Confessions of a Cayce Doctor
“Well come on all of you big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again,
He got himself in a terrible jam,
Way down yonder in Vietnam.”
Country Joe and the Fish
§ Although I had gone through my first “California experience” of this lifetime, I was just a 20-year-old bumpkin from Dakota signed on to an expense-paid trip to a foreign land. Asia was inscrutable then and still is to most Westerners. East and West, Orient and Occident, Yellow and White remain barriers to understanding. There are so many.
Had I been a bit more conscious in that time, I might have gotten more out of my Asian excursion. Still, the military separates itself from the “occupied people.” We were discouraged, if not prohibited, from involving ourselves in the lives of the Vietnamese. One of the classmates of SF days tells me all sorts of stories about relationships and friendships he made in the Republic of Vietnam. Some persist to this day to which have been added others made at his residence in Madison, WI. I have to believe that my friend Joel has had experiences in other lifetimes in the Orient which prompted present day ones.
In any case, I may have missed some opportunities to discover the locals. Had I extended myself I might have caught glimpses and understandings of the Orient which I now consider to be my spiritual home. China and India and Tibet have surely been my homeland on a number of occasions over the centuries. Next to Egypt, I feel the most affinity for Tibet and that to a large degree because of it being synonymous in many ways with Buddhism. I am quite confident that I have been embodied as a Tibetan Buddhist on one or more occasions.
The country of Vietnam was lush, green and verdant. Although I had a limited view of the surrounding countryside and jungle except when I helicoptered into one camp or another. Besides the greenery, there was red soil which underlay the plant life and colored our fatigues.
The element of water there was maybe more memorable than the earth. The monsoon season swept in and the rains poured and poured. Although I never experienced a flood, the rains often gave the sense that a deluge might be upon us. The heavens would open up late in the afternoon and unload their cargo of massive rains. On and on. Then thankfully, the skies would suddenly begin to clear. The sun would come out and the storm would pass until the next day. Overwhelming at times, threatening in others. Then the release completed, relief arrived. Somewhat like life itself. §
Dave Crane, Del Russell, and Robert McNary in Quan Loi, 1968
October 1968 found me deployed in Vietnam after a long, long plane ride across the Pacific to Tan Son Nhut Airbase in Saigon and a few days in Long Binh. I was assigned to the 6/27th Artillery Battalion with Headquarters Battery at Quan Loi. Besides HQ, A Battery was located across a dusty, red compound. The latter was composed of huge guns – 8 inch and 175 mm self-propelled cannons. The monstrous weapons belched 200 pound shells to distances of ten miles.
The Quan Loi post was a relatively large and stable base in III Corps – which surrounded Saigon. I reported to the Battalion Aid Station directed by Dr. Schuffler and SSG. Michaels. I fully expected it to be my next duty station because of what we were told in training back at the Presidio. As I confidently remembered it being said, “After all your 91C (Clinical Specialist) training, you will be assigned to a hospital or to work next to a physician.”
So much for Army promises and my expectations. Before long, I shipped out to join the newly-attached F Battery 15th Artillery. The battery had recently been dropped into the new Fire Support Base at Landing Zone Rita next to a village called Ton Le Chan and dangerously close (four miles) to the Cambodian border. Thankfully, there was a company of infantrymen at our side. The Firebase was just an area cleared of jungle sufficient to set up a perimeter of defense, lay out pads for six howitzers, and provide for living space. Actually, there was lots of space. Mostly dirt. Some remnants of green life and an array of various tents spread amongst the howitzers.
I was let loose with a very modest array of medical equipment and an Army green bag of hopefully useful pills and lotions. With little real honest-to-goodness preparation, I was the “Doc” at the battery. It took me days to get my bearings in the very new territory. I shame-facedly realized the artillery men had already dug a latrine by the time I had put in hours trying to do the same by myself.
My aid station for days was just a culvert large enough for me and my bags. Over time with help, I dug a substantial hole in the ground and covered it with a metal Air Force pallet. I could almost stand up in it and there was room for a few humans to take refuge from the sun if not from danger.
Unfortunately, that effort also came to nought when the men soon fired their cannons throughout one whole night. The vibrations, rattling and shaking, inevitably caused my aid station to implode – fall in upon itself. I went back to using the culvert for my place of duty.
