by Tom Heaven
I was sitting in my favorite bar in San Diego last week when another old timer sat next to me and ordered a beer. While we were slaking our thirsts, he looked at me and asked, “What branch?”
As most of the patrons of the bar were military veterans, this was a common introductory question.
“Air Force. You?”
He reached across and held out his right hand. “Gary.”
I shook it and said, “Tom.”
“You serve in Nam?”
“Yep. That was one F***ed up war!”
“It sure was. It cost us one hell of a lot of young men, and then we lost. Besides that, those of us who survived were treated like crap when we got home.”
“That’s right, no gratitude at all. When were you there?”
I rubbed the scar on my chin as the memories came flooding back to me…
It was July of 1966 when I arrived in Cu Chi, Vietnam. My orders said that I was assigned to the 12th Evac Hospital, an Air Force unit in support of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. The hospital was situated in a corner of Vietnam between Saigon and Cambodia. It could accommodate up to 300 casualties and it needed every one of those beds.
This was my first assignment after Basic Medical Service Specialist training in Montgomery Alabama. Nervous is an adjective that couldn’t begin to describe how I felt as I checked in to my new billet.
The schedule had me listed as on duty the following day. I was to wait in the ready room for any calls for medical transport that might come in during the twenty-four – hour shift. My partner would be Ken Banzhaf a two tour, seasoned medic.
I could hear the pilot talking to the hospital command post on the radio, even over the sound of the blades of the UH 1 “Huey” as they made their loud thump thump thump above our heads.
“Golden Empire, this is Bright Knight approaching our LZ”
“Bright Knight, this Golden Empire. We copy, how’s it look down there? Over.”
“We’ve got 2 wounded being treated by a field medic along the tree line. Plenty of room to put down behind them. Over”
“Tell that rookie you have on board to keep his head down. Over.”
“Roger that, Goldie.”
As soon as we landed, Ken and I, carrying two stretchers, jumped out and made a bee line for the wounded.
When we got there, the field medic told us that one of his patients had a gunshot wound in his right shoulder. There other soldier’s wound was to the abdomen. They had both been bandaged and were ready for transport, so the three of us loaded them on the stretchers. Ken and I took the first patient back to the Huey keeping our heads down and moving as quickly as we could. We then doubled back to get the other patient.
We were just sliding the second stretcher aboard when gunfire erupted from the tree line. I turned to see the field medic crumple and fall. The VC then took aim at the Huey. The gunner on our helicopter opened up with his M-60, firing 1200 rounds per minute as suppression fire.
“C’mon, we gotta’ get out of here,” Ken yelled at me.
“No, we can’t leave him behind. He’s hit!”
“One down is better than six kid, do the math, and get your ass in here.”
“Just take off and come back for me as soon as I get him over here.”
The pilot took off and circled around out of range of the fire from the ground, while I ran back, under fire, to get the medic. He had been shot three times, once in the right leg, and twice in the back. I took off my canteen belt and wrapped it around his chest, under his arms, and told him to hang on. I then dragged him, as I had been taught, toward the LZ.
The helicopter then circled over the tree line laying down suppression fire again. As soon as there was a pause from enemy fire, the pilot brought it as close to the ground as he could without actually touching down.
Ken and I wrestled him onto the deck, and we immediately took off. As we bandaged the field medic’s wounds, I could hear the pilot contacting command.
“Golden Empire, this is Bright Knight, you copy? Over.”
“Go Bright Knight. Over.”
“We’re on the way home with 3 litters and one dumb ass medic. Over.”
“Did the dumbass get himself hurt? Over.”
“No but he almost got us all killed, and he’s gonna’ get hurt when we land! Over.”
Neither the pilot, co-pilot, gunner or Ken said a word to me as we disembarked at the hospital.
As the hospital corpsmen unloaded our three patients, I went back to the ready room to finish my duty shift. As soon as I entered, the pilot grabbed me by the collar and pulled my face close enough to his that I could clearly see every distended vein in his forehead.
“If you ever pull a stunt like that again I will have Ken throw your ass out at 15,000 feet. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sir!” The negative feedback I received from the crew of the helicopter, was eventually outweighed by the Silver Star the Air Force gave me six months later for my actions on that day.
After I completed my tour in Viet Nam, I was lucky enough to be assigned to Travis AFB Hospital in California for the duration of my enlistment. When I got out, I decided to take advantage of my G.I. Bill benefits and take some college courses at Napa Junior College in Napa, California.
“Great story, but how did you get that scar on your chin?”
It was in Napa. I was going to class one afternoon when there was a student demonstration on campus. They were mostly neatly dressed students, but there were some off-campus radicals too. They had hippie outfits, and a few had motorcycle vests.
My hair was still short so everyone could tell I had just gotten out of the military.
“There’s one of those baby killers now,” yelled one of the bikers.
As there were at least four with leather vests, I thought it would be a losing proposition to argue with them. I just said, “I don’t want any trouble. I’m just on my way to class.”
I never saw the long chain he had looped outside a pocket on his ratty jeans until he took one swing with it and laid my chin wide open. I don’t remember much after that, except being surprised that one of the other thugs happened to have a baseball bat. I was out for four days. At least I never felt the 24 stitches it took to close the gap in my chin.
Just then an old couple, who had been sitting at a table behind us, stood up and came over to the bar where we were sitting. The lady said, “We couldn’t help overhearing your story. We want to thank you for your service.”
I thought, At last! Finally, our fear, suffering, and sacrifice have been acknowledged with a thank you, instead of a scar.
I said, “Well, you are entirely welcome. It is folks like you who remind us why we signed up, so we really appreciate your thanks. Isn’t that right Gary?”
“Yes it is, and I want to thank you personally, Tom.”
“What do you mean Gary? You served too.”
“Yes, I did. I served with the 25th Infantry Division outside of Cu Chi as a field medic. I got shot during a battle, and would be dead except some dumb ass rookie, air evac medic, came back for me.
While we were hugging, he said, “Tom, I thank you for your service!”
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