“Visions of Vietnam”: Living with Consequences

In an individual’s everyday life, he or she will rarely have to make a life or death decision. In the theatre of combat, these decisions are made daily. The company commander and platoon leader make decisions knowing that they may cost the lives of their men. A medic’s decisions are one-on-one and more personal. On May 21, 1966 during Operation Crazy Horse, I had to make such a choice: whether to stay with David Jolley and continue tending to his wounds or move on to the next call for medic to tend to Jimmy Sampson. I often review that choice and feel guilt even though there was nothing more I could do for David. If I did it any differently, Jimmy may still be on that hill. All decisions or choices in life have consequences that you have to live with.

“Visions of Vietnam”: No Looking Back

Once we found out in December 1965 that we were going to Vietnam, we were allowed a few days “in transit” before we had to leave, so I went home to Folcroft, PA. While home, I received a call from the Army saying I had just under a week to get myself to Oakland, CA where we would then leave for Vietnam.

The morning before I left for Oakland, I went over to my girlfriend’s house to say goodbye. When I got there, her mom leaned out the window and told me that Pat had gone out. So, I didn’t get to see her before I deployed. That evening, several of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends from the neighborhood gathered at my house to say farewell. We sat around talking, eating, and having a few drinks. My dad was making pitchers of whiskey sour for the crowd. When everyone left, I went up to bed, realizing that this might be the last time I’d see my relatives and friends or even be in Folcroft.

The next day, my parents, my Uncle Dave, and my Aunt Sally took me to the airport. At that time, they were able to come all the way out to the terminal with me. They watched me walk down the steps, across the tarmac, and onto the plane. Years later I found out that my aunt had said, “I wonder if he’ll look back and wave.” My uncle had replied, “Nah. He’s not gonna look back.” I didn’t. There was no looking back.

“Visions of Vietnam”: Survival Instincts

As a medic in combat, I carried an M-16 rifle for two reasons: to protect the wounded and save myself. Actually, a medic’s T/O&E (table of organization and equipment) weapon is a .45 caliber pistol, but we were only issued M-16s. Once I had time to collect my thoughts about the incident with Jimmy Sampson in which I forgot my rifle on the hill, I decided to scrounge around for a .45 caliber pistol to keep with me at all times. The M-16 was extra weight; the rifle itself weighed more, as did the ammo. I figured I could haul more medical supplies if I only carried the pistol. In addition, I knew if I laid down my M-16 somewhere while working on someone, I’d always have my pistol holstered at my side. However, when it came down to it, I found myself unable to give up the M-16; as an ex-infantryman I was used to the security that it afforded. So then I carried around more weight than I did before! I guess my survival instinct trumped practicality.

“Visions of Vietnam”: So You Wanted to Be a Medic

During my basic medical training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, we watched films of the wounded in the Korean War. We observed them as they were evacuated by ambulance to rear area hospitals and triaged and operated on. During one scene, when a wounded soldier’s guts were splayed out on the operating table, I thought, “What did I get myself into?” It was very hard to look at, a little bit like watching a horror show through just one squinted eye. I’m sure I was tempted to get up and leave, but I stayed put, if only to prove to my peers I could take it. I guess the movies were meant to shock us into reality, to show us what we might be in for. Well, they worked.

When we weren’t in classes, we had weekends free, unless we were on duty. On weekends when I didn’t have duty, I used to go drinking in San Antonio. I even took a bus once from San Antonio to Del Rio, Mexico with Jimenez, a medic I met while in medical training. Del Rio was like going back into the old west. The town square was all dirt and had a well in the middle, where people got their water. There were chickens running around the square! We didn’t care. We didn’t go down there for sight-seeing. We went down there to drink and get laid…to just do what GIs do!

“Visions of Vietnam”: During the Battle of Crazy Horse

The Battle of Crazy Horse took place over several days in late May 1966. It was the most intense of my experiences over there, with my services needed many times through the night and the next day. The second person I tended to was Sp/4 David Jolley. When I responded to the call for medic, I found him by himself. Jolley was a machine gunner with my platoon, and was really well-liked by the men. That day he was providing cover for the charge up the ridge. When I got to him, I saw he had been shot just under the neck, probably from above as he was moving uphill; the wound was through the front of his neck and came through him at an angle where it exited through his lower back. I dressed the wounds as best I could. There wasn’t much else I could do.

