I arrived in Vietnam in February 1968 and after a few day stay in the country club of Vietnam (Cam Rahn Bay), where I thought I was to spend the entire year, I was removed from the clean, safe and civilized medical clinic and told with two other medics to gather my belongings in my duffle bag and to report to the helicopter pad. I voiced my objections to no avail.
I boarded the helicopter with the two other medics and together we travelled north towards Chu lai a dusty outpost with a base camp called LZ (landing zone) Bayonet. I recall feeling on the way that I was now royally screwed because we learned on the way that infantry units to the north had sustained losses of their medics and we were to be their replacements.
On the long helicopter ride, I knew my worst case scenario was at hand. I felt the training I had received at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas was suitable for a hospital corpsman, but not adequate for treating severe battlefield wounds. I knew I just left the best possible place to be if you had to be in Vietnam and now I was headed towards a hostile environment. I began to feel a pit in my stomach and I knew it was fear.
After landing in Chu Lai, and receiving brief, but valuable in-country training, I was helicoptered out to join Charlie Company 1/6th 198th Infantry In the jungle west of Chu Lai. For those of you who don’t know, being in the infantry, in any war, is one of the worst jobs you could ever have to fill. As I was traveling on the helicopter ride with two pilots and two door gunners, I knew I was headed to a bad place. I was fearful because I had never received any jungle training and I didn't feel prepared medically speaking to handle these new responsibilities.
It wasn’t long and I began to be exposed to hostile forces. My first night out in the field we received a mortar attack from the enemy. It was so quiet at night that you could hear the mortar round from a great distance away going down the enemy’s mortar tube. Then the next sound we heard was the mortar round exiting the tube and twirling through the air. That sound was unmistakable as it had a ssssssshhh sound. The guys would yell “incoming” meaning we were being attacked by mortar rounds so we could seek cover in our fox holes. The next sound was a loud thud which meant the mortar had hit the ground. Following the thud would be the loud explosion and then shrapnel (pieces of metal from the mortar round) would shoot out in a ”V” pattern from the ground hitting anyone within that area. On that first night, we had probably three incoming rounds but they were not close enough to us to do any damage. However the fear they instilled was significant because as the round was coming through the air, nobody knew where it was going to hit. The possibility always existed that it would land on you or close to you and that’s what made mortar attacks so terrifyin.
Besides mortar attacks, we often engaged the enemy in fire fights which basically was a free for all firing automatic weapons at each other and hurling grenades. The point I’m getting to is for infantrymen, and I was a medic with infantry related responsibilities as well, we lived in a state of constant fear for long periods of time. I’m not talking feeling anxious - I’m talking about the ultimate fear - fear of a brutal wound or death.
Many years after the war, Al Torsiello, the first guy I met out in the jungle, hooked up with me and Ricki E. Bellos and we wrote about our experiences in musical form and released a CD. One of the song topics we felt we had to address was the fear factor we felt while in Vietnam. Al came up with the title “Living In Fear” and a snippet of the song can be heard at www.vietnamthereandback.com