The warm, humid air engulfed my body as I stepped off the C-130 at the Da Nang Air Base in August 1966. The atmosphere seemed so alien to me; I had never felt that depth of penetrating humidity before. At that moment I knew the world had changed. I could literally feel it. I felt something satanic. I felt evil and despair.
Within a few hours after my arrival in country I was assigned to Second Battalion First Marines Hotel Company as an 8404 Field Corpsman. As I was unpacking, a Marine corporal informed me that I was to report to a briefing for a night ambush. Wow, it was all happening too quickly!
I grabbed my medical bag, 45 caliber pistol and my M-14 rifle and headed for the meeting. There were twelve of us, and the squad leader, Corporal Sanders, was in charge. I was scared to death.
Several of the grunts were wearing shoe polish on their faces; they were a scary site! As we were walking during the patrol, I was spaced behind our radio operator, Corporal Gerace, AKA “Bomar.”He was from the Bay area of California. At 19 years of age he was already a seasoned warrior. He knew my fears and said, “Doc, just stick with me, our Marines will protect you.” I was thinking of something much stronger, that my Lord would protect me!
The night was extremely dark; I don’t think I had ever seen so many stars. As we were nearing a small hamlet 26 miles south of Da Nang, we started hearing banging on gongs and bamboo sticks. I asked Bomar what that was all about. He said it was the Vietcong sending Morse code messages. He said the messages also had a psychological effect which played on our nerves. I don’t mind telling you it worked; my pants were already wet!
Within the first hour we made contact with the enemy. They were waiting for us. The sudden explosions of grenades and guns firing made it sound like the Fourth of July; but we were not celebrating. Then the inevitable happened—a Marine yelled, “Corpsman up!” At that moment my heart sank. I prayed as I had never prayed for God to protect me and to help me in my skills to treat the wounded Marine. This was the moment I had feared since my orders to Vietnam. My emotions were all on hyper alert, and I was having a fight or flight reaction. I was terrified and thought this could very likely be the last day of my life.
I soon learned there were two Marines hit basically at the same time; they were about twenty yards apart in the rice paddy. The first warrior I treated was shot in the abdomen, and he was in a lot of pain. I placed a battle dressing on him and helped him to safety. A couple of Marines carried him to an LZ for transport. The other warrior was shot in the face, instant KIA (killed in action). Before this night ambush was over, I treated three WIA’s (wounded in action) and one KIA the ages of the Marines were between 18 to 20 years old, about my age. This really hit home.
When I returned to base camp, I had time to reflect on the events of our patrol. I thought I had a good idea what war was all about, but in reality, I had no idea. There was something about being there—hearing the cries of the wounded, rifle firing, grenades exploding, the smell of gun powder, blood and urine—that brought home the reality of war. I thought, if this is what my life is going to be like for the rest of my tour, I’m not sure it’s worth it? Maybe the Marines we just lost tonight were the lucky ones. Doubt was already creeping in; the thought of dying seemed perhaps an option. Satan was already planting a seed of doubt and despair.
It is very important for readers to understand my moral character. I had been raised in a Christian family and was saved at a young age. I lived by Christian principles with high moral values. I guess you could say I was a fundamentalist. The cliché “I don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do” described me pretty well. I always tried to represent myself as a true Christian. In doing so, I did not cuss; it was definitely a sin to swear. I knew of many scriptures in the Bible to substantiate this. When a Christian cursed, he identified himself with the enemy of God. It was wrong to praise God in one sentence and use his name in vain in the next. I do not mention this topic of cussing as a statement of pride or bragging; it was just the way I was. That’s not to say I never sinned, because we are all sinners.
Before coming to Vietnam, I was very concerned about me killing a person, if the situation presented itself, could I pull the trigger? In studying the Bible I learned that God’s command was actually against murder, not killing. Nowhere did the Bible say that believers should not join the military and, thus, should not participate in defending their country. Numbers 25:8-13 was one of many Biblical accounts where killing was required to eradicate sin. God, I knew, was a loving God, but he was also a just God. I was reassured by Matthew 10:34, which stated, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
I knew military service involved keeping faith with a vision for our nation’s freedom and greatness. Nothing less than total commitment was required of a soldier. Semper Fi was more than a motto for the United States Marine Corps; it was a way of life and death. Without total commitment, I knew I could not serve as a good soldier in any armed forces.
War was never simple. It was always complex. I knew it was not a black and white matter, and I soon came to realize it was not even gray. If anything, it was blood red.
Our company did not have a chaplain assigned to us. Some of the Marines knew I was a Christian, and since I was in the medical field, I guess some of them thought I could fill the role of a chaplain. I would lend them a sympathetic ear and try to reason with them. The daily trauma we endured caused a lot of emotional problems: stress, depression, high anxiety, crying, feelings of despair and hopelessness. The list went on. One problem I had was that I did not have a Bible. I checked with the other Marines and found there was not a Bible in our company! So, I just had to do the best I could without God’s word to guide me.
