JC: “As an 18-year old, they are making life and death decisions; [they] are telling this patient whether or not they should spend another 15 minutes in the air…”

What is your birth year?

[1948.]

How old does that make you today?

[71.]

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

68th Medical Group. 

Where were you born?

Oregon.

On his entrance into the military:

I tried to get into the Navy, and they looked at my ears and realized that I have perforated eardrums, so that’s fine- if they don’t want me, I’m happy with that, too. Again, the draft wasn’t a concern at the time- economically, it was worthwhile for me to continue my education. I continued on, and then by the time I was a junior, the deferment kept changing, and the chances of getting drafted continued to increase. At the end of my junior year, I looked at it, and I said, “When I get out, there might not be a teaching deferment or a marriage deferment.” If you were married, that was good enough, but if your draft board started drafting married people, it was how many kids you had- if you couldn’t reproduce kids faster than the person next to you, then you might end up being drafted, too. So there was an incentive to put your life together as soon as possible, as fast as possible? Yes. You had to think about being drafted- it wasn’t a death sentence, but you were certainly increasing that chance. At the end of my junior year, I actually took the ninth term of ROTC for the Army, which is kind of strange- I had not had any classes on what a uniform was or what a lieutenant was, so my first term was the ninth term. The reason I took it was because I knew that the next term, I’d be teaching it, and wouldn’t be able to take ROTC. I took that, and then the summer after that I went to Fort Knox, Kentucky.

On his summer at Fort Knox:

Fort Knox is where everybody could make up the first two years of ROTC, and so I kind of liked it, because everybody in ROTC- you’re treated as a professional, and when you went to Fort Knox, I was treated as a grunt, below the level of a recruit. We got to crawl under machine-gun fire and everything else- we crawled through the mud. I remember some of the days that I sort of laugh at, in some ways- you had a hill that you had to attack, so you’d attack it for 24 hours, and then you had to defend it for the next 24 hours. Everybody was going through the same summer camp; for six weeks, everyone had to do that at one time or another. This hill, you had to dig your foxhole, and somewhere else you’re supposed to dig your latrine. You haven’t had sleep for 46 hours, and I must admit, it got in pretty bad shape after being on the same hill for four weeks. It kind of smelled. You also realize that that isn’t your highest priority when you’re attacking a hill. That was interesting. I finished the six weeks of training, basic training. The sergeants and stuff who were leading it recognized that we were the future officers that they would be serving under. Some of them had already been in Vietnam; it was their chance to train the officers, which was a good experience for them, but it was an interesting thing. That made up for the first two years of ROTC, and then I went back to Oregon State for what was my senior year. I was a junior in ROTC during my senior year, and then I started graduate school for counseling the next year. At the end of ’67, I ended up finishing off my degree and officially graduating. I was also halfway through with my master’s at the time; they gave me a delayed entry so I could do fall term and finish my master’s.

On his time at Brooke Army Medical Center:

So, in 1969, I went down to San Antonio, Texas, to Brooke Army Medical Center, and that’s where I got my basic officer’s course. I was a second lieutenant already- my wife pined them on. You definitely have some advantages as an officer than a grunt; automatically, as soon as you get your bars, you are treated above 80% of the other people who are enlisted. Even an enlisted person who has been there for 30 years- you’ll outrank them. That’s a strange thing. I had another eight weeks of my officer’s basic course, and I was in medical administration, Medical Service Corps. The Medical Service Corps are the people who do everything other than the specialists and the medical doctors and dentists- they keep everything else running. I did have some medical training in the sense that I did learn how to take blood- I was probably half a medic in the sense of an enlisted person. We had about half the training they did, about being on the battlefield and being able to help people. My main job was to be an administrator; I could’ve been in charge of a group of medics somewhere, but it was mainly the administrative part. After I got done with my basic officer’s course, I was actually assigned to Brooke Army Medical Center. That was actually a headquarters; my job was actually pretty exciting! I think the fact that I had a master’s degree rather than just a bachelor’s- enlisted men usually had a bachelor’s, unless they went through an officer’s candidate school or something- [helped] that I got selected to work in the headquarters. I was an assistant adjutant. An adjutant is both an assistant and a secretary. Commands also usually have an executive officer, who is second-in-command. He makes sure that the general gets to all the right meetings. I was the assistant to that; my job was to put my signature on a tremendous amount of paperwork. Everybody who was at Brooke Army Medical Center was usually going from one training to another, and somebody had to sign off on where they were going next. I put my signatures on a lot of orders. I was also in charge of the administrative branch. 

