It is Memorial Day as I write this, and I am saddened, with feelings of extreme melancholy. My thoughts go back to my tour in Vietnam. I dealt with death daily for 13 months. I was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, Hotel Company as an 8404 Field Corpsman.
Running close to 300 patrols and treating more than 200 casualties, it's a lot for one person to bear, especially at the age of 19. Before all patrols, we had a meeting about where we were going and what to expect. Of course, this was always speculative. We never knew what the enemy was going to do. I would look around at the Marines and wonder who would not be returning for his final muster. Almost every day, new Marines were arriving as our casualties were departing. It was a constant rotation.
The job of a corpsman was not an easy one. We put our lives 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 Green Angels — we were their last hope. I also witnessed several other corpsmen being killed or wounded as they tried to help Marines. We were always in the line of fire, and we felt that it was our duty to be the center of the battle.
I could mention many situations where a Marine died on the battlefield. I am going to mention one grunt who died in my arms who has made a deep scar on my mind. I remember running to the aid of this Marine, who had stepped on a land mine. He was screaming and crying — obviously in a lot of pain. When I saw his legs, I realized they were barely attached. With this type of injury, the victim should die within minutes. His entire body was a bloody mess. He also was conscious, and how he remained alert was beyond me.
I applied a tourniquet to each of his legs immediately and battle dressings on his other wounds. I also injected two ampules of morphine for his pain. He was in hypovolemic shock because of 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 am 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, and his heartbeat slowed and pulse began to weaken. Finally, he made a few gurgling sounds and was quiet.
In the final moment, when I heard his last breath and felt his final heartbeat, there was 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 do not think I had ever spoken to him before this fateful day, but now, we were united. We were joined, and I felt sorry for him and for 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 died like this. I also felt an overwhelming sadness. There was also fear. Above all, I felt a sense of 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 before, we had been on a regular patrol, but now I was lying next to a lifeless Marine because the Grim Reaper had arrived out of nowhere. I pulled out my casualty card from my Unit 1 bag and read his dog tag to record his name and other pertinent information. For a few minutes, the war stopped, and everything was quiet. The cloud of sadness and sorrow enveloped us. Six grunts picked him up and carried him to the helicopter for flight to the 1st Medical Battalion hospital in Da Nang.
A friend of mine was a corpsman attached to that hospital. He worked with graves registration, and the stories he tells are beyond gruesome. The sights he saw, the smells, the horrors are beyond comprehension to most people. He also said that the Hueys and Chinooks brought in dozens of bodies in a never-ending procession.
The first task mortuary personnel had after bringing the remains into the hospital was to take the clothing off the individual. They would then look for identifying marks such as scars, birth marks or tattoos. He said, “Dog tags were the worst thing you could use for an identification." Guys would trade them or give them to their buddies. He said one Marine brought in came in with three sets of them — none of them his.
Hospital Corpsman Master Chief Ronald C. Mosbaugh served in Vietnam in 1966-1967. He is the author of “Marine Down, Corpsman Up.” He lives in Joplin. He can be reached at email@example.com.