Living on the front lines in Vietnam was an experience beyond comprehension. Barely out of high school, we were 18, 19 and 20-year old children fighting a man’s war. We quickly learned that if we didn’t conform to military standards, we would not survive this war. “Do or die,” “kill or be killed” were the mottoes handed down. I was continually in a state of anxiety with stomach ailments due to nerves. My eyes were constantly darting around looking for danger, expecting it at any moment. I did this subconsciously; it was a way of life in Vietnam.
I know it is difficult to imagine being bored on a battlefield, especially for those who have never served. Even though I was in a war zone, there was a lot of down time, too—time enough to get bored. And even though I was bored, I was still on high alert knowing a sudden attack might occur at any minute. Therefore, I found myself bored while waiting to die.
I was opposed to the Vietnam War early in my 13- month deployment. The thought that bothered me the most was that the Vietnam War was a war with no closure, a war with no direction. What were we fighting for? War is the most horrific event in the world! I was there to save lives and give medical care to our marines. I was uninterested in being part of the war, but I was at the center of the trauma.
I remember one of the marines saying, “What are we doing here? We don’t take any land; we don’t give it back. We just mutilate bodies. What are we accomplishing?” Almost every marine I knew agreed with this assessment. I like the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” We knew the politicians that sent us here and our superiors knew we did, but they were pulling the strings and we were pulling the grenade pins. Fighting for no cause demonized us and gave us no hope for the future.
As soon as the physical battle ended, the battle with boredom began. The insanity of the Vietnam War was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What was the ideology of a government who wants to obliterate a country and put their young boys in harm’s way? Today, after the fact, everyone knows there was nothing worth dying for in the Vietnam War. Soldiers died for politicians whose desire was to get richer. Having said that, I should add that the soldier in Vietnam did not fight because he hated what was in front of him, the enemy but, because he loved what was behind him, his country, family and patriotism.
During my idle time I thought about all of this and would get very depressed and anxious. The thought of dying was bad enough, but it would have been much easier if I had a reason to die for a cause. The government tried to make us believe it was for “God and Country,” but we knew otherwise. Once again, my memories went back to my time before arriving in Vietnam. The worst part of the memories was not the pain I was suffering; it was the loneliness of it.
During briefing sessions before many patrols, I would look at the warriors and wonder who would meet the Grim Reaper? My heart would always go out to these young men, Just at the prime of their life. The thing that irritated and frustrated me the most was, there was nothing I could do to prevent it from happening. All I could do was treat them when they were wounded. Many times, when I was waiting with the casualty for a medivac, I thanked God I was not one of those lying on the ground. But would I be so lucky tomorrow?
My first few battles I learned that the war stories I watched on TV, back in the world, was much different than I could have imagined. That was entertainment and what I was experiencing in Vietnam was a scenario straight out of Hell itself. This was Satan’s playground and I was now part of that cast! It was no longer a make-believe world. We couldn’t click our jungle boot heels together and be back in Kansas, like in the Wizard of Oz. There was no “Kansas” in Vietnam. We had to face our enemy and suffer the consequences. As a corpsman I treated many casualties. To see the trauma was mind-boggling; it was mentally and emotionally overwhelming.
The smell of open wounds and burned bodies was indescribable. Hearing the marines moaning from the trauma of losing a limb or whatever has been forever ingrained in my mind. Seeing and hearing marines scream in terror with pain and the fear of dying is a scene no one should witness. Our combat photographers could not photograph a flying bullet, but they could capture a degree of fear. However, to witness the eyes of shock and terror first-hand is far worse than any horror story one might see. Depending on the injuries, sometimes death would be welcome. Although my injuries were more internal than external, sometimes during my bored moments when I recalled these horrors I’d witnessed, I, too, felt that death might be welcome. I felt I was just waiting to die.