On his orders to go to Vietnam:

In my branch, I knew I would not go to Vietnam if I didn’t have orders by January 1st, 1970. Nobody went over for more than 10 months; some people didn’t go, and I had a good job. 31st of December, I got my orders. What was your reaction to getting your orders? You knew they could’ve come- at that time, most people knew that you’d have a chance of going there. Did you view it as negative? My first boss was very concerned that the Vietnam War would be over before he got there. For a career person, that would’ve been very bad. He signed up early to be sure he didn’t miss it- of course, Vietnam lasted long enough. In that sense, a career officer wanted to be sure that you got it. Being in the hospital- they had more hospitals stateside than in Vietnam, so the medical area was certainly a better position that you would’ve had otherwise. You ask how I felt when I got my orders? It was- “Well, shoot.” You recognized that it was a possibility, and your name came up on the list. My wife and I got in our smaller trip and got a canopy on the back- we decided to travel. We went on a five-week trip through the East in the middle of January. We played all the way up to Portland, Maine, from Florida. Then we came home and got ready to go. My wife dropped me off and we flew over; we got off the airplane with no idea of where you’re really going.

How old were you when you were called to Vietnam?

About 22. I was a little older than some. I was married- I got married after I graduated. I think that was the hardest thing- when you’re saying goodbye to your spouse, knowing it could be the last time you see [them]. That is a reality. We didn’t have any kids, and that is one reason we didn’t have any- we didn’t want to have a spouse with two kids without a daddy. 

Where were you stationed?

I was originally scheduled to be out more in the sticks, but I was lucky because I had a master’s, and I’d already worked in a headquarters, so I had two things above other officers going over there. I got in another headquarters; my second job was a medical regulating officer. 

I was at Long Binh. Long Binh was the largest military post in Vietnam, as far as I know of. We had rocket attacks the first couple of nights; those were scary, but you have to recognize that the Viet Cong could set up and fire three rockets, but we had so much artillery that after you set a couple rockets off, they knew exactly where it was coming from. Then you’d have a bunch of outgoing rockets that would eliminate the problem. We didn’t have rocket attacks very often- I think the first few days were the only times I had rocket attacks. That was humorous, however, because at that time I was in temporary housing; the person I was probably replacing hadn’t left yet, so we had about a 10-day overlap. I’m in a plastic military housing that was long, on the second floor; the outside had a balcony walkway that went to the center of the building. The bunker to hide in was right underneath my room, but the only way to get there was to run all the way to the center, down the stairs, and back to the thing. Rocket attacks- they’d usually come in following each other pretty quickly, and I was scratching my head during the time that I was living there. “If I get up and try to run all the way to the bunker, chances are, rockets are going to be exploding during the time I’m doing that and I’ll be exposed outside my room to all the rocket shrapnel. Or, I could go ahead and jump off the balcony and break my legs to get to the bunker. I could lay on top of my mattress, and the odds are that the rocket would hit the ground below me and the shrapnel would have to go through the layers of the building and the mattress for it to hit me.” Sometimes, I would sit there and think, “Should I just sit on my mattress and say, ‘To hell with it?'” {Laughs} I was very happy after my 10 days- I got out of that developing area and into headquarters. Billets were single-floor, and we had sandbags around each billet, so your attitude was that if the rocket had your name on it, it would have to come in the top and explode. Then, you didn’t have to worry about it. If it exploded outside by the sandbags- maybe you’d lose your hearing, but you could still come home and kiss your wife. That was a fatalistic type of thing, but I was happy when I got there. As long as I was working, it was good. They had a lot of shipping containers there, but instead of belonging to a semi-truck, they had smaller ones put together in a ‘T’ formation that was my office. We had sandbags on top of that and sea-net covering to keep the rain [out]. I probably could’ve taken a direct hit from a rocket and my name wouldn’t have been on it. 

What was your job or assignment there? Did it change over time?