About three months into my tour a corporal came to me seeking help after losing his best buddy in a firefight. They were schoolmates from elementary school through high school. Growing up they were the best of friends. They joined the Marines in the “buddy system”; they were guaranteed to be together during boot camp and the rest of their enlistment. As it turned out, they were both sent to Vietnam.
We had been on a search and destroy mission, and as we were advancing during a battle, his buddy was killed. As I was filling out the casualty card, the corporal saw his buddy lying there and pretty much lost it! He had his rifle on automatic, and he ran toward the village shooting at anything that moved. The other Marines followed suit, and the carnage began! Before the battle was over, all the Vietnamese were lying dead, along with the water buffalo, chickens, and dogs—basically everything that moved. The village was also burned to the ground.
Afterward, the corporal fell to the ground crying. I started crying too. I wanted to help him so bad that I was feeling his pain. I prayed out loud to God to help him and give him strength.
Two days after the massacre, the Marine sought my help. He really needed professional help, and I felt inadequate to counsel him. I told him that we couldn’t do anything about the past and that you had to take it to prayer. He was not very receptive; he wanted to know why God would allow this to happen. I am sorry to say I was not very much comfort to him. We talked for a while and it seemed to help somewhat. I wish I could have been more help. It was so sad!
In the days that followed, when we walked through the area where the massacre occurred, it seemed there was a satanic spirit present. It felt eerie and I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. Were Satan’s demons still celebrating the taking of souls on that unforgettable day?
It was late August 1967. We were on a routine patrol about a mile from our CP (command post). One of the Marines stepped on a land mine and was wounded seriously. He lost a leg and had a lot of shrapnel wounds to his body. I didn’t know if he was going to live or not; he was losing a lot of blood. I was applying a tourniquet on his leg when he started cursing God for his injuries. Deep inside I wanted to back up from him in case God struck him with lightning! I had always heard that you never see an atheist in a foxhole, but in Vietnam I found out it was just the opposite. I witnessed Marines outright cursing God for the chaos they were enduring. I could never understand why they never blamed Satan for the situation we were experiencing. After all, he was the deceiver. After making out a casualty card and injecting him with morphine, I treated him for shock. A medevac took him to the Battalion Aid Station (BAS) in Da Nang. I never knew if he lived or died.
There were many other times that I held wounded Marines in my arms before they died. This was a good time to witness to them, because it was their last chance to accept the Lord as their Savior. I tried to be positive with them. Many knew they were going to die, or they wanted to die, depending on their injuries. As a corpsman, I was their last contact; some requested that I send a letter to their loved ones, telling them that he loved them.
I knew a corpsman who did not believe in killing. He carried a gun but chose not to use it. The mission of a corpsman is to help save a Marine life, not fight in battle. The reason he became a corpsman was to serve in the medical field, even though he served in a non-combatant role; he wanted to help the Marines. We respected him, and he was well liked by the troops.
We also had a Marine who was a Christian pacifist; he was considered a conscientious objector. The Marine Corps plays a different role than the corpsman, they were combatants and were expected to kill and maim. The Marines were not happy to have him attached to us; he was no help when the action started. In the corps we depended on each warrior to do his part; we felt he was letting us down. At times they would use him as a point man; he was the one in front of the patrol walking about 15 to 20 yards ahead. He was cutting the path for the others to follow. He was the first to spot trouble, and usually the first to step into traps or disarm them. After a few patrols, his Christian philosophy changed; he started carrying a loaded rifle.
I ran patrols day and night. Before each patrol we had a squad meeting to inform us where we were going and what our objective was. Many times during these briefings I would look at the faces of these Marines wondering who would not return to our camp. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we would lose Marines on the upcoming patrol.
As a combat corpsman, I was the one who had the responsibility to put myself in harm’s way and treat wounded Marines no matter where in the field they were hit. Many times it was in the middle of the rice paddies with no protection. That’s why so many corpsman and medics were killed or wounded in action. Personally, I was wounded twice in Vietnam. I could easily have been a KIA/WIA statistic as the opportunity was always there. I have no doubt that God protected me during my tour. I could mention several close calls but will only mention two situations where I was spared.
We were on a search and destroy mission and had just finished eating c-rations (field rations) for lunch. We were near Hill 55 when a Marine was shot and word was passed down: “Corpsman up.” The casualty was several yards from the dike I was lying behind. I ran toward him and was shot upon by the Vietcong. This suicidal waltz was known as “doing your duty.” Bullets were splashing in the rice paddy water next to me and one zipped by my right ear; that sound has haunted me all these years. An inch closer and my name would have been on the Vietnam Wall. Why not me, Lord?