The events I describe are not easy for me to write about. With PTSD I suffer from many emotions. I try not to dwell on the trauma that I was exposed to, but that does not prevent me from having flashbacks, hallucinations, and nightmares of the trauma. I have been writing this story for almost a month. I have been thinking of Vietnam 24-7. It has caused difficulty sleeping or concentrating, negative thoughts, irritability and the list goes on.
My thirteen-month tour in Vietnam changed me physically and mentally. I really didn’t think I would reach the age of 20; death became a normal event. Eventually, it was a common occurrence. During this time in Vietnam I went from being a young country boy from Missouri to a wounded man almost overnight. The war took my naïve ignorance and molded it to someone I didn’t recognize.
I mentioned in some of my earlier stories a grass hut setting in our headquarters perimeter, where six marines took up residence. Three of them, all Private First Class, (PFC) marines became very close friends and they made a “pact” to always watch each other’s back. Not only physically but mentality. They all dealt with boredom, loneliness and confusion. One of the marines was married and had a baby. He had more emotional issues than the other two. He was very concerned that if he was killed, what it would do to his family. He was more concerned about the well-being of his family than himself, which is the way it should be.
He was experiencing a lot of depression and sleeping a lot. The other marines in the grass hut tried to minister to him, trying to cheer him up. This is when another clause was added to their pact. If one of the marines were killed, the two other soldiers would visit the marine’s family, and if it was the married marine’s widow, they would made sure she was cared for.
I do not know if one of the three marines were killed, but the fact that they made a pact, showed how concerned they were on being killed. They were all in a state of confusion and felt anxious of the dangers before them. Every marine in Vietnam knew the Grim Reaper was waiting for him. You knew he was out there; it was just a matter of time.
The job of a corpsman was not an easy one. I had to put my life on the line whenever a warrior was wounded or killed. That is what I was expected to do. That’s why I got the big bucks, $65.00 per month hazardous duty pay. I was there to save lives, even if it meant giving my own life to save a fellow marine. That is the reason marines called us the green angels; I was their last hope. I witnessed corpsmen being killed and wounded as they tried to help other marines.
However, I knew it was our duty to be at the side of a wounded warrior; this raised my chances of being killed. 645 Corpsman were killed in Vietnam and 3.300 were wounded in action. I was personally wounded two times on the front lines. Many times, I could have been killed; only through God’s grace I was spared.
In Vietnam we suffered more miseries than one could imagine; even the slightest break in the skin could turn ugly in the tropics. it was an endless succession of bummers. Besides the never-ending fear of death, we had to endure a host of miseries: brain-boiling heat, hot house humidity, dehydration, heat exhaustion, torrential rains, boot-sucking mud, blood-sucking leeches, dysentery, jungle rot, moaning and groaning.
Meals in green cans (C-Rations), armies of insects, poisonous centipedes, mosquitoes, bush snakes, scorpions and a thousand more discomforts, not to mention body bags and boredom. Boredom plays on your mind; eventually you go stir-crazy. I became distraught due to my prolonged confinement.
A corpsman friend was having some emotional problems and was due to run a patrol later that day. I told him to stay in the CP and get some rest. I hated to run patrols, but anything was better than doing nothing, even if it did cause my death.
Speaking of dying, there were far more ways to die in Vietnam than by the Vietcong, over 12,000 warriors died from, snake bites, spider bites, insect bites, mosquito bites alone caused several deaths due to malaria. Many of the warriors I served with was medevacked due to high fever. All whose names are considered war casualties and listed on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D. C. It was easy to get bored, and there were many ways to die.
When you live with fear for close to 400 days, it becomes part of you. Fear brings on other emotions like panic, anxiety, depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, and defeatism. It produces so much negativity, and it becomes part of the warrior. It is inevitable.
While I was sitting on my rack back at headquarters, my mind would pause and gaze into the past and thoughts of home, family, girlfriend, and driving my car. These were positive rational thoughts; thinking of the parties I attended and the laughing where I consumed myself with joy, what was it like to laugh and socialize with friends, without fear for my life.