I was an administrative person who figured out where patients went and how many were at each [base]- keeping records of people. I was kind of a registrar of the headquarters, but my main job was to regulate patients. When I say that, most of it was the fact that if somebody got injured, they’d call in a chopper, who’d pick them up. After they picked them up, they had to figure out which hospital to take them to. My office job was to be sure that they knew how many patients were at each hospital, how many surgical beds, how many medical beds- if there was a surgical backlog, how long would it take to actually perform surgery on somebody? Many times we would overfly somebody from one hospital to the next one to be sure that they could get surgery fast enough to save their life. How many hospitals were you overlooking? Usually, there was about three or four we were looking at. Other ones were far enough away that our regulating wasn’t as important, because you recognize that if it’s an hour flight away to the next hospital- you didn’t worry about it. 

The other thing that was good back then was that the tubes that you had on radios were hot. If they got hot, they would burn up; my office had air conditioning. So, people would occasionally come into my office during hot weather and enjoy talking with me. I was a very popular person! The rest of the headquarters did not have air conditioning with the exception of the commanding officer. 

Being at headquarters, you could select the best. You recognize that here is a medic who has been training, and they have come into the country and are working for me and my sergeant. They were the ones working with radios, and knowing the surgical backlog. As an 18-year old, they are making life and death decisions; [they] are telling this patient whether or not they should spend another 15 minutes in the air to get to the right hospital. As a headquarters, you do a lot of pre-planning. During actual action, you can’t be moving a hospital; your day-to-day activity is not doing something today, more a month from today. 

What was the weather like?

The good news and the bad news is that you have to realize that I moved from Oregon in January to San Antonio. San Antonio’s weather- I got down there and went swimming, and the poor lady who was showing us our apartment bundled up- cold weather for her, and I put on my short-sleeved shirt because I was very comfortable. I went swimming, and somebody would open up their blinds and wonder why someone was swimming in this weather. It was nice weather! I did have my one year in San Antonio to get climatized; if I would’ve gone straight from Portland to Vietnam, it would’ve been quite a transition. Coming home to Portland in January was a little bit different- I was cold when I first got here! 

Tell us about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.

One of the things I remember most vividly was that I saw a US civilian on a [list]- why is there a US citizen in Vietnam? Most time, the surgeons would get an extra trip to Hawaii, and there would be a medical attendee to look over the patient when you were flying. Reality-wise, that was not what was taking place- it was to provide the surgeon with a break from the everyday work of taking care of people that are dying. They never did this with nurses; surgeons were the ones that had the opportunity, and nurses never did. Here was a nurse doing this, and I’m thinking, “This is not normal.” The US civilian was only a couple weeks old- a baby. The nurse’s baby. It was a way to get her out-of-country. She actually gave birth while she was over there- giving birth in Vietnam, and then thinking about how to get a baby out-of-country? What was your reaction, when you figured out what had happened? I don’t know if they thought they could sneak it through! 

Overall, very few medical people ended up dying when they were in hospitals. Those who were out in the field- their injury rates were probably that of infantry. Just like the pilots, if you’re going into a place where someone is getting injured, you’re going into that. Your chances of getting shot- because he was shot in the same place- were higher. We lost a lot of medics, but that was usually out in the field, not in the headquarters. For personally knowing people that were shot on your left and right- that was not something  I had to think about. We had our grave registration units- people certainly didn’t make it through the hospitals all the time- but at the same time, if you looked at the survival rate, it was amazing. If you look at the other wars, we had such better medical evacuation policy. 

One of the M*A*S*H type things- we had a place on the Vietnam Coast, Vũng Tàu, that the Viet Cong and the Americans liked to use as a recreational beach. There were some places that were off-limits to fight because both sides liked them too much! The enlisted people in our headquarters enjoyed jumping on a chopper that was going on an administrative flight to go down there. One day, the main reason for the mission got canceled, but nobody canceled the flight because two people were on this flight. The bad thing was, when they got back on the airplane, instead of holding their technical tools, they had their swimming shorts over their shoulders! Bad move. I got a call the next day, and they said, “It’s probably inappropriate to have two officers flying two enlisted men to the beach for the day!” Somethings did happen that were probably not appropriate that were more functional.

On visiting hospitals in Vietnam:

Each headquarters had to go out and visit each headquarters and each dispensary; there were times when some of the places I visited were not safe by any means. Some of the places I remember- it was a gorgeous hospital, but it was all buried underground. It was very clean underneath, but at the same time, rocket attacks were a nightly affair, not once a year. If you stayed overnight at some of those places, some of the people there were quite impressed that you were willing to risk [your life]. In the medical department, they usually did not put a hospital out in the middle of the boonies, so usually they were at a post somewhere. Because of that, the security was usually much better than it would’ve been at other places by all means. That did not mean that you could not get attacked. 

