After two months in Vietnam, I had learned a lot about being a corpsman on the front lines. I had already filled out dozens of casualty cards, and I had seen more KIAs (killed in action) and WIAs (wounded in action) than I cared to think about. On this particular day, we were on another search and destroy mission. The sun was just rising, and with no clouds in the sky, we were already sweating from the heat and humidity. With Vietnam only eight degrees north of the equator, we knew it was going to be another very hot day.
In South Vietnam's tropical climate, the sauna-like heat and humidity could be miserable. Depending on exactly where you were, the temperatures differed significantly, but it was not uncommon to have 90 to 100 degrees in some areas. While not always beneficial for human beings, these conditions were excellent for growing rice. Rice paddies were everywhere.
First Marine Division Headquarters informed us that a large group of Vietcong was spotted in our area, 20 miles south of Da Nang in the I-Corps area. I loaded my Unit One bag heavily with supplies, including extra battle dressings stuffed in my pockets. Corpsmen in Vietnam learned fast to carry extra supplies that were not part of our regular issue: a third canteen of water, cigarette cellophane wrappers for plugging a sucking chest wound, a 50-caliber round to twist a tourniquet to stop bleeding, and of course a P-38 can opener to open our C-rations.
When the temperature reached 85 degrees or above and the humidity rose to 60 percent or more, it affected evaporation. It hindered the body’s ability to cool itself. Walking in the direct sunlight also increased the heat index. Consequently, I was constantly on watch for heat-related symptoms: profuse sweating, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and confusion. Due to the heat, we took extra breaks during our patrol to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I was very concerned about this. We could lose men from the conditions just as easily as being shot by the enemy. I also stressed the men to check the color of their urine. If it was dark in color, it could be a sign of dehydration. I knew heat exhaustion could lead to heat stroke in a very short time.
After an hour or so, the CO could see we were starting to drag; he called for a 30-minute break. As a corpsman, during our breaks I didn’t have time to sit and rest. Marines needed attention, and I was busy distributing salt tablets, checking feet for blisters, and monitoring cuts and water intake. Some of the Marines were smoking; one guy was writing in his diary or writing home. Many were in conversation or just reminiscing; we all did that a lot. Most of the guys took off their boots and socks and exposed their feet to the open air; this helped to prevent trench foot. Even though we were on a break, our eyes were always darting, looking for danger. We were always hyper alert. Miles away we could hear artillery rumbling during another battle. Most of us were sweating profusely, and the body odor from some of the Marines was extremely strong. I had repeatedly spoken to some of them about taking showers and washing with soap.
Some of the men knew I was a Christian, and since I was in the medical field, I guess some of them thought I could fill the role of a chaplain. I would lend them a sympathetic ear and try to reason with them. The daily trauma we endured caused a lot of emotional problems. It seemed like I was always dealing with stress, depression, high anxiety, feelings of despair, and hopelessness. I frequently felt like I was on an emotional rollercoaster.
After the break, Lieutenant Miller told us to move out. Lance Corporal Hernandez was point man, and was one of the most experienced point men we had. He knew to watch out for booby-traps, land mines, trip wires, punji stakes and, of course, the Vietcong. It was a very important job. Our lives depended on it. We walked about 15 to 20 feet apart and had our weapons on fully automatic. We knew the enemy was in the area. The Marines were in a heightened state of readiness and confidence was high.
A short time later as we were crossing a rice paddy, the Vietcong opened on us and shot our point man, Lance Corporal Hernandez, in the belly and he fell instantly, he was in a lot of pain, yelling, and crying.
The Marine next to him yelled “corpsman up!”, corpsman up!” The call was relayed to me. The Marines gave me fire support as I ran toward Hernandez. I saw bullets splash in the water and heard them whiz past me. This was known as the suicidal waltz. The water was three to four inches deep and created very loose mud. The top of my boots was sometimes submerged, and the suction from the mud slowed me tremendously. I felt like I was running in slow motion. My adrenaline was pumping so fast that I felt worn out almost immediately. When I got to Hernandez, I was already exhausted. I fell at once, positioning my body behind the Marine and away from the Vietcong.
