This video will take you into the life and memories of one Fleet Marine Force Corpsman who served with his Marines in Vietnam. In it you will see what drives a Corpsman. It is nothing less than love for his Marines. And you will see how much Marines love their Corpsmen.
It is one thing to train for war fighting, it is another to be trained to care for the very lives of your Marines while in the heat and chaos of a battle. As a Corpsman in an infantry or a Recon unit, you will see in this video that you become a Marine too.
The Corpsman in this video describes his arrival in country at Da Nang, while the base was under fire during the Tet Offensive of 1968. He explains some things that might come as a surprise to those who have not been in the military, especially the Corps.
First, he tells of how one of his Marines, a seasoned combat veteran already, pulls him aside and counsels him to get rid of his M-1 medical bag, because the enemy knows what that is and it would make him a prime target to take out. He takes him to the ammo dump and gets him an ammo bag to put all of his necessary medical gear in, telling him, “You gotta look like one of us.”
The second thing that might surprise some, is that the Marines give him an M-16, as well as the usual .45 sidearm.
I know what he says is true, because this is also my story as a Corpsman arriving in Vietnam in January of 1968, just before the Tet Offensive began. I received the same advise about my M-1 medical bag. When I was received into my unit, Bravo Co. 3rd Recon Bn., 3rd Mar. Div., my Commanding Officer handed me an M-16 and told me, “Doc, from here on you are a Marine first and a Corpman second.”
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That idea became immediately apparent when I experienced my first firefight. You join your Marines in the effort to suppress the enemy fire, then, if there are wounded, you take switch to Corpsman mode.
As you listen to this old Corpsman you will see in his face and hear in his voice the haunting pain of memories he carries of Marines he cared for in battle. You can hear the love, but you can also hear the undertone of regret that he could not have saved more. These are the kinds of memories all Corpsmen live with the rest of their lives.
When your MOS is to care for and to save the lives of your Marines, you take it to heart. It becomes the driving force of your existence. You always go into it with a healthy fear. That fear is not just that you may lose your life. Rather, it’s an even bigger fear than that. It is the fear that goes along with knowing that you have another human being’s life, no, a brother’s life, in your hands. Everything depends on what you do in those first moments after they are wounded.
And all of this is being done in the chaos of a shelling, or a firefight.
That is a hell of a weight for the average 18-20 year old Corpsman to carry on his or her shoulders. But, somehow, they do it and they do it well.
Corpsmen are trained well in the healing arts that go with the vagaries of combat. Still, there is the reality of war. In the experience of combat, there sometimes is the exhilaration of realizing that what you did helped to save a life, but there are those times too when, no matter what you did, you could not save a life, especially the life of someone whom you had known, whom you had laughed with and fought with and survived with in that place.
We Corpsmen live with the constant, haunting ache in our souls and memories of those we lost. We live with that small voice in the back of our memories that keeps saying, “I wish I could have done more.”
Believe me, we Corpsmen remember the faces of all those Marines we cared for those many years ago. We remember the wounds, and go over and over what we might have done better in our heads. Yes, we know that there were things that were beyond our control and even beyond our abilities. But we never get past that little tinge of regret when we think of those we lost.
There is nothing like the lifelong relationships that Corpsman and Marines who fought together, side by side, share. I have never attended a Navy reunion, but I have attended my 3rd Recon Bn. and my Khe Sanh Veterans reunions with my Marines and fellow Corpsmen several times now. I look forward to them each year, because being with those fellow Marines and Corpsmen nourishes my soul and helps me heal my memories.
Our Marine brothers always tell we Corpsmen that we are Marines and that means more to us than can be imagined. We get to share in the pride of being “Marines” by adoption. There is nothing like it.
The Veterans Site expressess its thanks and respect to all who have served as Navy Hospital Corpsmen, especially those who had the honor and the privilege to serve as Fleet Marine Corpsmen with their Marine brothers. We say to all, “Welcome Home!” Semper Fi! You are Fratres Aeterni!
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.