Vietnam Corpsman

A day in the life of a “Doc”.


It was barely 7:30 A.M. and already the back of Doc’s neck was clammy with sweat from the relentless Vietnam heat. He wiped himself with a towel and squinted up at the sun. Damn this God-forsaken place, he thought. How could these people live with this heat and humidity? Woefully, Doc thought ahead to what he’d feel like in a few hours after humping the bush with his full load of gear.


The Unit 1 bag had been heavy with supplies this morning as he left with his platoon. They were conducting another of the endless search & destroy missions through a countryside that was as much an enemy as the NVA.


So often the land was the ally of the VC. They burrowed into its depth with intricate tunnel systems to hide and protect their troops and supplies. Often, they took their entire families with them and virtually lived in the web-like labyrinths.


When they surfaced, many times it was only to scratch the cheek of their Mother Earth, pull her lush vegetation over themselves in what came to be known as Spider holes and just wait. They could be oh, so patient…so still…unmoving. Sometimes they would lie for hours waiting for an unseeing, unsuspecting patrol to pass them by.  Then they would jump up from their holes and unleash a merciless storm of fire at the helpless Americans.


That’s how it happened on this steamy morning. The platoon had been out about three hours and their energy levels were beginning to lag, despite two 15 minute rest breaks.  Of course, the rest breaks benefited everyone but Doc. He spent this time going around to each man to minister to aching feet, tending to small cuts and bruises, passing out salt tabs and a hundred other little tasks that the Marines took for granted. They even told him about their Dear John letters from home. Doc hated that part of it all. He didn’t have a girl back and was very uncomfortable giving advice in this area. But still, he offered a sympathetic ear.


As the platoon moved out from their second rest break, they came to a clearing… a small meadow, really… that burst from the cover of the jungle. There was a fairly well-worn path through the middle of the open area and the Marines would cross here.


“Okay, guys,” said Lt. Kelly, “single file and don’t bunch up. Stay on the path but watch where you step. Look for wires or anything else on the trail that might be booby-trapped. Drake, you’re on point. Move out!”


The big farm boy lead the way into the meadow. All weapons were at the ready and a hundred eyes scanned from right to left and back to the jungle approaching to their front.


Not one Marine picked up a even a sense of the enemy Spider Holes on either side of the path they were treading. When they were at the approximate middle of the meadow, an unknown, unheard signal spurred the VC to jump up from their holes, screaming and firing from both sides at the platoon of Marines caught in the middle.


Hell had opened a vein and Marine Corps blood ran.


The initial burst killed one young Marine in the middle of the column. Doc  saw others fall, but couldn’t tell how much damage had been done. He fell to a prone position facing one side of the ambush. His .45 in his hand, he aimed the pistol in the general direction of the VC and emptied his magazine. It wasn’t an action that required selecting a target. It was only important to begin getting some fire on the bastards to make them think twice about what they had begun.


The Marines recovered quickly and were fighting back as only the Devil Dogs could. Soon the body count was more than just Marines. The enemy had lost their edge very quickly and now faced their own annihilation.


Predictably, they broke off their attack in less than a minute. They knew that staying in sustained combat with the physically superior Marines and their amazing firepower would only place themselves in danger of complete extermination. Their mission now became one of escape. They sprinted for the jungle where, once again, they would retreat into the bosom of Mother Earth.


 But they gave up several of their own warriors as the Marines fired and chased them like crazed animals. They stopped within 30 yards of the jungle. Even in the raging heat of battle, the Marines had their wits about them. No way were they going to enter the jungle and find themselves on Charley’s turf. Franticly, Lt. Kelly called them to a halt and ordered them back to set up a perimeter.


Though brief, the fight was now over. The VC had done a lot of damage and now Doc would have to go to work.


The dead air, now still of the sound of gunfire, gave way to the sound of  “Corpsman up!” and the screams of pain that filled his ears as he moved from man to man deciding who should get his treatment first.


Long ago, Doc had decided that those who were screaming and thrashing about on the ground were more likely to wait a little longer for him to get to them. The ones who were still alive, but not making much noise were the ones who needed him most. They were the most badly hit.


Funny how that worked out, thought Doc, as he reached a Marine lying on his back with his hands at his throat. Blood seeped through his fingers and and became a spurt when Doc pulled his hands away. Damn it! An artery was hit. He would bleed out in minutes unless the flow could be stopped. Doc grit his teeth and reached in to pinch off the artery with his fingers. Using his teeth, he tore open a battle dressing to press on the wound to aid in stopping the blood flow.


