As an 8404 field corpsman with the First Marine Division, I personally witnessed many young marines’ final breaths. In some mythologies, death is known as the Grim Reaper: a dark figure that searches out victims, collecting them, and causing their death. We had a saying in Vietnam: “Watch out for the Grim Reaper,” or in other words, “Watch your back.”
Running over 300 patrols and treating over 200 causalities is a lot for one person to bear. Before all patrols, we had a meeting about where we were going and what we were to expect, of course, this was always speculative. You never knew what the enemy was going to do. I would look around at the Marines and wonder who would not be returning for final muster. Almost every day, new Marines would be arriving, as we were departing. It was a constant rotation.
The Vietnamese were very intelligent and cunning individuals. Many of the landmines they laid for us were ingenious. I corps area (around Da Nang), also, had more land mines than anywhere else in Vietnam. So many Marines were either killed or wounded by these land mines. Shrapnel wounds were much worse than a single gunshot wound. The horrific wounds that our warriors received from mines were in many ways indescribable.
The job of a corpsman was not an easy one. We put our life on the line whenever a warrior was wounded or killed. That is what we were expected to do. We were there to save lives, even if it meant giving our own life to save a fellow Marine. That is the reason marines called us the green angels; we were their last hope. I witnessed several other corpsmen being killed or wounded as they tried to help other Marines. We were always in the line of fire. We felt that it was our duty to be in the center of the battle.
I remember running to the aid of a Marine who stepped on a landmine. He was screaming and crying—and obviously in a lot of pain. When I saw his legs, I realized they were barely attached. His entire body was a bloody mess. He was conscious and how he remained alert was beyond me. I applied a tourniquet to each of his legs and battle dressings on his other wounds. I also injected two ampoules of morphine for his pain. He was in hypovolemic shock due to his severe blood and fluid loss. There was not much more I could do for him. I kept telling him, however, that help was on the way. I knew he was dying, and I’m sure he knew it, too. I sat next to him and placed his head on my lap. I squeezed his hand to let him know that he was not alone. He stopped crying out in pain as his breathing became more labored. His heartbeat slowed, and his pulse began to weaken. Finally, he made a few gurgling sounds and was quiet. In that final moment, when you hear his last breath and feel his final heartbeat, there is such a sense of loss. I remember the trembling of his hand as his grip faded. I was there for him to the end, and I surrendered him to the Soldier’s Angel. There was nothing else I could do. My tears began to flow and would not stop because they were coming from deep down inside.
My fatigues were covered in his blood. Water from the rice paddy had soaked through everything. My hands
were stained red from his wounds. What a sight I must have been. I didn’t even know the name of this Marine. I don’t think I had ever spoken to him before this fateful day, but now we were united. We were joined, and I felt sorrow for him and his family.
In this difficult and heartfelt moment, I experienced many emotions. One emotion was anger because I felt a 19-year-old boy should not have to die like this. I also felt an overwhelming sadness. There was also fear. Above all, I felt a sense conflict and guilt that I was helpless to do more. I felt guilty that I could not save him. I felt like I was in a twilight zone. A short time ago we were on a regular patrol, but now I was lying next to a lifeless Marine because the Grim Reaper had arrived from out of nowhere. I pulled out my casualty card from my unit one bag and read his dog tag to record his name and other pertinent information. At times like this, it was very solemn and serious. For a few minutes, the war stopped and everything was quiet. A cloud of sadness and sorrow enveloped us. Six grunts picked him up and carried him to the helicopter for the flight to Da Nang hospital.
Our walk back to the CP was very quiet except for the suction sounds from walking in the mud and rice paddies. We were all in our own world. We wondered when all of this was going to end. We thought about our families and friends and wondered what they were doing. We tried to think about anything, except what had just happened.
That evening everything was normal in camp. Marines joked and talked like nothing had happened. This is called survival. We had to have this attitude or we would go crazy. Deep inside, it did matter—but we knew we had to move on. The Grim Reaper had made his appearance once again. His presence was expected and always close at hand. When you’re treading on Satin’s playground, you have to always expect the worse.
Writing about this particular patrol was very difficult. This will be the last story I will ever write that is so emotional. I want you to know that I did not write it to get sympathy or to make you feel sorry for me. Truthfully, the time I spent is Vietnam made me realize what a great country we live in. I know America has a lot of problems, but I would rather live here than anywhere else in the world.
I have accepted my fate and have grown from it. Having PTSD has caused me a lot of physical and emotional problems, but I know life moves on. I write for therapy, and it has helped me tremendously.
In truth, I feel fortunate, and I am proud of my service to our country. God has blessed me in so many ways. If God is for us, then who can be against us?
The people of South Vietnam are still suffering from the effects of the Vietnam War—not only from Agent Orange but also from landmines. Since the fall of Saigon, over 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance (explosives) left behind from that conflict.