The damage had been caused by a complement of six 155 mm howitzers. The latter were much less imposing than the big guns at Quan Loi. The shells could be shoved into the barrel of the cannon by two men using a cradle. Followed with a bag of explosive, closing of the breech cover, and a snap of the lanyard. The projo went sailing to explode several miles away intended to do bodily mayhem to the NVA and Viet Cong. When they were fired repeatedly and continuously, they set the whole earth around them into action – shaking, rattling, and rolling – and not just in the distance where the shells were intended to do their damage.
Gradually, I got the feel of things. My compatriots came to me for one problem or another. Little things like colds and ringworms, cuts and scrapes, I handled with ease. I did my first suturing in the middle of the great Vietnamese outdoors. If anything occurred beyond my intended good sense, I had the option of the Special Forces (Green Beret) encampment within relatively close range. An SF medic was the next step in the medical echelon. If we had taken casualties, a call for Medevac would have quickly gone out.
Thankfully, that event did not occur during my three months at the Fire Support Base. What did result were hours and hours passed trying to occupy myself. I had copies of Taber’s Medical Cyclopedia and the Merck Upledger of Diagnosis and Therapy. I spent a lot of time with the latter, a compact book crammed with fine print. It was a struggle as are many medical texts. I learned a little about medicine and a lot about its penchant for categorizing and labeling without coming to many tangible conclusions. And, that even in the latter years of the 20th century there was so much unknown and so much more to discover. As in many disciplines in the modern age, “Things are complicated.” And so was and is disease and medical practice. There were lists and lists and more lists – which seemed to suggest “we know a lot of things, but putting them together is harder than we care to tell you.”
My time with F Battery passed slowly and stretched out much longer than the “few days or weeks until you are replaced.” Eventually, I got itchy feet and caught a ride in a helicopter back to Quan Loi. Nobody at F Battery seemed to mind. But, they did at the Battalion Aid Station.
SGT Head, who replaced Michaels, was upset that I left my post without being properly relieved. I held my ground telling that I had not been relieved as told previously, nor had I been given much for communication during my near three months at the fire support base. Head hemmed and hawed for a while. “You get back to your post right away and we will see you are replaced and sent elsewhere in days. I promise.”
Well, he was true to his words. He extricated me from F Battery, but I was destined for another outpost still on my own. Head didn’t want me under foot or rivaling him at Headquarters. So, I was sent to B Battery at Song Be. A spot a little more civilized.
Next to an asphalt airstrip and a contingent of First Infantrymen, B Battery had the big guns with a well-constructed fort-like perimeter made of mounds of dirt and called the berm. There were turrets at each corner and in the middle of each flank of the compound. Some had 50-caliber machine guns and others were stocked with recoilless rifles. Barbed and concertina wire were spread beyond the perimeter along with Claymore mines and other nasty devices to keep “Charley” away. The only way into the compound was through a gate which was guarded at night, but ignored during the day. I figured a number of times if the VC were really smart they would have made a foray into a camp like our own during the day time when least expected.
Specialist 5th Class McNary had a real aid station, reasonably well stocked with gear and medicines. It was located at the end of a bunker built half underground and the other half covered with culvert and sand bags. The rest of that bunker made for a barracks where I lived with a few other artillery men.
When I first arrived, the departing medic gave me a short list of extra chores which the Battalion Surgeon had detailed after his recent inspection. At the top, I read, “Burn off the sump at least once a month.” The sump was a pond which drained greasy refuse from the mess hall.
I was game to accomplish the task and strike it quickly from the list. One bright morning, I procured a half-full 55-gallon barrel of diesel and rolled it up and over the compound’s protective berm. I next vented the barrel and allowed its contents to spew onto the surface of the sump. After a goodly layer of diesel was floating on the pond, I pushed the barrel, remains and all, into the pond. Then, I stepped back and tossed a match. There was an instant “WHOOSH” and an eruption of flame. I thought to myself, “Well done. Well done. You can scratch #1 off the Surgeon’s list for this month.”