I noticed that his flak jacket was not closed, probably due to the heat. However, the flak jacket was not designed to protect against bullets fired from small arms such as rifles, a bullet can penetrate the body armor. It was designed to protect against grenades, shotguns, land mines, and other lower velocity projectiles.
The first thing I did was check his wounds. His abdomen was bleeding profusely, and he needed a battle dressing. The bullet landed low in his belly and tore open his stomach. Fecal material oozed to the surface along with blood and other body fluids. He had urinated and defecated. The smell was very strong. These responses were normal occurrences during this type of injury. I tried to calm him down as much as I could and told him, “everything is going to be alright, Marine; a medivac was in the air.” He was very pale, and his pupils were dilated. His breathing was also irregular. All these symptoms indicated he was going into shock. Because he lost so much blood and fluids, he was going into hypovolemic shock. He needed fluids and a blood transfusion as soon as possible. After I applied a battle dressing, I turned his helmet upside down, placed his rifle across the helmet and rested his feet on his rifle. I needed to get the blood flowing to his heart and brain. I administered an ampoule of morphine, and it calmed him down somewhat. I kept reassuring him that help was on the way.
Just as I was getting ready to drag him to safety, I became blinded. What just happened? I scooped up some rice-paddy water and splashed my face and eyes. I then saw Lance Corporal Hernandez had been hit again. A bullet hit him in the right temple. This Marine went from a WIA to a KIA instantly. Now, it was my turn to feel the shock. I was in disbelief and confusion. How could this happen? I fell in a prone position behind his body and feared for my life. The only cover I had was the Marine’s body. Panic set in. Should I get up and run or just lie here? I had felt fear during other operations, but not to the extent I felt it at that moment. I prayed quite often in Vietnam, but at this moment I was praying for my life. I knew that bullet was meant for me. The Vietcong had a bounty on corpsmen. They figured if we were put out of commission, more wounded Marines would be out of commission, too.
The Marines intensified their firepower to prevent the Vietcong from shooting at me. They yelled for me to move. That was easy for them to say. I was the one being shot at. My mind was racing. Do I stay here protected or get up and expose myself to enemy fire? Fear can be uncontrollable. I was trembling and sweating profusely. Should I drag the Marine’s body to safety before it becomes anymore mutilated? Should I just run? Of course, I knew the answer. Marines leave no man behind. I remember feeling extremely thirsty. My mouth was dry, even though I swallowed some of the rice paddy water. Its taste was awful, I wanted a drink of water from my canteen—but that could wait. I was experiencing terror, the most extreme degree of fear. My metabolism and heart rate accelerated, and the increased adrenaline, as I feared for my life, caused my heart to race even more.
Suddenly, I was in a daze. I said another prayer. I was always very religious, and the prayer was very simple: If today is my last day on earth, please take care of my family back in the world. And at that time, I gave up thinking about me and started thinking about getting the Marine’s body to safety and medivac back to BAS (Battalion aid station). After I said that prayer, I was still afraid, but a certain amount of peace came over me.
I grabbed the Marine by his jungle fatigues and started to drag him to the dike. He was approximately 130 pounds, but literally dead weight. The mud and rice paddy water hindered my retreat, and due to the pulling effort, my jungle boots were sinking deeper into the mud. It was over the top of them and mud was seeping into my boots. The mud created more suction and it was a struggle to pull my foot out. It was like something had a hold of my boot and wouldn’t let go. When I did pull my boot out of the mud, it made a loud sucking sound like a plunger being pulled out of a toilet bowl, and it threw a lot of mud on the dead Marine. I fell several times trying to reach safety. After a few steps I became extremely fatigued gasping for air and trying to summon more energy to keep going. I was moving as fast as I could, but I was moving in slow motion. The thought of dying spurred me to keep moving. I could hear bullets whizzing by me, and I don’t mind saying I was scared for my life.
