In the late summer of 1965, I was sent to on-the-job training (“OJT”) at the base hospital at Fort Campbell. It was ten weeks of rotations on each ward such as emergency, pre-op, post-op, and orthopedics, as well as additional classroom work. OJT was great because we dealt with real patients and gained hands-on experience about what to do in a field hospital.
OJT was the only time I worked with nurses; I didn’t have that opportunity in Vietnam. One time, I was in charge of keeping clean the colostomy dressing for a high-ranking patient who had come in for surgery on a blocked bowel and had a heart attack while on the operating table. The ward nurse said to me, “I’ll do all the TPRs [temperature, pulse, and respiration] tonight for all the patients. You just keep your eye on the red light over that room. When the red light goes on, go down and see what the patient needs.” I did just that. I was eager to put into practice some elements of my training.
On one occasion when I was summoned to the patient’s room, he informed me that he had soiled his colostomy dressing. I removed the dressing and began cleaning the incision. Due to his heart attack during surgery, the O.R. surgeons had performed a quick, crude colostomy in order to get him off the operating table and stabilized. So, when I tended to him, he still had two inches of exposed intestines at the site of the incision. As if leaning in close to clean the feces from inside the incision wasn’t bad enough, I was suddenly treated to the melodious sound and maleficent odor of the patient passing gas through the intestine into my face. While doing so, his intestine’s flapped in the breeze like the orifice of a whoopee cushion. That was the lowlight of OJT!
In an attempt to sweeten life in the jungle, the Army occasionally supplied us with something called, “Tropical Chocolate”, a small bar of six squares of chocolate specifically designed to stand up to hot and humid climates. Tropical Chocolate was so hard that it was unmeltable, even with C-4. In order to share the chocolate with a deserving soldier, one would have to unwrap the delight, place it at the base of a tree, take three steps backwards and empty a 20-round magazine from an M-16 into the middle of the bar! Even then, any attempt to bite into the remaining pieces was hazardous to one’s dental health. As a medic, I didn’t have any experience doing dental work, but I’m quite sure the military dentists had no shortage of patients thanks to Tropical Chocolate!
The second week of Jump School, which is where I was trained to be a paratrooper, was called “Tower Week”. It helped us utilize everything we learned the week before until it became automatic. It included practicing maneuvers in the Suspended Harness, practicing PLFs in the Swing Landing Trainer, and making jumps from a 34-foot tower and a 250-foot tower.
The Suspended Harness (unaffectionately known as the “Suspended Agony” or the “Nutcracker”) is essentially a parachute harness without the parachute, hanging from ropes and pulleys, which leaves the trainee’s full body weight concentrated on the straps of the harness running through his legs. (You get the picture!) The point was to learn how to pull a “slip” with the T-10 parachute. The Suspended Agony had a way of motivating trainees to learn quickly and all of us were sore for days after our encounter with it.
At the culmination of Tower Week, trainees were hauled up and released from a 250-foot tower in order to practice all the chute maneuvers previously learned and prepare for week three, “Jump Week”. On the day I was scheduled for the 250-foot tower, the winds were too high for us to jump. Instead, we were marched over to the bleachers where an instructor conducted a review of what we had learned. He asked if anyone had any questions. When a few questions were answered and it seemed no one had any others, he added, “Okay. Since we have to be here until 4pm and there are no questions, how about we head out to the Suspended Harness for some additional training.” I never saw hands shoot up in the air so fast! Suddenly there were more questions than could ever be answered before 4pm.
On my last day of active duty in the Army, I dressed in my Class A uniform (“dress greens”), which was the only piece of “equipment” I was allowed to keep when clearing post. As I entered the mess hall, I felt the eyes of envy staring at me. I walked to the front of the chow line like I was the king of the world, and ordered eggs over easy, toast, and bacon, thinking to myself, “This time tomorrow I will not be here.” It was a day I never thought would come. During breakfast, other soldiers came up to wish me congratulations and good luck. I felt great!
After breakfast, I drove my ’61 Ford Sunliner convertible to main post to the finance office to turn in my military ID card. While I was there, the financial officer gave me an envelope and asked me to put my home address on it. (Three years later, at the end of my inactive duty, they used that envelope to mail me my honorable discharge.) After I handed over my ID card, he issued my last pay and a pay voucher indicating how much the Army owed me for things like leave time that I hadn’t used.
