Medical Corp 101st Unit
Give us your full name and spell it.
Nicholas William Miller. N-I-C-H-O-L-A-S. W, William, and then Miller, M-I-L-L-E-R.
Where are you from originally?
My word, where do you want to go with this, Geoff? I actually was born here in Salt Lake City back in September of 1946. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. And from there, lived here most of my life. Did spend 11 to 12 years living in Boston, Massachusetts, including with a military tour along with it. But I've had an eastern exposure attending prep school back there in '54, '59. It goes back to living with my grandparents. My parents are divorced back in '54, so I moved back with my sister and my mother.
When did you graduate from high school and where?
East High, '64. I don't know if you've got any undergrads from that area or that period, but I was involved with the general classroom procedures, you know, recommended to go out for track but you had too many good track people there, all that stuff. I earned my issues in track by running through rice paddy dikes a lot quicker. But fortunately, I loved sports, always been around it. And from there, actually my parents moved back east after graduation from East High and then spent two years back there. Long story made short, they got really rambunctious again, moved back here again. So my cultural background's been from east to west for the last 50 years, 60 years or so.
Were you drafted?
No, I enlisted, essentially, Geoff, back in 1966, November. And decided I was not going the course of college. I had spent almost a semester with Westminster College at that time, but I just wasn't mentally ready for that. I came from a patriotic background with both my grandfathers serving over in World War I. On my mother's side, my mother served with the 12th Women's Army Group in the 1940s during World War II with General Mark Bradley. That was an interest I had about getting into the service, kind of making of myself, trying to find myself, which a lot of 18 to 20 year olds were trying to do, their escape, go to Canada or stay in school. But I went that course, the military.
Were you aware of Vietnam?
I did, I think the big imprint that I noticed was there was two engagements, the La Drang Battle in '65 with the 1st Cav and I'm sure you've talked to veterans from that period, and also the 4th Infantry who were involved in some major clashes with our introduction to the NVA. I wasn't shying away from it, I was challenging myself to say where can I go with this? And the reason why I chose the medical corps was it was something I could learn too along with it, and it's actually traversed my whole life, the last 40 years.
So you volunteered to be a medic?
Oh, yeah. Signed the dotted line. To treat the wounded or treat those who were incapacitated. I gutted it. Yeah, I did, I challenged myself to see what I could do.
And you decided to be a paratrooper as well?
Yeah, I was impressed by a commercial here in paper actually, back when I was back east, I saw the Screaming Eagles 1st Brigade who at that time had been over there in '65. They were one of the first units along with the 173rd and the 1st Cav to go over there. So I felt like, “Let's try it. I'm athletic, I can run, and all that stuff.”
When did you actually go into training?
Basic was in 1966, Fort Lewis, Washington, for two months. Colder than hell. It was interesting because we had a lot of people from California, 200 recruits from California, along with 200 from Utah. It was a big indoctrination to the draft. And I went up with that group back in November of that year and trained with them for two months.
And then you went to airborne training?
After airborne training, AIT in Fort Sam, Houston, Texas, for about three months. Training basic medical training. And from there, went into jump school around I think it was March, February, of '67.
When did you actually get to the 101st?
101st, it's an interesting story because after my airborne training, after my medical training and that stuff, I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne for about three months. And then there was a call from the 101st for two brigades that weren't activated back in '67. And from there, it was one of those situations where they needed men because a lot of the senior NCO's from the – sorry – 101st were being transferred out. And from where I was, along with lot of medics and lot of MP's they were transferring a lot from the 82nd to the 101st Airborne back in around September of 1967. So that's where that need was for those two brigades of the 101st Airborne.
So that was your unit?
That was my unit, yeah. That was my combat unit, actually.
Tell us why it was unusual for a unit to go over there.