In another operation we were on during the monsoon season, we were riding on an Amtrak due to the very high water. We had sandbags stacked up three high to protect us from enemy fire. I was talking to a Marine who was lying next to me. As we were talking, we started receiving enemy fire. I looked in the other direction trying to locate the firing sniper. When I looked back toward the Marine, he was slumped over; I turned him over. He had been shot in the face, another KIA. That bullet could have hit me just as easily as not. Why not me, Lord? I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
The truth is I knew I was protected and that God had a plan for my life. The thought of dying didn’t really bother me. I figured if I died I would instantly be in Heaven, and my odyssey would begin. This was a great comfort and allowed me to concentrate on my job of saving lives. However, the thought of disfigurement or losing a limb or becoming a paraplegic or quadriplegic concerned me deeply. Working at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, prior to my deployment, I dealt with these kinds of patients, and I didn’t want to be part of that. They were the ones who lost their arms and legs in this war. The hospital fitted prostheses for these veterans. Most of these guys were my age; their lives were changed forever.
Living by Christian principals in Vietnam was important to me; I took the word of God literally. The Book of John 15:13 states, “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The duties of a corpsman were many; but as a combat corpsman, our main duty was to save lives and treat the wounded. I felt the duties of a Christian and a corpsman were synonymous; I should be willing to lose my life in an attempt to save another’s life.
The battlefield was a fight to the finish. It was either kill or be killed. Although I would have given my life to save another, I did everything in my power to stay alive. When I treated a Marine in the field, I would always position my body between the Vietcong and the casualty. Once as I was treating a Marine with a gut wound and was applying a bandage. He was shot again! I had no doubt that the bullet was meant for me, as the Vietcong had a bounty on corpsmen. Why not me, Lord?
Being a Christian in Vietnam was not an easy task. We were treading on Satan’s playground, and he was the headmaster. Lucifer and his hordes of demons were working overtime to collect our warriors as their own POWs. We endured trauma to its fullest. The sights and sounds have been buried deep in the corridors of our minds for almost fifty years, like haunting clouds always on the horizon. I witnessed killings, old and young alike; some enemy and some not. I witnessed rape and other carnage that I would rather not talk about. I have no doubt that Satan enjoyed every minute of it.
In Vietnam, warriors would get medals for their action; in the United States they would have gotten a life sentence in prison for the same act. It was a different world and different rules. The Marines were a breed unto themselves; many of them were very hardcore and dealt with life the only way they knew how. Some were facing charges with law enforcement; the judges said either go into the Marine Corps or spend time in jail. Please don’t get me wrong—there were many outstanding Marines and I respect them all. The world is made up of all kinds of people.
Killing was what our Marines were trained to do. That was their mission as soldiers, and many of them were very good at it. Once the killing lost its mystique, it was no longer a tool of last resort. Killings became a normal function for them. After killing the enemy in battle, they went back to camp and carried on life as if nothing had happened. This was part of the survival mechanism. One could not dwell on something like this or you would lose your sanity. After a while your brain accepted this behavior and it became part of who you were. This is the way sin operates, and it’s the way it operated in Vietnam. After a while your sins became a normal function. It was like living a life with pornography; if you lived this lifestyle day and night, it would become normal to you. This was how Satan operated; he wanted the killing and rape and other atrocities to be fun and exciting and accepted as normal behavior.
The Marine Corps was very efficient in training our warriors to be killers. On the front lines we were told to suck up our emotions and deal with it. When we came back to the world, we were never told how to stand down. The military offered no mental health services for the trauma that we were exposed to for the past several months. And they wonder why we have PTSD. We came home from two wars—one on the battlefield and one in our mind and souls. For thousands of veterans and their families, despair has become an unwelcome and constant companion. The public has no idea what we were exposed to. Life as we knew it was never the same after we came home from that hell on earth. What happened to us in Vietnam changed us, absolutely and completely. That wall was built and nothing could tear it down.
During my tour I witnessed to a few Marines. I don’t know if any of them accepted Christ as their Savior, but I at least planted a seed. One day I was removing a small chunk of shrapnel from a Marine’s arm, when out of the clear blue he asked me if I actually believed in God. The statement jolted me, because he was the only Marine who ever asked me that question so bluntly. I told him that there is a God and that he loved him. There was also a Satan who wanted to destroy his life and that he had to choose one or the other. I told him there is a literal Heaven and a literal Hell. We were the only ones who could make the final decision on who we chose to follow. He thanked me for the encouraging words, and we both prayed that God would strengthen us. From that day forward, we felt that we had a special connection and that God was still in control.
That thirteen month tour in Vietnam seemed like a lifetime. Days seemed to drag by. The front lines were as close as you could get to Hell without actually being there. The mayhem and killings were beyond belief. At age 19 I witnessed atrocities that no one should witness at any age. It was a gruesome and horrifying experience. Emotionally, I was wounded for life. However, if I had it to do over, I would not change anything. In the long run, it actually uplifted me and strengthened my faith. Seeing firsthand how God protected me from great harm was inspiring and amazing. I personally witnessed miracles happening before my eyes and stood spellbound by His acts of mercy. Please, pray for our troops!
I have always admired the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our34th President. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh (E-9) USNR Navy Retired 31 years