We’re back to Vietnam, and it seems to never go away. This time, it’s about medics. These are the men and women who answer the cries of “Medic!” or “Doc!” when their brothers and sisters in arms have been hit and are bleeding profusely, have lost a limb, or have a penetrating chest wound.
Some military personnel in the Vietnam Era such as Carlos McFarland of Tipp City, are prepared to help care for the injured, but as McFarland words it, “I was lucky. I was aboard two Navy ships, the USS Mt. Rainier and the USS Santa Jose, during my three tours of duty in Vietnam. We had 500-plus men on board, and I knew them personally, lived with them 24/7, and even cut their hair as I was one of two barbers aboard these ships. In addition, it was my job to render first aid as needed. As ammunition ships of hard-working men, we carried and delivered everything from 500-pound bombs to grenades. We had good protection- always close to aircraft carriers and destroyers- and were never hit. ”
The late Joseph “Guy” LaPointe Jr. of Dayton, was not as fortunate as McFarland. As a combat medic, “Doc” LaPointe was killed in June of 1969 by a grenade as he went to the aid of soldiers under fire on Hill # 376 in the Quang Tin Province in Vietnam. As a conscientious objector, LaPointe is one of only three COs in American history to ever receive the Medal of Honor. He also was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and has had numerous military facilities named in his honor and an Ohio highway.
I learned about LaPointe from talking with his widow, Cindy, and his son, Joe, and reading about him on the web. With dying at age 20, he never had the opportunity, the time, to give voice to his life’s story.
Jerry Christy of Piqua, however, lived following his service as a combat medic in Vietnam. He is willing now to give voice to the medics of the Vietnam War, to those who perished and to those who lived, but are unable or unwilling to share.
Christy graduated from Piqua Catholic High School in 1965 with plans to become an architect. At that time, local draft boards determined who would be drafted and who would be exempted. It wasn’t until late in 1969 that lotteries were held as a response to the politicizing of who would serve. Christy and thousands of other young men during the period received that much-dreaded letter, “Greetings …” He decided the Army was not in his plans, so he volunteered for the Air Force as a medic.
His first deployment was to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, one of the places to which those wounded in Vietnam were taken. After a year and a half at Kadena, Christy and four other medics at that location decided their skills could be put to better use in Vietnam.
At Bien Hoa Air Base in December 1967 Christy reports, “I saw the realities of war.” The base was hit regularly by mortars and rockets, and it was a dropping off place for the casualties of war. Additionally, Christy flew in the Huey helicopters out to help the wounded in villages that had been hit by the Communist North Vietnamese.
During his one-year tour in Vietnam, Christy says, “We knew that every day could be our last. I went to sleep at night thankful that I had lived through another day. I woke up the next morning, thankful that I had not been killed during the night. I never felt safe.”
Christy relates a painful memory: “A tank had been hit. I saw a soldier on the ground, obviously dead. Part of his head had been blown off. I turned him over to face me, and his eyes were open, staring at me. I looked at his dog tags — 19 years old. I started crying. A sergeant said, ‘Quit crying. That’s not going to help him.’ I quit and didn’t cry again for 20 years. I still wish I could have told his parents that he died without suffering.”
Unlike in today’s war zones with multiple deployment, if a soldier survived 365 days in Vietnam, he was transferred out. Christy reports, “One of the dumbest things I ever did was volunteer to go by truck to a village that we were told had been hit hard and needed medical assistance. It was the end of my tour and I had been told I didn’t have to come to work anymore, to get ready to go home. I was bored, so I volunteered. When we got to the entrance of the village where we would normally see children playing and adults walking around, there was no one. Our commanding officer gave the order, ‘Retreat. Now!’ We found out the Viet Cong were waiting for us, and we probably would have all been killed.”
In 1969, after Christy’s time in the Air Force was over, he was a changed man. No longer was architecture to be a part of his future; he wanted to be a nurse. As he reflects on his time in Vietnam, he says, “I wish I had been better equipped. I tried my best. I know that we saved many lives, and we lost lives. I wish I had been better educated in order to save more.”
So he went to a hospital nursing program in Massachusetts, passed his national licensure exams as a registered nurse, and went to the University of California/Sacramento for his B.S.N. He worked in cardiology at Stanford University Hospital , in intensive care at a Crescent City (Calif.) hospital, the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and Baptist Hospital in Knoxville, Tenn. He views intensive care as “the most critical part of hospital work, second only to the emergency room.”
In 1995, Christy returned to Vietnam “to put my ghosts behind me. I wanted to see the country, the people. When I left, we had turned the country brown with Agent Orange. When I went back, it was green. Our guide’s father fought with us and was killed in the war. His father’s brother fought with the North Vietnamese Army and lost a leg.
“I found the people in Vietnam to be gracious, happy, and friendly as they rebuild their country.”
Christy asked his guide, “Are the Vietnamese people angry with the U.S. for destroying their country?” The guide assured him that they aren’t, that they are now a combination of communism and capitalism.
By the end of my interview with Christy, both of us were crying. Christy said, “I wish we could find a way to maintain our freedom without killing people.”
Concluding the interview, he reported, “Before 1995, I had a nightmare in which the ghost of the 19-year-old soldier appeared with eyes staring at me. The face and the eyes would not go away. And I can’t remember a day when I didn’t think of Vietnam.
“After I returned there in 1995 and talked with the people, I found that I could put the war behind me. And I have.”
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.