I don't know, that's something that I really didn't realize until later on that there was very few of us who actually trained with a unit stateside back then. Most of the kids that I knew who went through AIT, whether infantry or other specialties, were assigned a single unit or sent over by plane. But I was fortunate enough, I did train with the kids I served with in my platoon, Charlie Company, First 506 Second platoon. It got pretty intense with the training. We got assigned down to Georgia. We were supposed to jump in, but apparently the folks made the decision that we couldn't jump that day, so we landed and then did our regular infantry training. I was a grunt first, medic second. But actually, in many ways, the double occupation was okay. I mean, I really trained with some tough kids.
It's a big difference to go over as a unit than as an individual.
Well that's the way I felt, Geoff. I felt like if I needed to go over with a group of people, I felt comfortable with this group because we were trained. Every day during our training exercises in September, October, November of '67, the imprint of the rifle was important. We were being trained by first cavalry NCO's, who were lifers, and these training NCO's were really important for us to understand the concept of combat because these guys had been through it. Whether it was the La Drang or some of the other conflicts they had at that time, so. It was good to have that input from these trainers. In fact, I think it saved our lives in many cases based on that training.
When did you actually arrive in Vietnam and how did you get there?
November of '67, it was called Operation Eagle Thrust. There was about 10,000 of us that lifted off from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. It was the biggest airlift operation at that time. One of the biggest.
All 101st, all 10,000 of us plus whatever else ingredients they had. We first landed in Wake. Ask me for Wake was, I had no idea. I've heard a lot about it in the history, you know, from former marines that I've worked with in the VA systems and that stuff. But from there, from Wake we were shifted over to the Philippines very quickly, and then from the Philippines onto Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam where we – actually it was Bien Hoa, it wasn't Phuoc Vinh, but our assignment was Phuoc Vinh, but we landed in Bien Hoa.
I bet that was fun, with the name Phuoc Vinh.
We had no idea what this was all about. You know, young kids between 18 and 20, 21, this is an experience at that time.
Did you arrive by military transport?
Military transport, yeah. I mean as far as the aircraft coming in. Was it C-141? I think C-141's, so, yeah.
What was your impression when you got off the plane?
Hot. Smelly. And can I say something here? “My God, what am I doing?” As a young medic saying, “Here I am, in charge of 40 men, 35 to 40 men in a platoon, and I'm under orders to be assigned to this platoon which I was stateside.” And just the whole that, “This is gonna be interesting, Nick.” I was a little bit older than most of these other kids, I was getting close to 21 at that time and I'm saying, “Okay, stay steady. Make sure that you got your stuff together because they might be needing you pretty soon.” But we arrived in Bien Hoa and then from there we were transported by the 1st Infantry Division, by trucks, up to Phuoc Vinh and we were assigned our barracks there. This is where it gets interesting with names and places because I really, to be honest with you, folks, I really don't know all the places we were assigned. This is scary.
Can you speak about how young these boys were and what did they talk about?
Sally and Geoff, if I knew, I would've given you expletives on that stuff. We were all just kind of sullen. We had no idea what to expect on these big – well, not on these big planes as we were going in company size operations in this one C-141 there was so many of them as we were being airlifted. Anxiety, a lot of anxiety, just the unknown. I mean for 18, 19, 20 year olds, a lot of these kids were either court advised to join the military or they joined because of the patriotism that they saw, I guess with John Wayne or whoever was back in the '50s when he was making these movies about "Sands of Iwo Jima" and stuff like that. They were young and vulnerable like I was but, yet wondering, “Okay, what have we got ourselves into?” Here I am, mama, medical aid person, count on Doc to help you out with medications, what have you. Which I was glad I did. I was there for them but then still learning too, along with it.
So you land and then how long before you actually see combat?
We trained for about two to three months. Training I mean indoctrination to the heat. We basically did a lot of operations around Phuoc Vinh area, Vietnam, for about two to three months. No contact, no real heavy duty contact. The contact really started later on during the year, about middle part of our tour, at least where I was, and we started hitting some heavy contact in what they call the Cu Chi area, Trang Bang area. But I got to go back here because what Gene Overton, our third platoon, (inaudible 13:41) right now, sergeant who handles a lot of the Currahee reunion programs had mentioned the fact – and I can't recall them – sorry, I spaced it.