He looked at the kid’s face. “ Damn, I know him,” thought Doc. His name was Smith, or Jones, or some common name like that. He was just a baby and Doc remembered wondering what the Hell he was doing out here fighting in a man’s war. He made no sound but for small gurgling noises. His eyes were wide with shock and disbelief. And fear for his life.


Doc commandeered the closest healthy Marine and ordered him to take over pinching the artery. “Don’t you let go of this, you hear? You stay with him until we get him out of here!” He took an ampoule of Morphine and jammed it home in the kid’s arm.


The Marine’s eyes started to cloud over and Doc bent to his ear and half-whispered, half-shouted, “You hang in there, Marine, you hear? We’ll have you on the chopper in no time. You’re gonna be all right. Coupla’ weeks from now, you’ll  be back home with your family, ok?”


Doc saw the eyes get a little brighter and thought he discerned an almost imperceptible nod from the kid. He hated to leave him, but more wounded Marines needed his attention.


“Stay with him, buddy, and, for God’s sake, keep talking to him. Keep telling him he’s going to be okay.”


Reluctantly, Doc headed for another man down whose friends were screaming for a Corpsman.  They were holding him down to restrain his movement. When Doc got there, he saw that the man was gasping for breath, taking huge gulps of air that didn’t seem to fill his lungs.


“Shit!,” thought Doc. “A sucking chest wound.” The guy was suffocating. He had to plug the hole.


Doc felt around the pockets of the hunting jacket he wore. He had asked his father to send him one just like the ones they wore when they hunted deer back home. He remembered telling his Dad to make sure it was at least two sizes larger than his old one because it had to fit over his flak jacket. This now ragged garment had been a God send with all the little pockets that Doc could stuff full with extra bandages, ampoules of Morphine and myriad other odds and ends that helped him patch up his Marines.


Doc fumbled in one of the small pockets and pulled out a tool that was not exactly standard issue in his Unit 1 bag…a cellophane wrapper from a pack of cigarettes. Doc always had a half dozen or so of these in his possession because they were perfect for plugging up a sucking chest wound.


Gently, he placed it over the neat round hole in the man’s chest. He unwrapped another battle dressing, placed it on top of the wrapper and pressed down. Almost immediately, the man began to breathe easier and started to relax a little. When he appeared to be out of danger of suffocating, he told the men with him to keep pressing down and to change the dressing if it became too soggy with blood.


“Just make sure you don’t lose that cigarette wrapper when you change the dressing.”  he admonished. Doc gave this Marine a shot of Morphine also  rushed off to the next man.


Near where the front of the Platoon had been hit, he came upon K-man Kramer, a third herd squad leader and Doc’s best friend. The K-man was cradling a Marine in his arms. As Doc dropped to the ground and prepared to inspect the wound, Kramer said, “Forget it, Doc. He’s gone. You better go help someone else who needs you.”


“Who is it?” Doc asked. K-man could not say the name. Instead, he lifted the man’s helmet and Doc gasped at the sight. Only half of Eddie Drake’s face remained. Jesus! It was just last night the big, affable Okie was telling Kramer and Doc about the prettiest little farm you ever saw near his home. He said he’d never rest until he was able to buy it and work it for the rest of his life. “I already got me six thousand saved up,” he beamed,  “and my girl is puttin’ money away each week. We’re gonna’ buy that place and get married right on it. Then we’ll whip up a passel of kids to help us do the chores.”


Now there was to be no farm for Eddie Drake. No wedding and no family. Some one else would work the land that Eddie had dreamed of and died for. It just didn’t seem right.


For now, Doc had to put the dead Eddie Drake and the sobbing K-man out of his mind. There would be time later to reflect and grieve on these events. It seemed that there was always too much time to grieve. 


To his left, Doc saw Vito Castignetti leaning against a small berm. Vito was smoking a cigarette and made no sound. He just stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. Doc looked at the long ash hanging crookedly on his cigarette and knew instinctively that Vito hadn’t puffed for a long time. This can’t be good, thought Doc. Then he noticed the vacant cloudiness in Vito’s eyes. “Damn, he’s in shock!” Doc decided, and rushed to his side.


“You okay, Vito? Are you hit?”


Vito did not reply. It was then that Doc could see his right arm was missing at the elbow. Castignetti showed no sign of pain. It was if he were just sitting contentedly, already accepting what would soon be a warm, peaceful death as he bled out.


Doc sprang to Vito’s wounded side and again reached into his Hunting vest. He pulled out an 18” leather thong like the ones that laced his work boots back home. He wound it twice around the stump of Vito’s arm and pulled it tight. Making a small loop in the thong, he pulled out a fifty-caliber round that he carried and pushed it through the loop to the middle. This he twisted, applying ever greater pressure to the tourniquet. The fifty caliber round was just the right size for this purpose. All he had to remember was to back off on the pressure every now and then.


