What a Combat Medic Still Carries

“The experience never leaves a combat medic: the sight, the smell, the touch of flowing blood. The mutilated limbs. The moment of watching, helpless, as life turns to death. Fifty years later, the memories still trickle into my soul, as if through an IV tube as I wait, wounded, for evac from a Vietnam clearing. Back in 1967 in my birthplace, Puerto Rico, I had no idea what I was in for when I chose to enlist, rather than be drafted. I had wanted to become a doctor, but couldn’t afford the tuition. Recruiters promised me training in health sciences, and the Army kept that promise — barely. After training in Texas to be a field paramedic or hospital assistant, I treated clinic patients for a week. That was it. My orders to Vietnam had arrived. A supply sergeant issued me a .45-caliber pistol. Four weeks later, in June, I was in Danang. I was to be a combat medic for the First Squadron, First Cavalry, First Armored Division. Nobody trained me in using the pistol, but I didn’t expect to need it, since I would just be keeping wounded soldiers alive. That was naïve. In earlier wars, field medics wore a bright red cross on their helmets and didn’t carry weapons. But Vietnam’s jungles and small-unit ambushes made that cross a bull’s-eye for snipers. So it was dropped and replaced by a sidearm. A week into my assignment I learned through the grapevine a terrible truth: Medics in Vietnam were expected to endure six hard months in the field. A battle-tested sergeant advised me: Take good care of us and we’ll take care of you. Other medics confirmed that if I survived six months of gore I might be rotated to a field hospital at a big base — showers, three hot meals a day, passes to town, tiki bars at China Beach. Until then, though, I would be in one of the hottest war zones, supporting troops on search-and-destroy missions, as well as supply convoys along the lethal north-south Colonial Route 1. Long before us, the French military had named it the ‘Street Without Joy.’ With reason. In Chu Lai, a Marine air base on that road that served as our home, I joined three field medics: Wayne Freeman, Eddie Dickson and Simon Britts. We essentially lived inside a medical armored personnel carrier, roaming embattled central Vietnam behind mechanized infantry units, tending and evacuating their wounded and dead. …”
NY Times

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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