Tell us as you remember it.
Combat. June 21st 1968. We were in what they call a reinforced company size operation just outside Trang Bang where we had to do a diversionary to block off a large NVA battalion. One of our companies, the Alpha Company, the first 506 was leading, going up and then somehow they got hit with a large encampment of RPG's – recoilless, rifles, machine guns, etc. We in turn did an M run and went around the other side of where they were to envelop the NVA. But then all of the sudden we hit that large amount of RPG's, machine gun fire and stuff like that, so it was basically an all day operation of going from one end of the rice paddy dikes to the other from about 200 yards, and we had one platoon that was basically lost out there 25 yards out. So we did a lot of running around and crawling around that day as far as that engagement was concerned. This was about a battalion-sized NVA unit. And it was pretty intense. In fact, the medevacs who came in had a real hard time getting in because they were coming in a hot LZ. Fortunately, we got some of the kids out, a lot of the kids out who were seriously wounded in that stuff.
Tell us about opening that first package.
The M-5 kit that I carried which carried everything: Morphine syrettes, syringes. We used a lot of cravats that day because the wounds were either lower limbs. Maybe a couple sunken chest wounds that we had to – at least four or medics helped me out. And I don't know if you want me to give you the medic's names or what have you, but they were always busy from one section of the company to the other, we were going back and forth because we just didn't know. We had 18 casualties that day, wounded in action, and I think about six killed. So 23 out of probably a 120-man company, we were starting to begin to dwindle in our casualty rate. But I was using a lot of cravats for arms and limbs. RPG's were just horrendous that day too. They were trying to hit our machine gun positions in certain areas of a rice paddy dike. It was a long elongated rice paddy dike and we set up positions there and I was kind of roaming around through the whole company as a platoon medic along with four other medics. So it was a busy day.
Tell me about the sound, the noise, how you communicate.
Horrendous. It's chaotic. Your mouth is dry, you're crawling around, you are wondering, “when is the last casualty going to stop?” You're there. You're kind of in the midst of this enigma of explosions and high-velocity RPG's, machine gunfire, everything that they're trying to shoot at ya. Fortunately, the whole company was spread out enough that we didn't really suffer tremendous casualties but even though when you get still a limited amount of casualties you're still running around because you never know who would get hit. And I ask myself, “Why in God's name” – excuse me for swearing – “did I not get hit?”
One particular situation where one of our medics by the name of Dennis did some really heroic crawling back and forth. His last platoon was about 25 meters out from where we were as a full company. He had been crawling back and forth to get supplies and stuff like that and also helping out some of his wounded infantrymen. And I remember him taking care of one wounded soldier out in the open, he's there, and then all of the sudden I had made the decision along with our senior medic or senior aid man to go out there and put another IV in him. So we crawled out about 25 to 50 meters. I have no idea why I made it out there. I have no idea. I was the first one to get to him along with a junior coming up who was the senior A-man's name. And we finally got an IV in him. It was hot. It was a hot, crusty, smelly day. We also had F-4's come in that day to give us reinforcement along with artillery fire. Thank God, excuse me, for FO's. Because FO's really were like God to us during that period of about four weeks.
What is FO?
Field Artillery Observer. Those are the guys that went out with the unit, those were the ones who called in artillery, set coordinates during nighttime for perimeter while we dug in. And they were the ones that really helped us
How is it communicated that somebody is wounded?
Yeah, you communicated by the sounds of somebody – "Doc, we need you over here!" Somebody's been hit by a .50 caliber, what's left of his leg or what have you. That was usually the sign. You could get that terminal message from these guys that you need help over here. There was times where I just laid down there and waited on that dike, that wet dike, that day, saying, "Uh-oh, what's gonna happen next?" And then you hear another sound and you got three medics running over there or crawling over there to aid. So it wasn't all intense fire. There were sometimes where you'd settle down, you don't hear any fire coming back again at us and then saying, "Uh-oh, what's gonna happen next?" You're kind of on that call as to what not to expect from the incoming.