Vito’s other problem was shock. His body was shutting down. Doc yelled for someone to help him and when a frightened looking Lance Corporal came by, Doc showed him how to work the tourniquet.


Doc slammed Vito’s rifle… barrel first… into the ground to use as a pole for a plasma drip to combat Castignetti’s shock trauma. But the earth was too hard to penetrate.


. “Shit! Nothin’ ever goes right.” Doc mumbled to himself.


“All right, Lance Corporal, I need to press you into double service here until you can get help. I’m going to start a plasma drip on Vito. He needs it bad. You’ll have to continue working the tourniquet plus hold this bag up high so it will drip into his arm. Can you do that?”


“I got you covered, Doc.” said the youngster, no longer looking quite so frightened. He glanced at the kid’s face and thought, “Jesus”, all these Marines seem like teen-agers that should be home chasing chicks around the local malt shop? What are they doing here helping me patch up torn bodies?”


For the next twenty minutes, Doc went from man to wounded man. Thankfully, each of the injuries he treated was less serious than the preceding. The last wound was no more than a scratch from a piece of shrapnel. Lucky guy, thought Doc. It was just a scratch, but it was deep and ugly and bled furiously. He stopped the bleeding easily and the man was able to hold his own battle dressing and walk to the medevac staging area.


Doc decided he better get over to where the wounded were waiting for the choppers in case anyone needed more attention or another shot of morphine.


He circulated amongst the men helping where he could or just talking as calmly as he could to young men who needed to hear that they would be okay. And to hear such talk from a Corpsman added an extra measure of comfort. After all, he was their Doc and he knew about such things.


It was about now that Doc wished he could hear some of that bizarre Marine Corp humor that always seemed to relieve stress through the very absurd nature of the humor. Doc loved to hear such banter because he knew his Marines were back to normal and would be okay.


As if his prayers were being answered, a tow-headed PFC with a face that looked like it had been sprayed by a freckle gun said, “C’mon, Doc, fuck these wounded pukes. I got a real problem here. Take care of this blister on my big toe”


“Sure, buddy. Just let me sharpen up my machete to cut you with. I love to watch Marines faint.”


Suddenly a huge alto voice sucked all the other sound out of the air. It was Flaky, the Actual’s radioman, and he yelled to the El Tee, “Choppers’ll be here in two, Lt. They’re about two clicks out.”


“Okay, Marines, fan out.”  said Lt. Kelly.  “And scan that tree line for movement. Anything moves, you put rounds on it first, then you ask what the Hell it was. I don’t want these choppers gettin’ any nasty surprises when they touch down.


“You men assigned to load the wounded, you already know who’s going first, so get ready. When that chopper hits dirt, I want you already on the move with your wounded.”


Soon the choppers were descending into the landing zone, their rotors kicking up a cloud of dust. The Platoon Commander could barely be heard over the noise the choppers made, but the Marines didn’t have to be told what to do anyway. Even before the machines touched down, the wounded were already being littered to the open bay doors.


It seemed but a matter of seconds that the choppers landed and the wounded loaded, before they were airborne again, carrying torn and bleeding bodies to fully staffed medical facilities in the rear.


Doc watched the choppers disappear and the usual sadness descended on him. “There they go”, he thought, “and I’ll never see them again.” He didn’t even know the names of many of them. He just wanted to know how they all made out, realizing that some of them he had saved here on the battlefield would not survive their wounds.


They were just the blink of an eye in his life, but the few seconds he spent in theirs was the most precious time they would know. Without him, they would have died right there on the field. It wasn’t fair that he would not know how they all made out. “Life’s a bitch, I guess. And it certainly isn’t fair.” thought Doc.


Lt. Kelly came by a moment later. He took off his helmet and wiped his face and neck with a none-too-clean rag. He looked haggard and tired. Through casual conversation, Doc knew the Lt. was only 26 years old. He noticed that here, in the third month of his second tour of duty in Nam, Kelly looked ten years older. The sparkle of youth had disappeared from his eyes and they appeared lifeless. They took on what somebody somewhere had called the Thousand Yard Stare.


 “Nice job today, Doc. But this fight is over and we still have a mission to complete. We’d better get to it. How you fixed for Meds?”


“I got hit hard, but I’m still loaded.” said Doc.


“Good man! Let’s move out.”


“Yeah, right.” thought Doc. “Lets move out. There’s plenty of time left in the day for killing. Jesus, this sucks!”


He picked up his Unit 1 and fell in behind the Lt.


Pete Meadows

Golf  2/1  1965