Back Then

His Brother's Keeper from the Americal Division Magazine — May 1969

Electronic copy of article provided by Leslie Hines

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By SP4 Dean Norland

History of the Combat Medical Badge

"Medic! MEDIC!!"

All heads in the platoon snap toward the direction of the blood-curdling yell. A lone man with a quickly executed move grabs a canvas bag, leaps to his feet, and starts running to the wounded man. He is the guy they are calling for–the combat medic.

He looks no different from the soldiers he serves. Carrying an M-16 rifle, a full compliment of field gear, and two small canvas bags containing medicine, scissors, and forceps, he moves through the rice paddies and mountains of Vietnam with the infantrymen.

Civilian backgrounds may range from studying architecture to mowing lawns, but these soldiers have gained enough medical knowledge and self-confidence to accept the responsibility of saving lives under combat conditions.

The classroom training for most aidmen is condensed into a 10-week course; other working knowledge only can be acquired in the field.

Some corpsmen complete a 48-week session that covers not only the field aspects of being a medic but also qualifies them to work in an operating room. SP5 Michael Purvance (Provo, Utah), a corpsman with the 3rd Bn., 1st Inf., 11th Inf. Bde., was a pre-med student at the University of Utah before he entered the service and finished the lengthy medic's course.

"When you complete the course you are supposed to know as much as a licensed practical nurse and you are qualified to apply for an LPN license back in the States," Purvance noted.

The daily routine of a combat medic includes treating sundry scratches and rashes that could develop into serious infections. Malaria must be defended against, and drinking water must be given a visual check. Overall sanitation at a campsite must be given constant attention.

When the platoon or company stops at the end of the day and establishes an overnight camp, medics can be seen using an entrenching tool, scratching out a ditch or building a temporary bunker.

But the commonplace comes to a screeching halt when a sniper discharges a few well-aimed rounds, a firefight bursts from nowhere, or the sickening sound of an exploding mine ruptures the silence.

At that moment the combat medic stands as the solitary human link between a wounded GI's despondent prayer and his next heartbeat. If the aidman does not know his business or if his se!f-confidence waivers, the patient stands to be a big loser.

"You really don't have time to think about it when it happens," reflected SP4 Douglas Saxon, 18, Miami, who entered the Army after he graduated from high school. The 1st Sqdn., 1st Cav. medic continued, "It's after the fight is over and you have a chance to think about it that you're scared."

Saxon, who is airborne qualified and speaks Vietnamese, rides on one of the "Dragoon's" armored cavalry assault vehicles. "If I'm on line in one track and another ACAV gets hit I usually have to jump to the ground and run to where the casualties are."

During a skirmish the medics will devote every life-saving second to reaching and treating the wounded rather than laying down their own field of fire. "The grunts cover their 'doc'," explained one medic.

SP5 Lawrence Bracy, 19, Philadelphia, who came in the Army shortly after high school and is now a medic with 3/1, probably will never forget his 19th birthday spent on the job near Quang Ngai City. "We were pinned down by AK-47 fire in front and were getting mortared from the rear. One medic was killed and another wounded, leaving me as the only aidman left in the company. I treated 16 or 17 guys that day, and the only one lost was the medic."

Even the best surgeon using the finest equipment under ideal conditions loses patients so it stands to reason that combat conditions will not win every battle with death.

"I feel terrible about it," said SP4 William Drake, 23, Cheyboygan, Mich., an aidman with 4th Bn., 3rd Inf., 11th Bde.

Drake, who holds a B.A. degree in hotel and restaurant management from Michigan State University, continued, "You ask yourself if you did everything you could. Some of the guys who step on mines wouldn't have a chance if they were blown up on the steps of a hospital. But you've got to keep on going."

"You think about yourself," shrugged SP5 Purvance. "You're the person who was supposed to save this man's life and he dies. What are you going to do?"

"If you let it prey on your mind you can't function. You've got to keep going so you can treat the next man," affirmed SP5 Bracy.

The aidmen of the Vietnam conflict stand a much better chance of saving lives than their counterparts of previous wars, thanks to medevac helicopters. Regular medevacs can usually reach any location in the Americal's area of operation in 15 minutes or less. Emergency medevacs, regular cargo helicopters or "Charlie-Charlies" that are in the immediate area of a wounded soldier, can swoop out of the sky, load the injured man, and be airborne to the hospital within a matter of minutes.

What effect will being a combat medic have on these men? SP4 Ernest Biscamp, 21, Houston, an aidman with 5th Bn., 46th Inf., 198th Inf. Bde., wants to work in a hospital or something related to the medical field when he gets out of the Army. SP4 Saxon hopes to go to medical school someday. Others will return to school or their former civilian occupations. None will forget their year in Vietnam nor are they likely to be forgotten by those they have served.

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For this issue of the magazine, document text was primarily scanned and edited by Jay Roth. Comments and text from photos and other areas that were not scannable have been added by Leslie Hines.

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