Do you find yourself taking on a role at that time?
Big time, Geoff. I felt like there was an obligation that I had, not only as a soldier but also as a medic, that if I can help in any way possible. I think the spookiest thing that I didn't realize is going back to that wounded soldier that was way out there 25 to 50 meters. I don't know how I got there along with the senior aid man. Now, I remember putting that IV up. He's putting the IV in, a senior aid man, and we finally got it in there. “Whew! Now we gotta crawl back.” We didn't bring him back. He stayed there all day but somehow he wasn't hit again. Maybe they just decided, “No, we're gonna keep that guy out there,” and the rest was history as far as where he was at. We finally brought him back in later on that evening when we'd realized that the NVA had stopped their firing. But I didn't know that.
So this chopper came in, dropped off a litter and they asked another guy, "Could you come on over?" He didn't want to come over. I said, "Listen, we need to get him, I need to have you come with me," so I went back again. Got him on board. We didn't realize how critical his injuries were, simply because of the fact, I finally realized, that he'd two AK bullets right through his shoulder and it went down so there was a spinal injury right there. Hopefully we moved him enough where he didn't have serious injuries, but he did have serious injuries, he was totally paralyzed from then on and he lived another 20 to 30 years from what I gather.
So you're armed and you're firing too?
You know what, Geoff, I got to the point where I got tired of helping out kids. Does that sound crazy? I said F-U-C-K-I-T. I slammed it down, I picked up a rifle and started firing back. Oh, yeah, I was pissed. I was just pissed at picking up kids and throwing launch hoppers and wanting to go back to Westminster College. (laughs) Can you believe my semester? But it was just the whole idea that I was there for my men, my people, my friends, my associates that I'd been with for the last, what, eight months? Now this is happening, so there was a lot of identity that I felt about my inner anger, about I've had enough of this crap. “Come. I'm ready for ya.” So that emotion, being a medic, helping out, but then also being a rifleman because every day at Fort Campbell we were told, “You're going to shoot those rifles and you're gonna shoot 'em good.” Even with the medics.
You hear a lot about medics being CO's, conscientious objectors. There were some very heroic medics who were CO's over there. I can't take anything back from where they were, too, about how they disagreed with the war. We didn't have any, you know, in our unit, but I heard about some very good conscientious objectors who were medics over there.
You said it was a hot LZ and you couldn't get the choppers in. Describe that.
Well, we could but we wouldn't. It just depended on the lull of the fire. We'd been, like I say, on a small rice paddy dike and the NVA are over here with their machine guns, AK-47's. Every time a chopper came in on that rice paddy dike, you had no idea they were gonna get hit. And I share at one time, I still have this visual of one Huey coming in with that crossbar, medical emblem, and he's taking a swerve like that. And he got in, he came in, there was brushes and things that knocked all over. I realized that the co-pilot was killed with that incoming fire from the NVA over on that other side. We finally got our kids in, but then I looked again and there were bullet holes all over the place. This was open space for these medevacs coming in and it was hot all the time during that 12-hour period. It was pretty crazy.
I was told that medevacs were not armed. They had to be armed, didn't they?
Sally, that's a good point. I heard they were armed, I heard they weren't.
Talk more about medevac pilots and describe the feeling from the ground, what it was like.
It was unbelievably great to hear those guys coming in. I mean they were literally risking their lives no more than two to three feet off the rice paddy areas of trying to make it to us. And then on a full stop, coming in and getting our kids on board, very little protection out there, maybe some bamboo trees and stuff but it was pretty limited.
