The Torment of a Distant War

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I placed my ear to Doc Acton’s chest, and scooped up his .45 with my free hand. The machine gunner had been crawling toward Doc’s pistol. He said that he had nothing to go back home for, that he didn't want to live. I held the gun out of reach, and listened to Doc Acton’s life slip away. His last heartbeat seemed to fade in a weak echo.

I put the gun aside and said everything I could think of to console the legless Marine. I needed two tourniquets, his belt and mine, to tie off the stumps. I did the best I could.

This writing is dedicated to Don, Doc Acton and the others. Those corpsmen are my personal heroes, the “cream of the crop.” They were the very bravest. I won't ever forget them.

The corpsman I replaced, a guy named Doc Nally, was KIA. He was doing his job, bandaging up a guy, when he was shot. They showed me the spot in the grass where he was hit.

The author smiles and waves to the photographer.

The author on Christmas leave, 1964

The two platoon-level corpsmen on rotation with me were KIA. So was Doc Sparks, the one who succeeded me. He was a little guy, barely two days in country. I had told him to keep his head down. Apparently he didn't. He was so eager to help Marines who needed him. Word was, he raised his head to see who was hit, and took a bullet. I stopped off in Dong Ha to identify his body.

A corpsman in my platoon, the guy who showed me around when I first arrived, took a bullet between the eyes. He was working on someone at the time, so the sniper was able to get a really good bead on him. His wife wrote to me. I guess he had mentioned me to her several times. She was heartbroken, lost. She wanted to know a little bit more about him, to connect the dots.

I don’t know how I can ever measure up to those other docs. I feel like I’m here getting the credit for those who passed on. Sharing what happened, writing about it, has helped me focus on the good corpsman moments. I can say that I did my best in Vietnam. There is healing now. But there is no cure when you are changed forever.

One day last year at a Denny’s, I was wearing a cap with a patch that read “Combat Corpsman.” A young Marine walked over to my table, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I feel safer just knowing you’re in the building, Doc.”

It’s difficult to feel worthy of the title. But it sounds very good to hear.

The author deployed to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He is now a retired gardener living in Concord, California.

(Published March 8, 2010, on New America Media)