From there, I drove back to Headquarters and Headquarters Troop of the 2nd of the 17th. I wasn’t too sure how to get back to Philadelphia from Fort Campbell, but there was a PFC who lived in Willow Grove, PA who had just recently driven down to Fort Campbell and knew the way back. It just so happened he was headed out on leave at the same time that I was getting out of the service, so we made arrangements with the 1st Sergeant to leave together. We left Fort Campbell around 9 or 10am. It was July 21, 1967, a Friday morning. I arrived at my house at 61 King Avenue in Folcroft at 8am the next morning, parked out front, went inside, lay down on the couch and fell asleep. When I awoke, my thoughts of the previous day were fulfilled; I had gained my independence from the military.
On June 24, 1966, I was with C Company during Operation Nathan Hale. During an intense moment of firefight, I heard the call for medic and came upon PFC Thomas A. Cook, Sergeant Belcher’s RTO. The first thing I encountered was his feet. I stepped over him to position myself over his head. His eyes were rolled back and he was singing hymns and praying. He was wedged down in the trench on his back with the PRC-25 radio beneath him. Because of how narrow the trench was, I couldn’t move him and he couldn’t move himself, which made it difficult to assess his wound. I asked, “Where are you hit?” He replied breathily, “In the shoulder.” His breathing was labored. I looked for blood, but didn’t see any. I started feeling for a wound or for blood underneath him in areas where I couldn’t see. The only thing I discovered was a large contusion on his left shoulder about where the strap for his web gear or radio shoulder harness would be. I thought, “That can’t be it. This man sounds as if he’s dying. I must be missing something.”
At the same time, Bravo Company was making the second air assault. Although we had landed earlier without enemy fire, the air crews that delivered us weren’t as fortunate. They received heavy ground fire as they made their turn-around flight back to LZ Eagle to pick up Bravo Company. It seemed as if the enemy was more interested in shooting down choppers than engaging the infantry. As B Company landed, all hell broke loose. Charlie Company received fire from inside and outside the perimeter. I was still with Private Cook, unable to locate his wound. A number of explosions occurred towards our immediate front. They seemed to be “walking” towards our position. Realizing the danger we were in, I grabbed the handles of Cook’s radio, attempting to move him, and shouted, “We have to get out of here!”
I lifted my head just above the top of the trench and turned to the right, looking back inside the perimeter in order to establish a safe escape route for me and Cook. A red dot appeared in front of my face. It seemed to move in slow motion. My first reaction was to drop my head. Just then, something struck me in the face. My hands flew to the area of impact and I thought, “They blew my fucking face off!” I looked at my hands. Not seeing blood, I realized that what hit me was the loose dirt struck by the bullet. (The bullet was an American made tracer, which was red. Enemy tracers were green.) Turning my attention back to Cook, I was still unable to see or feel any life-threatening wounds. I came to the conclusion that he wasn’t wounded. I took a step back, kicked him in the helmet and said, “Get the fuck up! You’re not wounded!” He stopped praying, began breathing normally, and sat up. We then moved to an area of relative safety, Cook on his own two feet! (I later came to the conclusion that Private Cook’s contusion may have been caused by a bullet striking the web harness of his radio over his left shoulder. The impact knocked him into the trench, where he was wedged by the force of the fall.)
One evening in early 1966, while I was with C Company, 3rd Platoon, we were in position for an ambush. Four VC were crossing the rice paddy with just their web gear. We called in for aerial rocket artillery and killed all four. I went out with a few riflemen to make sure they were dead. They were. I would have provided medical aid if they weren’t. They were the first dead enemy soldiers I saw. I didn’t really have a reaction because my adrenaline was so high. One of the men with me said, “Yo, Doc. Take his ears.” I said, “Nah, I don’t think so. If you want his ears, you take ‘em.” I just couldn’t see the sense in that myself. I wondered if he was trying to test my fortitude.
I never saw any infantrymen take enemy ears, but I did hear about it years later from a medic I met at a reunion. When I questioned him about it, he told me that he sold VC scalps and ears as souvenirs to the REMFs (rear echelon motherfuckers) and put that money in a fund for soldiers in his unit who couldn’t afford to go on R&R because they were sending all their money home. I asked him, “Your company commander knew you were doing this?” He said, “Yeah. He knew, but he looked the other way ‘cause he knew I was a medic and I could perform.” These were the kinds of decisions that most of us can’t make sense of, but that soldiers made based on the circumstances of war and their sense of loyalty to each other.
On May 21, 1966, Michael Vinassa was killed in action during the battle of Crazy Horse. The following day, in the early morning hours, David M. Jolley succumbed to wounds he sustained the previous day. Today, 49 years after their deaths, we remember their lives, service, and sacrifice.
To read a previous post about the battle of Crazy Horse, click here: “Visions of Vietnam”: During the Battle of Crazy Horse.