I was perspiring profusely; my nerves were a wreck. Deep inside I wanted to turn around and run from the battle. It was a fight or flight response. It’s not easy to enter the lion’s den! When one deals with fright and panic it causes emotions that are indescribable. At that moment I was dealing with many emotions, mainly fear. This emotion can literally kill a person. There is perhaps nothing so bad and as dangerous in life as fear.
The Marines and Vietcong were shooting it out, and every now and again water splashed near me where a bullet entered the water. This gave me even more incentive to keep going. My fatigues were saturated with water and covered in Hernandez’s blood. Water from the rice paddy had soaked through everything. My hands were stained red from his wounds. What a sight I must have been. I didn’t know Lance Corporal Hernandez personally, I saw him around camp, but we never became friends. The Marines rotated daily—R & R, medivac, patrols—or rotated back to the world—the United States. With over 100 Marines, it was hard to remember them. However, on this fateful day, we were now united, we were joined, and I felt sorrow for him and his family. He had my respect.
The sights and sounds were numbing. All this time I was praying to God to help get me through all this trauma. When there were only twenty more yards to go, it seemed like 100 yards, but fortunately another Marine came to my rescue and helped me and the dead Marine to safety.
Later, we moved to a secure area about a 1,000 yards from where we were hit. The Marines secured a LZ (landing zone) for the chopper to land. I immediately started to fill out the casualty card informing the BAS who this Marine was and what medical aid I performed. As I was writing on his casualty card my nerves were a wreck and my penmanship was terrible, but I knew the doctors in triage could read it because their penmanship was just as bad.
After I finished, I started to think of what had just happened. I was starting to feel very depressed and melancholy set in. Why was all this happening? What were we fighting for? The world was screwed up, and our lives were being played with each day. I thought about this deceased Marine’s family and the sorrow his passing would cause. His death would change many lives for years to come.
It seemed strange to me that a little while ago guns were blaring, mortars and grenades were exploding, and the .30 caliber machine gun was spitting out bullets at a steady pace. Pandemonium was everywhere. Now, the Vietcong were gone, and all was quiet, and the birds started singing again. The Marines were sitting quietly. Many were relaxing and smoking cigarettes. No doubt they were thinking of their buddy who was just killed. In the distance, we heard the familiar sound of the medivac chopper approaching. A call was made for the litter team to carry Lance Corporal Hernandez to the chopper.
As the chopper was lifting off the ground, the familiar whoop, whoop, whoop was heard, and everyone was silent until the sound faded away. Lieutenant Miller yelled, “Saddle up, we’re moving out.” As we headed back toward the CP, all we could hear was the squishing and suction from warriors’ boots walking through the rice paddies. Everyone was now in their own world. We all knew we would just have to do it all over again tomorrow.
The mood of the grunts was solemn. They had lost another comrade. The grief that a warrior experiences when he loses a buddy is intense because you know that his family's and friends’ lives will be changed forever. Eventually, such grief takes its toll. We become battle hardened. I believe such an attitude is necessary in order to survive. It was not uncommon after a battle that as soldiers we would talk among ourselves, and it might appear as if nothing had happened. The camaraderie would be mixed with laughter and casual conversation. The loss of Marines would not be mentioned. This was an attitude and focus that could not be taught. It was learned on the battlefield. We had to accept life as it was presented to us.
It easily could have been me killed instead of Hernandez. Only God knows why I lived and Hernandez did not. Due to the fear that I experienced, the next two days I dealt with diarrhea until my body adjusted. The physical body did adjust, but the thought of the event and the trauma that I experienced stayed with me for life. I was wounded twice in Vietnam, but the mental scars still fester. Fifty years later, I still remember it as if it happened a year ago. This is the price that thousands of warriors experienced daily. When you see a combat veteran, thank them for their service.