In my travels, it was interesting because each hospital was converted to a better style than the old one. One of the ones I liked was built like an X, which I liked because the nurses could be in the very center of the hospital, and critical care patients you’d have right around you, and least critical care would be farther away. It worked very nice for the nurses, but the supply people didn’t like it, because when you dropped off supplies you couldn’t just drop it off. The more compact it was was nice for supply, but if you had a rocket attack it’d wipe out the whole hospital, and you didn’t want to do that.  

To get to these hospitals, [we] would usually fly in choppers with patients. That was a problem in some ways- if you had an injury somewhere, the chopper you were in would sometimes have to go pick up a patient. If there wasn’t room in the ship, sometimes they could kick you out, and you’re on the ground in the middle of a firefight where the guy got shot. As an officer, all that I would travel with was a sidearm, a .45; I learned how to do a lot of shots, but most were with a hypodermic needle, not with my .45. I never did get bumped off, but that was a possibility. Patients got first priority! The other item on the chopper- Vietnam had a lot of jungles, so you didn’t always have a nice clear spot where you could land. They had what was called a jungle penetrator; a jungle penetrator was on a cable that you would drop down, and three legs would drop out; you could get three patients on this thing and pull them through the jungle to get them in the chopper. If you needed to, you could also get a stretcher, but that was more difficult; when it’s flat like that, your chances of getting it through the canopy was a lot harder. You didn’t especially like to use the chopper, but sometimes you didn’t have a chance. I still kind of cringe on this one when I think about it, but the pilot had a button on the stick he was flying the chopper with; he could push that, if he wanted to, and cut the cable. It’s okay, I guess, in some ways- if the thing gets tied to a tree, and the chopper is going to fall on you, that big blade up there? It doesn’t look so good, so falling the twenty feet to the ground is probably better compared to the chopper. 

The chopper pilots- talk about scariness. One chopper pilot I knew had lost three choppers in one day. He was still alive, and he got a new chopper and went in and tried to save more people. If you’re going in as a chopper pilot, you have to recognize that the person you’re picking up got shot by somebody. There were bad guys around, and choppers would get shot. They were a good target; the life expectancy was not as good as a lot of professions. They really wanted me to become a chopper pilot; I went up a fair amount of times in San Antonio, and they’d show me how ‘neat’ and ‘fun’ it was. I’d say, “Yeah!” and they’d say, “Like to sign here?” I’d say, “No thanks!” {Laughs} The ones we owned as a hospital were basically MedEvac; some of the units also had a medical evacuation, and divisional also had some pilots with red crosses on them. Ours originally had a big white one- by Geneva Code, you’re supposed to have identification. I could’ve never been a prisoner of war because, on my ID card, I had a red cross, which is [a] guarantee by the Geneva Code that I could be a detainee. They would make me stay around for the whole war for the injured, but officially I could never be a POW. You weren’t supposed to shoot at the crosses- it wasn’t supposed to be aiming. The MedEvac ones assigned to the divisions- sometimes, they didn’t like that so they would put a camo cross on it. By the Geneva Code, it probably didn’t qualify, but they wanted to be less obvious. 

On his relationship with chopper pilots:

They do talk about MRO- Medical Regulating Officers; if the pilot looked at the patient and thought they needed to be at a different hospital, they would overrule the MRO and take him to the hospital he wanted to go to. My comment, when I saw that- I’d call and talk to my boss, my boss would talk to their commanding officer, and they had repercussions. As a pilot, you did not know what the surgical backlog was, you did not know if they was going to be a bed for them- your job is to do what I told you to! They did it a couple times, but if you did that- you were a cocky pilot who needed to be put in their place. Reality-wise, I am quite sure that some pilots said, “I can’t hear what you said, and therefore I’m going to take you!” We also had people who were picked up who had no idea what my [radio] channel was- machine gun on them, they are just trying to get their buddy to a hospital. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

I said it indirectly- you didn’t ever get shipped for more than 10 months. 12 was a standard tour; when you got there, you got a card that had 364 days, and you’d be checking them off. One of my fraternity brothers didn’t get to check off the second day; he was shot down. I had a couple fraternity brothers that didn’t make it back. A lot of my fraternity was in the military, in ROTC. We had a lot of people go. 