At that point, there was a third call for medic. I told the RTO to stay with Jolley. I paused for a moment realizing I had to drop my web gear in order to “get light for flight” and to avoid getting caught on a “wait-a-minute vine”. So, I left my web gear with the RTO, took just my M-16 with a magazine and my M-5 aid bag, and headed out to the next person, Sp/4 Jimmie Sampson, leaving Jolley with the RTO.

Looking back, I think maybe I should have stayed and tried to do more for Jolley, but if I did that, then Sampson might still be on that hill. These were the kind of difficult decisions we medics had to make during combat.

Sampson was the fireteam leader in our platoon. When I got to him, his left arm was shattered and he was covering himself with leaves to hide from the enemy. Thinking they were further up the hill, I asked him, “Where is everyone?” He said, “They’re down the hill.” I realized I had to get us out of there, so I dragged him 25 yards back down the hill and found Sergeant Belcher and other members of the platoon. I started working on Sampson’s wound and within minutes, I heard voices shouting, “Medic!” It was dark at that point and raining. I reached for my weapon before responding to the call and suddenly realized it wasn’t there. I left my M-16 up on the hill! I mumbled something under my breath and Sampson said, “What’s wrong, Doc?” I said, “I think I left my weapon up on the hill!” Sampson said, “I grabbed it, Doc. I dragged both weapons down.” He had it right there in his hand! I couldn’t believe it; despite his wounds and the chaos of battle, he had the forethought to grab my weapon. I could’ve kissed him!

“Visions of Vietnam”: Dining in the Jungle

Box of C rations (photo retrieved from http://www.eagerarms.com)

Box of C rations (photo retrieved from http://www.eagerarms.com)

C rations came in a carton. In the field, the men ate before the officers. If there wasn’t enough food, the officers did without. They adhered to that. At one time, the officers chose last and would end up with the worst of what was left. So, to make it fair for everyone, C ration cartons were opened upside down so the labels were face down. Everyone picked a box at random.

Typical entrees included: 1) beefsteak, which looked like a can of tuna and had three or four slices of beefsteak in it, but was so salty I couldn’t eat it; 2) ham and eggs chopped, which we used to call “H.E.s”, short for “high explosives” and which looked like canned cat food, though there were guys who loved it; 3) boned chicken, which was simply shredded white chicken; 4) pork and beans, which was basically hot dogs and beans; 5) ham and lima beans, known to me as “ham and slimeys”; and 6) turkey loaf, which looked like the ham and eggs chopped but wasn’t as bad. Ham and slimeys were my favorite, hot or cold. Most guys were grossed out by the layer of gelatinous fat on top of the ham, but it didn’t bother me.

Every C ration box came with a dark brown foil pouch of toilet paper, matches, cigarettes, a Chiclet (gum), a spoon, salt and pepper, instant coffee, creamer, and sugar. Boxes also contained canned bread or crackers, a spread (peanut butter or cheese), and a dessert. Two of the desserts were decent: pecan cake and pound cake. Most of us hated the fruitcake. All of the cakes came with canned pears, apricots, or peaches. My favorite dessert was peaches and pound cake. I lived for that treat!

In order to heat our C rats, we’d take an empty can (typically from the pound cake; short and smaller in diameter) and poke holes in the side of it for air flow. Then we’d take a heating tablet (issued separately in foil) or some C-4 and light it with a match. The C-4 burned like a small torch. The heating tablet was a slower steadier burn. Either way, it was an effective way to enhance our limited culinary experience.

“Visions of Vietnam”: Seeking Support

Over the years I had been urged by several vets to seek help for the symptoms I displayed. It was only after a lengthy conversation in April 2001 with my friend and fellow veteran Joe McSwiggan that I agreed to meet with psychologist Dr. Gary D. Kunz at the V.A. Outpatient Clinic in Springfield, PA. We spoke for a few moments that first day and I was encouraged to make an appointment to see him again. I met with him for an initial assessment and then saw him twice a week for two months and eventually once a week until he retired.

During those sessions, Dr. Kunz recognized in me the symptoms of PTSD. I guess he saw someone who was carrying a load of bricks on his back and not letting it go. He told me everything I felt – the guilt, the sadness, the anger – was all normal for a combat veteran, as were my intrusive thoughts and other symptoms. Most counselors I worked with over the years normalized those things. Knowing that other veterans had similar issues was reassuring; I knew I was not alone in my struggle. Dr. Kunz and I worked to identify triggers so I could eventually respond with thought instead of react on instinct to those triggers.

