As a civilian medic serving in the midst of war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1972, I had my share of close calls. I found myself in plenty of hairy experiences, often alongside GIs who displayed remarkable acts of courage and compassion, but who typically remained nameless to me.
After serving four years in the United States Marine Corps and then becoming a medic with a National Guard Special Forces unit, I went to Vietnam in 1965 as a civilian field medic for an American construction company. I diagnosed and treated diseases, administered emergency care for war wounds and industrial accidents and performed minor surgeries. At times I even acted as a primary care physician to the company employees and others in areas where doctors and clinics were unavailable. Since I was in a war zone, however, my relatively routine days were sometimes punctuated by the most frightening and often bizarre events.
In early 1969, I received an emergency call at my Chu Lai dispensary, which sat just a few hundred yards from the perimeter of the military compound. My company was rebuilding Highway 1 and there had been an accident near the construction site. My interpreter Nhan and I immediately headed out in our white ambulance with its red cross markings. Earlier in the morning, the Army had cleared the road of mines and booby traps, so we were able to speed along in the hot, bright sun. We arrived at the accident scene next to a Vietnamese hamlet with small thatched huts. As was my habit, from inside the ambulance I quickly scanned the area, checking out the gathering Vietnamese. I saw five U.S. Army soldiers in a jeep with a mounted machine gun. The situation was tense, but it appeared orderly. Based on our past experience, however, we knew to always be on guard.
Pulling the ambulance over to the side of the road, I jumped out, medical bag in hand. A small, handsome boy, about 11 or so and clad only in black shorts, was lying next to the giant wheels of an earthmover trailer. The boy appeared to be dead from massive abdominal and pelvic crush-type trauma. With a stethoscope, I examined him, listening for heart sounds, but could find none. His pupils were fixed and nonreactive to light or to finger touch. To demonstrate care and respect for the boy, particularly in view of the gathering crowd of villagers, I was careful not to rush my movements.
Nhan and I placed the boy in a green body bag. While I was starting to zip it up, a young girl ran up to place something in it. As I partially unzipped the bag, she shoved body parts in front of my face. I realized what they were when she opened her hands to drop them into the bag. It was the boy’s testicles. Somehow, I managed to maintain my composure while I zipped up the bag. Nhan and I placed the boy in the ambulance until the village chief could determine what to do with him.
I walked to the hamlet and found a clearing between the thatched huts and the jungle where I could spend a moment gathering my thoughts. Then I saw a frail old man with a grayish, stringy “Ho Chi Minh” beard and dressed in black pajamas, slowly walking from the cluster of huts toward me in the clearing. He was in tears and howling uncontrollably. I later learned that he was the dead boy’s grandfather. Suddenly, one of the five American soldiers screamed, “Grenade!”
Now I could see clearly that the old man, arms stretched above his head, had a grenade clutched between his hands, his finger grasping the pull ring. Two of the soldiers ran up and grabbed the old man. As one soldier wrapped his hands around the old man’s hands and the grenade, the other pinned his arms. A third soldier ran up with a spare safety pin at the ready to insert into the grenade. I looked around the area for any other hostile action, but the old man appeared to be acting alone. One of the soldiers yelled, “Doc, we need you!”
I was already reaching into my medical bag and preparing a syringe with a sedative. The old man was so small and frail that I filled only half of the normal adult dose. I raced up to the tightly joined group and swabbed the old man’s arm. I looked up, and there in front of our terrified, sweating faces was the grenade, with Vietnamese and American hands wrapped tightly around it. In that instant I was reminded of the picture of the Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, only this was not a flag but a live grenade. Then, another odd thought struck me as I was swabbing the old man’s arm. Here I am, by habit and with due diligence, disinfecting the arm of a man who wants to kill me.
I injected the sedative into his upper arm and the old man slowly relaxed, as I supported his lower body. The GIs then very carefully eased their fingers under the old man’s and squeezed the grenade handle as another replaced the safety pin and yelled, “Grenade secure!” Finally, the old man fell into my arms. Then, led by a small girl, I carried him into a thatched hut and laid him down on a bamboo mat.