Obliviously, I walked away from the gingerly-simmering pond. I had no thought to keep an eye on the situation. The job was done, wasn’t it? I returned to my underground aid station located in the middle of the compound and looked after another task. Within a few minutes, a roar came out of the distance, “Kaboom! Kaboom!” I wondered what might be going on – especially, at that time of the day. I didn’t have any inclination to investigate, though.
Shortly however, a soldier dropped into the aid station to say, “Top wants to see you.” I had no idea why the first sergeant might care to talk to me. We had yet to meet since I was brand new to the battery. But, being a dutiful trooper, I took myself straightaway to his office and reported as ordered.
The retirement-aged top-kick asked rather matter-of-factly, “Did someone tell you to start a fire out at the sump?”
I said, “Why yes, first sergeant. The Battalion Surgeon left orders for it to be burnt off at least once a month.”
Top returned, “I see. I think we’ll have to amend that order.”
Oddly, I received not the slightest reprimand. Though I was certainly entitled to one. For, the tidy fire I left burning took hold of some grass on the edge of the pond and had spread outward. It soon contacted two Claymore mines which exploded with full force. Fortunately, Claymores are pointed away from encampments and no one was anywhere near them when they went off. The small grassfire was soon doused by a hose from the camp water truck.
Thence, I was soon notorious, at least for a time. “The Fire Bug of Song Be” was talked about as far as Long Binh and Saigon.
My time at Song Be was almost as boring as at my last post, but it was more comfortable. I soon got the itch again and wondered if I would ever get to play the role I was supposedly trained for. To work in a hospital or alongside a physician.
Back in Quan Loi, I had been told in so many words, “It ain’t gonna happen.” I could apply for a transfer to a hospital, but that surely would get turned down. The only real option was to ask for transfer to the infantry where I might get to work in a Clearing Station for the wounded passing through to a larger facility. The kicker was that I might get the infantry assignment, but not the Clearing Station and end up patching wounded during firefights in the jungle. So, I bided my time. Patience is a great virtue, as we have heard so many times. One I am still learning.
Life at the Song Be compound was not all boring. As memory serves me, it seems that “bathroom humor” may have had a part in the equation. For the sky lit up one night when the 4-hole latrine burned down. Certainly, someone was trying to have fun. How does a latrine catch fire?
Another tangent to that story was latrine duty which was passed around the compound. As opposed to some posts which hired locals to keep the latrines in order and waste matter “cared for,” B Battery personnel shared that duty. It was another one of the “fire in the hole” sorts of jobs.
Barrels cut in half were placed under each latrine slot to receive urine and fecal matter. On a regular basis, the cans were pulled away, doused with diesel and set fire until all was burned to a crisp. [The job was performed in daylight.] I remember helping with the job a time or two. It was really not such bad detail. Once the job was done, the officiant got the rest of the day off. Some of the less energetic members of the battery coveted the job which took only a couple hours to accomplish. It was claimed that the “potheads” begged for the duty. Eventually, it received an unofficial MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) designation at Song Be. The MOS was named 92CDooDoo.
On a more soldierly side of things, I have to tell the story of me and my rifle in Vietnam. The reader may recall that I didn’t do so well at rifle qualification at Fort Leonard Wood. Somewhere along the way in Vietnam, I was issued an M-14 rifle – a World War II vintage weapon. I fired it once only.
At Song Be, a number of us went down to the nearby river with our weapons for “target practice.” When I fired my weapon, it did not automatically eject the fired shell and push the next 7.62 mm cartridge into the chamber as is usual. That didn’t bother me.
But, it did some of my friends. “Ah, Doc should have a sidearm. Medics carry 44s, not M-14s.” So, someone soon went to the trouble to get me issued a proper pistol. But, I carried it only a few days and decided, “If it gets to the point that a medic like me has to use a weapon, I am sure to be dead before long with or without a firearm.” I turned the sidearm in and went naked of weapons ever after.
Speaking of sidearms, I have to tell of the most lethal moment I experienced while in the Republic of Vietnam. I was visited in my aid station one evening by a slightly inebriated soldier. He was new to the battery, a communications guy on loan from another outfit. We had had some prior conversation, upon which a discussion on religion ensued during his short stay. Somehow, it became more of a debate than a discussion. Yes, I now know not to argue about politics and religion. Anyway, the man soon went away with a sore head. Not one medicine would help.