But you know, it's funny, I've heard both yes and no about medevacs carrying guns because of the fact that if you got shot down, how the hell are you gonna protect yourself? I mean common sense would say, “Hey, the cross – I don't know about Charlie and the NVA, but I don't think they believed in not shooting at helicopters.” It sounded rational for me to say “hey, stop the firing,” but it did not, especially against these machines, these life-saving machines. They saved a lot of kids, those medevacs, and the pilots along with them too. They were just unbelievably heroic in every way, which way.
That first battle, that's the big transition.
It was a very big transition. You know, Geoff, and after that, we went back and we cleaned up our weapons back in Cu Chi after this 30-day battle in Trang Bang, hitting bunker systems, two companies along with an assisting company, licking our wounds, 23 casualties on our company side and I think there was about eight on Alpha Company's area. But numbers are inconsequential about the cost of human life on both sides – I've come to that point in my life right now. But that whole period, it was. It was a downsizing that we were relieved to be cleaning up our rifles and the ones who survived that day and continuing on with another mission; we had no idea when. I had made the comment, "This looks like an easy mission down here in this area, Cu Chi." Didn't turn out to be that way at all. We lost 50 to 60 percent of our company down there, which is pretty high, in talking to other veterans, that seems to be the normal for infantry units just depending on where you were, but for our company, after more engagements, it took its toll, it really did.
And what date is this approximately?
Twenty-one June was that engagement. We had some more really serious firefights later on. I mean the ones that after we deprocessed and went back, cleaned our weapons up, went to the whorehouse (laughs) and massage parlors and everything else along with it to decompress, get medical supplies, get what we had to do for this other mission. We were out there, what? When was our next engagement? Thirty of July, 1968. And that was a battalion-sized perimeter and got hit by an estimated 30 sappers and I don't know how many NVA were coming in.
I hope I'm not jumping to conclusions here – there was a Medal of Honor winner on, I think it's Alpha Company, that got a Medal of Honor that night on our right side. They had been hit pretty hard because that was the vulnerable area, next to the forest where we were as a battalion sized perimeter. But yeah, after each mission, you really had to evaluate your medical supplies, what you had as far as depreciation of men that you had in your unit. You didn't know. And then you started really saying, "We're not gonna get too close to any new people coming on board." You've heard that from a lot of combat vets, not getting close to folks who are new to the system, new to this infantry unit because the casualty rates were mounting up.
Is it just too difficult to get close to somebody at that point?
For me, I always thought I was a gregarious person, you know? Enjoy people. But with that, yeah, you just did not want to accept the fact that you never knew when this person, or even you might get it with this buddy relationship. Even though we still had unity in the company during that period of time between, was it June 21st through July 3rd, that's a ten-day deal where my unit got really ripped apart. It's something that you think about and you appreciate every day of your life, but yet that whole value system, friendships, is valuable. I don't think I ever really had a closer friendship with people. They were my family as a medic and I was really close to a lot of these kids. It's funny because my wife had mentioned the fact that – and I've talked to her previously about this over the years – was, I really try to identify how close I can get with people anymore in relationship to family, in relationship to the kids I served with 42, 44 years ago. And right now I really desire that need to be close to family. That's very important. Because that was family for me, being a 21-year-old medic. I could really identify with those kids and where we were during that period, that ten-day to fifteen-day period.
A medic really occupies a very special place among those soldiers.
I always felt like I've always been on a golden platter. My family came from well-to-do families but yet, kind of backstabbing this, going back a little bit, I came from a prep school system back east too, back in the '50s, I went to six years to a prep school and very few prep school kids, as I remember, served over in Vietnam. They were either trying to go to the northeastern schools that are Harvard or what have you, but I'm one of the rarities to have been involved in that sort of conflict. I'm sure if I'd checked around, I'm sure there was others. But to answer your question, that was a valuable part.
You have to impose self-discipline.