After the village chief took possession of the dead boy, and after waiting another hour to ensure that the situation was reasonably calm, Nhan and I headed back to the Chu Lai dispensary.
I will never forget those GIs. Although I never learned their names, I will always remember their faces. They were so young and they demonstrated such maturity, compassion and discipline in the face of likely death. I would do almost anything for those GIs, and I was confident that if I were in a jam they would do the same for me.
In Vietnam the military ordered their medical staffs to report personnel who were unfortunate enough to get a venereal disease more than once. If that happened, the men were subject to disciplinary measures. Of course this policy, intended to rein in the incidences of sexually transmitted diseases, created other more serious problems as men sought to avoid punishment and didn’t go to the medic. As a result, some soldiers suffered from incorrect self-treatment, or used diluted or contaminated antibiotics they purchased on the black market.
Occasionally, a GI would come to my dispensary with classic symptoms of gonorrhea and, feeling desperate, ask me for help. I would treat him with penicillin, take lab tests to validate my diagnoses, and proceed with follow-up treatment. I always provided care with the strictest confidentiality and at no expense to the patient. One time I asked a GI how he knew about my dispensary. To my surprise he replied, “Everybody knows about you and where to go if we need care.” I could only hope that their commanders didn’t hear about me.
It had already been a long day for Nhan and me, when we responded to another accident between Chu Lai and Quang Ngai on Highway 1. A Vietnamese on a small motor – bike had driven through a construction stop and been crushed by a bulldozer. After the police investigation, we loaded up the body and drove over the rough road to Quang Ngai, where we stopped at a Buddhist temple to inquire about the deceased’s home. The Buddhist priest offered to accept the body until the family could claim him.
The sun had begun to set as we started driving back, and I grew increasingly worried on the bumpy road. The Viet Cong controlled the area at night, and nobody in his right mind would be out there without a damned good reason and plenty of firepower.
By this time, the ARVN were beginning to hunker down in their roadside bunkers, and the white-clad uniformed police were scurrying to safe U.S. military areas or cities for the night.
As we approached a roadside bunker about a third of the way back to Chu Lai, a lone Vietnamese soldier suddenly darted out to roll a barbed wire fence on wheels across the road in front of us. In the bunker, another soldier pointed a .30-caliber machine gun at us. With Nhan translating for me, I identified myself and requested permission to pass. They agreed to let us through but refused to come out of the bunker to move the barrier. I negotiated with the soldiers to allow Nhan to move the roadblock so our ambulance could pass. I assured them that we were unarmed, but they nervously kept their weapons trained on us. Nhan put his hands up and walked slowly to the barbed wire barricade to push it off the road. After I drove through, Nhan pushed the barricade back and jumped into the ambulance.
We continued our slow journey down the pot-hole-filled road, alert for suspicious activity. I never admitted to Nhan how, in that sweltering heat, I had broken out in a cold sweat fearing we might never get back to Chu Lai.
About halfway back to the dispensary, we could see a military vehicle drive toward us in the distance and then stop. There were several troopers and a machine gun mounted on the jeep. I stopped the ambulance and we sat, sizing each other up, neither one moving toward the other. I felt a bit foolish for not driving forward, but thought it better to remain in passive mode and allow them to control the situation.
After what seemed an eternity, one of the soldiers dismounted from the jeep and slowly walked the distance between us. The other soldiers covered us with their machine gun and M-16s.
An American GI came into focus and walked up to my window. “We received a report that you had not made it back,” he said, “so we came out to find you.” With great relief, I thanked him and awkwardly tried to explain why I had not driven up to them. They then escorted us back to Chu Lai and safety. I should have stopped them to buy them a drink, but they waved me on when they turned to another crossroad. I don’t think I ever saw my rescuers again but, like so many of the extraordinary and selfless soldiers I met in Vietnam, I have never forgotten them.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.