in the care of her triage unit. She says a patient might have died on the helicopter before they arrived, they might have died in surgery or from complications later, but her staff moved heaven and earth to keep them alive and they never lost a single one during her year.
Many years ago there was a TV program on PBS about American women in Vietnam. One nurse spoke about the daily strain of working on “beautiful, torn up young men” and she could have been talking about any war.
She said the bad part was when she went home, nobody cared or wanted to hear what she had been through because the American public had learned Vietnam was a dirty word, a subject not discussed in polite company. She said she tried to talk about it with her parents, but even her own mother didn’t want to hear it and changed the subject to cookies or the church social as if she were still a schoolgirl.
She said with tears streaming down her face, “So thanks for asking, for having this forum to talk about it, because every one of us was deeply changed by what we did. It was important and we should talk about it.”
For me it was 50 years ago. My hard crash crushed lumbar vertebrae and besides terrible pain in my guts, my legs didn’t work. Dustoff took me to a hospital nearby at Lai Khe where their X-rays told them to send me by helicopter to the big hospital at Long Binh for surgery.
I remember the doc, taking a moment from his habitual hurried walk, to tell me with a touch of compassion that they would do their best to fix me up. They put me back together and over time I learned to walk again.
How do you say thanks for that?
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. firstname.lastname@example.org.]