This article is dedicated to my mother’s tears, father’s sleepless nights, bad decisions, but most of all to Carol and Melanie, who seem to understand and have never asked “why?”.
My mother recently sent the article about Mike Klingner – an article that I haven’t yet been able to read. Enclosed was a note asking me to write an article about my experiences in Vietnam. Rather than just experiences, I have chosen to write about how those experiences affected and changed my life.
I graduated from McCook Senior. High School in 1965. I wasn’t what you would call a “main stream student.” I didn’t participate in sports, have a high-grade point average, or lots of friends. As a matter of fact, graduation was a struggle not only for me, but also for my parents. I remember thinking on graduation day that I had finally made it. School was over and for once I had made my parents proud.
So what was next for this kid with a string of Sunday school pins and a high school diploma?
My parents seemed to think that college was the answer rather than the question. Becoming a McCook Junior. College dropout and being more confused than ever, I enlisted in the United States Navy. Upon enlisting, you were to decide your rating. MOS if you will. I wasn’t too fond of several of the choices and decided that working in a clean hospital may be the answer, Boy! Was I in for a wake up call.
After boot camp, hospital corps school and a brief duty station in California, I was drafted into the Marine Corps and sent to field medical training. Upon completion, I was on my way to Southeast Asia. I will never forget the words of Captain Gray, U.S.N., upon leaving that duty station in California. He pulled me aside and said, “Harder, you’re ready, Good luck.” I was able to see Captain Gray later on in Chu Lai. He actually remembered me, saying, “Looks like I was right doc!”
As I sit here writing this, I wonder how many of you have ever pondered your worth. I was about to find out mine.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, I was assigned to 1st Hospital Company, 1st Marine Division, where I had several duties from assisting in the operating room, ICU, to flying search and rescue missions. Search and rescue soon became my passion and for the first time in my life, and not since that time, I found my worth.
Here was an 18-year-old who was entrusted with the lives of everyone who needed him. When did I realize this? It was on one of my first rescues in which a pilot had been shot down and was severely injured. After he was recovered and I was working on him, he looked me in the eyes and my very soul and said, “Please, don’t let me die doc!” I knew then that I would never be the same.
I have seen the atrocities that one human can inflict on another and will never forget the coal black darkness, cold, and sheer terror one can never describe. There were times my hands and fatigues were so sticky with blood of wounded and dying I could not start an IV or light a cigarette. I wept with and for the dying and rejoiced with the living. There was warm beer, the constant roar of generators, the smell of jet and diesel fuels and the constant clap of helicopter rotors.
You soon forget your wife and family and friends you had to leave behind. Not the “forget” of not remembering or knowing, but they couldn’t be first on your mind and soon became very distant. Some “over there” lived from day to day. For me it was one casualty, one rescue, one body after another, and the ever-present words in my mind, “Please! Don’t let me die doc!”
It’s now time to rotate back to the “real world.” A place you barely remember. You are welcomed with open arms by Mother and Father. Where is my Wife? — Oh, she stayed home to study for a college exam. Seems quite meaningless. I guess deep down I knew then.
Looking back at those thirty-four years, what was its cost me and those close to me? It changed who I was, my very personality. It affected my marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, and there was a little girl I would never really get know. It cost me the respect of some, for decisions I made during that time. It cost me a lack of sensitivity toward religions and intolerance to others. My priorities in life had changed. I had gone off to war a boy and came home a man. One with a new sense of responsibility and definitely a new set of priorities in life.
Most of the memories of my ex-wife have faded and lost their sharpness after all these years. I even have a hard time remembering what she looked like, but I “remember” the faces, all of their faces just as they were back then.
Loved ones don’t understand why I don’t come home more often, attend reunions, and look up old classmates. It’s not that I don’t love them dearly or wish to attend; it’s just not in me anymore. I have become immune to childhood and high school memories. They just don’t seem that important.
Even to this day the shouting and screams continue, my patience becomes less, and less and dreams still interrupt what should be a good night’s sleep.
If you have a loved one who served in W.W. I, W.W. II, Korea, or Vietnam and you catch them staring into space, or their eyes well with tears at the sound of a certain song, don’t try to understand it. Just accept them for who they have become.
Carol, my loving wife for the last 25 years and a geriatric nurse, is still helping me with this, has asked, “Will you ever forget?”. My response, “I hope I never forget one face or experience.” And, like Mike Klingner and many others, would do it all again in a heart beat with no questions asked.
A little more of my story.
After returning from Vietnam, my next duty station was the Naval Air Station at Kingsville, Texas, a Master Jet Training Facility. I continued as a Hospital Corpsman flying Search and Rescue and being credited with several military and civilian rescues.
While there I met and became friends with Lt. Stanley Altman, M.D., an intern in charge of Out Patient Dependent Care. Three years after the doctor’s discharge, I was contacted by him and together we opened Eye Physicians & Surgeons in Aberdeen, S.D. We practiced together for the next 27 years when my friend and partner Dr Altman decided to retire. We closed the office upon his retirement and not ready for retirement myself, I now manage Dorsett Eyecare in Aberdeen.
If I were asked, “what has been your proudest moment since graduating from McCook Senior. High?” It would not be my military accolades or personal achievements but walking my daughter, Melanie down the aisle. Melanie and her husband, Scott, a chemical engineer, are now living in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.