Most of my idle time, I tried to keep busy cleaning my weapons, writing or reading letters from back home, filling sandbags, playing cards, throwing horseshoes, keeping health records updated, or running sick call. Eventually my activities ceased; then was the time I met my demons. Knowing full well that within the next few hours I would be running another patrol. The thought alone brought knots to my stomach and anxiety once again set in.
We had patrols going out and other patrols returning all hours of the day and night. There were times we had three to four patrols out at the same time. This was our mission, to find and kill the enemy. We had to take it to them because they hardly ever came to us. When the marines returned from a patrol, their faces told the story. If a marine learned that a friend of his was medevacked, he accepted the consequences and the observers returned to whatever they were doing when the marine walked in.
This was called survival. If you dwelled on it, you would go nuts! There was NO crying in war; that showed weakness; I had to bear the trauma and move on. During the process, I grew very cold, unresponsive and numb. There it is, and it don’t mean nothing’ are two phrases the grunts use to describe our situation in Vietnam. The first covered the Insanity, and the second, the result.
We ran patrols from can-see to can’t-see. Night ambushes brought on more waiting. This gave me time to reminisce and pray that we would not spring an ambush. I hated treating marines in the dark. Using a flashlight during the night I had to treat them under a poncho, so the VC couldn’t see the light. Then I had to find the wound; not only the entrance but the exit wound, if there was one. I had to do a full-body assessment to determine what I was dealing with. Clear the airway, stop the bleeding and prevent or treat shock. My fears were exceedingly intensified due to the situations I was experiencing. I was on hyper alert. During the battle my thoughts of dying didn’t bother me as much as being disfigured or wearing pant legs or shirt sleeves that were empty.
Another patrol comes to mind. We were in a full-fledged battle for about ten minutes. The firing had stopped and suddenly a Vietcong charged toward us yelling and shooting at us. Of course, the marines shot him instantly, ending his life. He dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. It was the most bizarre event I had witnessed in Vietnam! I can only imagine we killed someone close to him, and his response was death by suicide.
As a corpsman, I examined the body. He was riddled with bullet wounds, far too many to count, one of which penetrated his face. He wore a mask of horror. His mouth and eyes were wide open showing the expression of shock. He was probably in his late twenties; his black hair was unkept and he was wearing black shorts and thongs. He could have been from a nearby village. At this moment we were not an enemy, and when we were an enemy, it was only due to fear, kill or be killed.
All of a sudden, I felt compassion for him, I began to feel melancholy and the mood of the marines also showed mournfulness. I don’t know why, but I took my canteen out of its holder and washed the blood off his face. I then closed his eyes and closed his mouth before rigor mortis set in. I believe I said a short prayer, but not sure, I then rejoined the marines; I knew when we departed his people would retrieve his body.
As I thought about the event that had just transpired, I realized that evidently, he was dealing with a situation that was over-whelming, and this was his only way to deal with it. I could relate to that, having seen so much trauma. Often, I thought, I can’t do this anymore, and my thoughts and feelings just turned into boredom, while waiting to die.
The mundane day-to-day routine in camp became monotonous, time seems to drag. We took that time to readjust and stand-down to regain our faculties, In the process, we were dealing with many emotions, one of those emotions was grief. Losing your buddies or comrades affected us tremendously, even though I tried not to think about it. The only cure for grief is to grieve. But in Vietnam, I could never allow myself to grieve when the grief was fresh. That would create more emotions than I could bear. That grief path would have to wait for another time.
After all these years I still have flashbacks. Sometimes they just appear for no reason at all. Of course, flashbacks are the hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To my knowledge, no other diagnosis has flashbacks. It always causes some form of unwanted, disturbing “flash” from the past. It’s weird, but when I have a flashback, I can feel the fear and other sensations that I felt then. I can relive specific smells or hear exact sounds as if I were still there. It was hard to believe that I could be bored while waiting to die, but that was exactly what happened to our troops in Vietnam.
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
Master Chief Corpsman (E-9)