On returning to Portland after his service:

World War II people came back [to parades]; people in my time would get spit on. [Your uniform] was not something you wore around home because you were proud about what you were doing. The Viet Cong- sometimes we’d pick them up and give them medical care. I could’ve been a conscious objector; when I came home, I thought I wouldn’t have any reserve time, but I had 6 years. There was a hospital in Vancouver, Washington, and they didn’t have all their nurses spots filled, so they called me up and I did that for four years. I finished 23 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel. My second job in the reserve was a civil affairs unit, and that was the people that go in and enter a country like Korea after a war and figure out how you get the hospitals running, and libraries and finance and military. 

On his thoughts about American influence in Vietnam and modern military service:

The domino philosophy was a thing then- if we hadn’t fought in Vietnam, would everyone become communist? I think that’s hard. The draft- during the Vietnam War, you did have the doctor’s kids getting drafted. They might’ve been lucky when they got to Vietnam because they had more skills than others, but they were over there. Nowadays, there is a disconnect in that the people who are in the military are completely isolated from those who aren’t. In the Vietnam War, everybody you knew had somebody who was connected. Now, people dying in Afghanistan- unless you’re in Georgia next to Fort Benning- you’re isolated from it. 

How did your military service impact the way you think about wars today?

I am bothered by the fact that most people who used to be in Congress had served in World War II. Almost all of them had been in the military and had experienced [it]. Not having people in those positions who have any experience with that- when you have had experiences like that, you question whether we should be in places like that as much. In that sense, it really bothers me. 9/11 bothers me the most in that it was not Afghanistan that attacked us- it was a group of people from that country. The guy who shot people in Springfield was from Portland, but you wouldn’t start bombing Portland. I really do dislike the concept that we attacked a country that never did anything to us. I think a lot of money on the military- if you go to Vietnam, you see all these bomb craters that were made during the war. You think, “What would’ve happened if we’d bombed them with hospital supplies and fresh water?” I think we need to think very seriously. We’ve cut aid to [countries] because we’re worried about them coming to our borders- wouldn’t we be much better at keeping those countries in good shape?

How did your service affect your life?

The post-traumatic syndrome, I didn’t have to go through. I am pleased now that people say, “Thank you for your service” instead of spitting on you. At the same time, growing up and seeing everyone with respect who fought in World War II- we have not been in a war since World War II that everyone has felt comfortable with. The other thing that kind of bothers me today is how we can get so far involved in something. When the Consitution was written, you didn’t have the push-button type war. You can’t get Congress to decide if you want to declare war on somebody if the missiles are coming in. You have to fire, and someday we are going to get to the point where two nation- I’m glad I’m as old as I am as in that you might see the day when the world is destroyed by nuclear power. It doesn’t take that many people to do that. 

Author’s Note: JC was not able to provide any personal photographs from his service in the 68th Medical Group during the Vietnam War. The photos included are provided for the reader’s reference, but do not describe JC’s exact experience or his surroundings. The images are cited to their respective owners.  

9190198-3x2-940x627
Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-26/vietnam-war-helicopters/9190198

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

One thought on “JC: “As an 18-year old, they are making life and death decisions; [they] are telling this patient whether or not they should spend another 15 minutes in the air…”

  1. The domino theory was just an excuse to attack a nation that didn’t threaten the US – that had only just defeated the French to be free of colonialist rule. The US didn’t like that at all, The US supports dictatorships not socialist democracies that represent the people. Eisenhower destabilised Guatemala before Vietnam. It has destabilised all of South America – and the Middle East with a policy of devastation and terror. The Vietnamese lost millions of lives due to US aggression, and the bombing of Hanoi – which was greater by far than the bombing of Berlin. The US used napalm against civilians and Agent Orange which is causing horrific birth defects in Vietnamese babies to this day. The greatest exercise in hypocrisy was 9/11 – in which the US and Israel set thermite demolition charges to synchronise when detonated with some imaginary aircraft in an inept MIT video – then blamed it on Osama Bin Laden. The US does not mind sacrificing its own. Currently the uS is destabilising Venezuela to get its oil, as well as Cuba and Nicaragua. It is committing genocide with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

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