This Memorial Day, I return to the subject of an earlier post. I have hanging in an honored place in my piano room a color photograph of a pair of empty combat boots. The caption, quoted from my novel Last of the Annamese, reads “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” The implication is that the owner of the boots did what those words imply and gave up his life for his country.
During the thirteen years when I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the “real world” (what we called the U.S.), I knew far too many who died in combat. Among them were men I particularly admired, navy corpsmen. These men were sailors, but they were assigned as medics to Marine combat units to care for those wounded in battle. So all corpsmen, by definition, saw combat. The Marines they served all called them “Doc.”
Some 10,000 corpsmen served in Vietnam. Of those, 645 were killed in action and another 3,300 were wounded. They are credited with saving thousands of lives.
I know two men who were corpsmen in Vietnam. Both were there in 1967, and both were assigned to units operating in the central part of the country. I was in that area at the time, and although I saw other corpsmen working with Marine units I was supporting, I never met either of these two guys, nor did know each other. One of them still uses the moniker “Doc.”
My corpsmen friends and I are alike in one respect. We weren’t on the battlefield as combatants. They were there to save the lives of the wounded; I was there to provide intelligence on the enemy. I know they were armed. I was, too—I carried a .38 revolver, but I never fired it on the battlefield. One of them was wounded multiple times in combat; I was not.
All three of us lived by the rule of doing what we had to do, whatever it took. We knew we might not survive. We were serving our country by putting our lives on the line.
American combat veterans are becoming a rarity. There are fewer of us every year. And I am the only combat veteran I know who was civilian. During my entire time of working on the battlefield in Vietnam and afterwards, I operated under cover as an enlisted man in the unit I was supporting, but I was not in the service.
So I am more than proud to be able to say that I understand in my heart of hearts the meaning of that saying—
“Do what you have to so, whatever it takes.”