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Medics make life-or-death decisions

6/6/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

God and all North Vietnam could see us. We were outside Khe Sanh on Operation Scotland II and had stopped at midday to take a bit of rest and to eat. Very tired from humping the hills on this operation, we had set up on the side of a hill in a place far too exposed for safety. We were the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. It was a careless thing to do, and you’d think we’d have been smarter.

As we got up to move, the NVA started walking mortars in on us. The thump of mortars being dropped in tubes and ejected was then followed by the explosions of the rounds detonating. Sand and fragments flew everywhere. Marines scattered and dove in all directions amid the shrieks of “Incoming! Incoming!” Men were lying still and eating the earth to stay low. I found a small indentation in the ground and got down. Then I heard screaming. My best friend, Lance Corporal Jim Tucker, had been hit.

It was May 11, 1968. I was a corpsman in the U.S. Navy, but was assigned to the Marines. I had joined the Navy in 1966 thinking it would keep me out of combat. I was absolutely terrified of going to war.

In boot camp, when given a choice of jobs, I chose hospital corpsman because an uncle of mine had been a corpsman in World War II. He served aboard an aircraft carrier, came home and became a successful optometrist. I hoped something like that would happen to me, and picked corpsman without asking anyone who might know what the job would involve. Imagine my surprise at discovering that the thing I was most afraid of in the world was exactly the thing I would have to do. Instead of serving aboard a ship, I was going to be in a Marine combat unit.

Being legally blind in my left eye from birth, 20/400 and not correctable, I didn’t really belong in the military. On the eye test in my induction physical, I couldn’t read the chart. But I’d been taking eye tests since I was 3, and knew that the big letter was bound to be an E, so I said to the doctor, “I think I can make out an E.”

That was all it took. I was a member of the United States Navy. Such was the state of the U.S. military in 1966: They needed bodies so badly they were taking one-eyed goofs from Chicago who happened to weigh 100 pounds. Even the recruiter said he never thought I would make it.

Two years later, I started my tour in Con Thien. As far as these Marines were concerned, there were two kinds of corpsmen. One kind was like a guy they called “The Goat.” He traveled with the command group and didn’t want to live like a troopie. He played it by the book, was a stickler for protocol. If he found out you didn’t take your malaria pill, he might just as soon write you up as talk to you about it. And he insisted that in any casualty situation the wounded be brought back to him.

Then there was a guy called “Kid Squid.” He lived with a squad, stood radio watch like any other troopie, helped out in any way he was needed. And Kid Squid’s deal was, “Wherever you are—if you’re hurt, don’t worry, I’m coming for you.”

What kind of corpsman was I going to be? They would be watching. So I got it early. Whatever the book said, whatever technique I had been taught at Field Medical School was out the window. No one expected any less of you than that you joined the war with them, that you did for them what they would do for you. You stood radio watch, you carried your own equipment and, if need be, theirs. If it came to it, you put the medical equipment down and picked up a weapon and fought for them as well. And you never waited in a hole for some wounded Marine to be dragged back to you. You went for them just as they would for you.

I was made to understand quickly that out there, to those young Marines, the book meant nothing. They had respect, admiration and affection for the Kid. He was one of them. He came for them—no matter what. As for the Goat, they didn’t have much use for him.

My best friend was Jim Tucker, a big, strong kid from New England. We became good buddies, kind of a Mutt and Jeff team. We looked out for each other, often traveling close together on patrol and sharing C rations. By the time I got to Khe Sanh, I had been eating out of C ration cans for three months and could barely eat them anymore. “Tuck” would make sure I got whatever of his I could eat, as he could eat just about anything.

I had gotten so close to my squad by then, it was as if we all knew what everyone was thinking and feeling. I felt a little foolish with how much I had grown to love these guys. And now, on that May day, there they were, dying on a hillside in Vietnam.

We were not dug in, and the fragments were flying everywhere. I heard someone yelling “Corpsman! Corpsman! Doc!”

I did not want to move. I never wanted to move less in my life than at that moment. The thought occurred to me to stay put. After all, the mortars were still coming. I could stay here and…and this must have been when the military training kicked in. I got up, moving to my right, past a tree, to a gully where the screaming was coming from. I saw a couple of my squad members, and one of them was Tucker.

He’d been hit and was calling to me. The gully was too steep, and I was frantic to find a way down to my friend. The mortars were still coming in while I was going back and forth on that ridge looking for a way down. Finally I saw a way, and down I went.

Tucker was hit in the back, the neck, arms and legs with shrapnel that had ripped away his flak jacket. His face was cut and black with dirt from his fall. He was screaming in pain as the mortars started coming in close to us. I was working on him, but he was too big to move, and everyone else was taking care of someone. I didn’t know what else to do. He was my friend, he was completely helpless and he was in great pain.

To keep him from getting hit again, I did what I know he would have done for me. I straddled him to shield his body from the incoming shrapnel, and I told him it would be OK and to try and stay still.

The next thing I knew, the mortars stopped. Tucker was still screaming in pain, and I went and made a decision at that moment that haunted me for many years. I gave him a shot of morphine—not knowing enough about his wounds to determine whether it was contraindicated. What if, in all the fear and madness, I missed a sucking chest wound, a no-no for morphine? He could have dyspnea, a severe shortness of breath that would make breathing difficult if not impossible. Worse, his heart could even stop beating.

Eventually Captain Clyde Woods and the radioman helped me carry Tucker halfway up the hill to the medevac landing zone. We loaded him and the other wounded and dead on the choppers that dropped in and got out quickly. Jets had preceded the choppers, so the NVA had disappeared and the medevac went off OK.

I watched until Tucker’s chopper flew out of sight. A little while earlier, we had been sharing food on the side of a hill—and just like that, he was gone.

I lived with guilt for years every time I thought about that day. Did I do enough to treat his wounds? For all I knew, the morphine might have made it a lot harder for him to heal and it could have seriously complicated his recovery.

I didn’t know if I would ever see Tucker again, but I did eventually find out he made it home alive. Another buddy, Lance Corporal Dick Slade, went home for a 30-day leave and came back to say he’d seen Tucker at the Naval hospital in New England. Slade said Tuck looked away when he mentioned my name. What did that mean? I didn’t know, but I was sure it wasn’t good.

For me, this war was not about God or country, the Marine Corps, my family or any of that. It was about my guys. They were mine and I was theirs, and I did what I had to do for that reason. I felt as if I had somehow failed my buddy.

After attempting to find him for many years, I finally reestablished contact with Tucker. He was living on a farm in Vermont. I called him, not sure if he was going to hang up on me. I was relieved he didn’t. We talked for a long time. It turns out he was glad I called. He had always wondered what happened to me, too.

Finally I said, “I thought you were mad at me.” Tucker didn’t know why I would think that. I said, “You looked away when Slade mentioned my name.” Tucker laughed. “Did Slade come to see me? I don’t even remember. Jesus, Doc, part of my elbow was blown away, and half my hip. You couldn’t have done much damage,” he said. “Slade. I’ll kill him.”

These last four words swept over me like a wave, and, just like that, decades of guilt washed away. All along, I had just wanted my good buddy Tucker to be OK, and now I knew he was.

 

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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