He and other therapists asked me if I had symptoms of depression, but I said “no”. I was angry, but not depressed. I felt a lot of anger when I returned. I was just angry at life, angry at the world, but rarely angry at anything that warranted my anger. Sometimes I still can’t figure out why I get so mad at a situation. Through therapy, I learned it’s normal for military vets to feel angry. In addition, veterans have a higher baseline level of anger than civilians. It was helpful to learn that; I realized I’m more susceptible than most people to angry outbursts and need to utilize coping skills like deep breathing when I begin to feel agitated.

“Visions of Vietnam”: My Only Jump in Vietnam

At the end of December 1965, I was with Headquarters Company. We left An Khe by motor vehicle convoy for our destination in Pleiku. Our main mission there was to relieve the 2nd of the 8th and provide security for U.S. elements in the area. It seemed to me that our presence there was primarily for “show and tell” – the enemy would soon know that they were dealing with an elite Airborne unit. Our company area overlooked the beautiful and scenic Pleiku Lake. Looking out at the panoramic view, you wouldn’t have even known there was a war going on. While at Pleiku, I made my one and only jump during the war. It wasn’t a combat jump, but it was my first time jumping out of a chopper, which was great. We had no extra equipment—just our fatigues, steel pot, and parachute. It was easier than a “Hollywood jump”. We hooked up into these U-bolts on the floor. I stood on the skid and jumped off, the prop blast propelling me down. I made an easy landing.

Following my landing, the OIC (officer in charge) of the DZ instructed me to relieve the previous medic on coverage so he could jump. That’s when I saw a jumper get caught by his parachute webbing on the skid of the chopper. I looked up and saw him hanging there by the “saddle” of his chute. The OIC, in radio communication with the chopper said, “Tell him to lift himself off!” They radioed back saying he couldn’t. The chopper had to come down and hover near the ground where we lifted him off. The soldier was a little shaken up. Then the OIC told him he had to go back up and use that chute: “That chute’s still good. Get up there and jump!” He wasn’t hurt at all, but I could see that he was apprehensive. The whole scenario brought to light the reason behind the intensity of our Airborne training: the unexpected can happen at any time and you have to have the ability to respond to anything.

“Visions of Vietnam”: I & I

Within a week of the ambush in Tuy Hoa, I left for a week of R&R (rest and relaxation or, more affectionately known as, “I&I: intercourse and intoxication”!). My destination was Bangkok, Thailand. The first day of my journey took me from An Khe to Cam Ranh Bay, an artificially built harbor, which was a major supply and transportation center on the South China Sea. While there, I became ill enough that I was forced to seek medical treatment at an aid station. My problem was my inability to eat or drink anything without vomiting within minutes. This had been going on for about a month and had weakened and dehydrated me. The medics I saw that first night were no more successful in solving my problem than anyone else had been previously. They could only offer me advice: Return the next day and see the doctor on sick call or go on R&R. Knowing I would miss my flight to Bangkok if I reported to sick call, I chose the latter! The next morning, I left for Bangkok with my stomach problem, $500 in my pockets, and the determination to have a grand old time doing what soldiers do best on I&I.

“Visions of Vietnam”: First Sergeant’s Revenge

In December 1965, a levy (special order) was issued to twelve medics in C Company, me included. We were told to report to First Sergeant Ovatt. We stood outside his office and reported to him one by one. Of course, after the first medic came out, we knew we were all going to Vietnam.

Steve Castor was the company clerk for C Company 326 Medical Battalion and was there that day filing our paperwork for us. Every time someone would go in and come out, Ovatt would come out of his office with the previous individual’s paperwork and give it to Steve to further process.

Steve and Ovatt didn’t agree on much. I noticed that, with each interaction with Ovatt, Steve got more riled up. He was trying to start something. I told him to keep quiet, but he was agitated. Before the last of us went into the office, Ovatt came in and said, “Castor, you keep this up and you’re going to Vietnam.” Steve said, “You don’t have the balls to send me to Vietnam.” Five minutes later, Steve was standing in line behind me, paperwork in hand, on his way to Vietnam!