He returned in a matter of some minutes and stood in front of me. I had no idea what to expect and don’t remember what he said. Maybe nothing. But, he quickly raised a handgun to within inches of my forehead. I didn’t have time to think, but swiped the gun from his hand. The soldier did not struggle, just turned on his heels and departed immediately.
I stood there by myself shaking like a leaf in the wind. “Wow, was that a close one.” And, the Viet Cong were not within miles of the battery. I shook even more when I discovered that the pistol was loaded. Even though I continued to shake, I soon marched briskly across the compound to find the Battery Commander, Captain Strickland. I carefully presented him the pistol and told the story of how it came into my hands. He was surprised and shaken a bit himself. The next day, the soldier was shipped back to his regular unit. I heard not the slightest of his fate. Who knows if and how the Army dealt with him.
While that was my closest personal call to death or disability while in Vietnam, the whole compound came under fire from time to time as did the perimeter at F Battery. “Incoming” was a common refrain when mortar fire was heard by one soldier or another. That was the time to take cover. Fortunately, we experienced no casualties on any occasion from the fire of mortars which are notoriously inaccurate.
But, we did come into imminent danger in May of 1969 at B Battery. We heard through some source of intelligence that the Viet Cong were moving in our direction and tried to prepare. On a moonless night, there were rumblings as practically everyone was on close guard at berm. Soldiers were instructed to hold fire until given the go-ahead. I was told to hang tight at the aid station which was quite fine with me even though the suspense was nerve-wracking. It would have been just the same on the perimeter.
Even though soldiers could tell the enemy were closing in, they were told to hold fire. Inevitably in one instant, “all hell broke loose” as there were loud and prolonged outbursts of gunfire and explosions once a VC set off a trip-flare while crawling through the protective barriers. It was almost deafening for moments. Blasts of noise and bursts of light as more flares turned night into day.
Before long, I had my first war casualties to try to attend. One soldier had lost his hearing from a nearby explosion. Another was singed over much of his arms. And, I even attended two scrawny, barely clad enemy for a time.
As morning came on, the fighting withered and turned towards a building near the airstrip. While some of the soldiers were at one side of the compound keeping track of the pocket of enemy fighters, others were retrieving body parts of dead VC. Some were parading them around as if for entertainment.
In the midst of our warriors at the berm was Sp4 Chris Martinez, a cannoneer, who had been my patient for some weeks. He had a broken bone in his hand which wouldn’t heal and wouldn’t heal. The hand was casted and re-casted eventually covering his arm to above the elbow at the Special Forces Clinic up the road.
But, Chris would not hold back. He kept at this job even with his cast while he was within days of rotating back to the States. Furthermore, he had even extended his tour some weeks, so he could be discharged on going home rather than spending months on another assignment in the U.S.
As life works, Chris was on the firing line that mid May day with a rifle in one hand and a cast on the other. The VC were persistent and sent a bullet in his direction which passed through his chest. I was called and did the best to dress and bandage his wound. A Medevac chopper seemed to appear almost instantly and Chris was on his way to the Field Hospital in Saigon.
Sp4 Martinez died some days later. His name/photo appeared in an issue of Life magazine in June 1969. “The faces shown on the next pages are the faces of American men killed in the words of the official announcement of their deaths ‘in connection with the conflict in Vietnam.’ The names, 242 of them, were released by the Pentagon during the week of May 28 through June 3, a span of no special significance except that it includes Memorial Day. The numbers of the dead are average for any seven-day period during this stage of the war.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if Chris Martinez had to die. He didn’t need to extend his Vietnam tour of duty. He didn’t need to be on the firing line when one of his arms was covered in a cast. How often, “it is ours to wonder why.”
Within the month, I was replaced at Song Be and got to spend my last three months “in country” at Service Battery, 6/27th Artillery in Long Binh. Good duty, but even more boring. The Long Binh military installation was then the largest American base in the world. So, it was safe and quiet. I had a little aid station next to the supply department. I saw fewer patients and had more time on my hands. During that part of my tour, I took R & R in Sydney, Australia, for a week and soon after returning was on another airplane back to the homeland.