You had to. Well, you had to bring yourself up too about where you were emotionally wise when you worked on a kid. When you worked on somebody that was paralyzed, somebody that had lost his legs or still was dealing with a lot of loss of blood and you had to keep your own sense of well-balance. I had other medics that helped out, it wasn't me alone. I mean I value the relationship that I had with the other company-sized platoon medics and that. They were a valuable resource. But after we started depleting more casualties and we were getting down there, it started a rub off a lot more. You became a little more hard about how you felt about the war, about what was going on. During that time of '68, the political unrest, everything was just crazy with the assassinations we had stateside. So I think in many ways that affected about how we felt as a company, as a unit too.
Tell me about that.
Well, Martin Luther King's assassination really directed a lot of the guys, the brothers that I served with – I don't know, I really didn't understand where this was all back going on back east with Bobby Kennedy getting shot in June, I think, of '68. That was just a whole new world that was totally new to us. We just didn't know. This is crazy. This is just insane. When we're reading that. And then trying to contend with our own mortality as a unit, as individuals.
What are they all talking about?
Pretty dedicated skill. I mean with an airborne rifle company we had some pretty conditioned NCO's. We got to go with the mission. But underneath a lot of that, layer of tough layer, what the hell's going on? We're just having a hard time dealing with this, but yet the mission came first, whatever that was. I really didn't get a grasp on where really people were at, even though we were picking up news from the states. The insanity, especially with my friends who were Afro-American at that time, soldiers that I'd served with. It was difficult, it was very, very trying. “Why the hell are we here? Why are we fighting this situation?”
What was the reaction of your African-American friends about Martin Luther King?
Yeah, it was total shock. It was total shock. But I didn't get really a lot of feedback, as I remember. We had a platoon squad leader there, actually sergeant who lost his life on July 3rd, rumor hit by a suicide group, three companies of soldiers, VC, VA, whatever you want to call 'em. And this one individual sergeant reminded me so much of – I can't remember his name, sorry I'm cutting out here – Bill Cosby, with his humor, his sense of keeping the unit together, that sort of scenario, but it struck the Afro-Americans in that unit as really very difficult, very difficult to handle. But I didn't throw myself as to what's going on because I wasn't involved in politics. We had a mission, but still underneath that, it was insane, this whole period. '68 was just totally insane. I served the whole tour, like I say, that whole year was in '68. And it was just very chaotic. Not necessarily where we were as an airborne rifle company, but you know, the trouble we had back stateside.
What are you hearing from your family?
Mom always wrote every week. It's good to hear from Mom. She was the one that was a stabilizer. She was the one that, like I say, she served with Bradley's 12th Army group. And she was amazing. She understood the situation as far as that I had been hit. I was wounded. And I didn't talk much about that. I kind of throw that –
Stay here for a minute.
Okay. But the letters were great, they were really gratifying, they were good to have. I had a gal from Colorado, who was a physical therapist, that wrote to me, that was an internship at university there and I had a three-month correspondence with her but somehow after all this engagement, started losing any sense of identity, even with female relationships who were writing me back from home and that because of how I felt about loss and trying to keep your own act together.
Were you gaining a new identity?
I think so. From identity meaning just a sense of self. Where do I fit myself into a lot of this? Yeah. I'll be honest with you, after these engagements, this ten-day period I'd been put in for two silvers and a bronze star earlier for going to a wounded person, but medals didn't mean nothing to me, I just wanted to get back home based about how I felt about our actions, the depletion of our units, men. Let me retrack, when I got hit, I was pulled out of the field after everything had settled down, after this suicide attack on July 3rd, 1968. It was told that it was three companies that had attacked my platoon's position along with the perimeter that Charlie Company had set in. And they cut our claymores, they knew where all of our positions were, and our machine gun position got hit. I was the one that basically took the initiation to go let the machine gun to position while it was knocked down and try to render aid.
By the time I'm reaching the hole I got hit by an RPG coming in from my right. That knocked me a little bit to the left there. There was a rucksack, I'd say close-by, that really saved a lot of my internal injuries because I was crawling. One thing great about basic training, you learn to keep your head really low, so I got as low as I could, because the incoming fire was coming in on our position so I got in that hole. And we got a new kid that's to my right, he doesn't know what's going on, he'd just been chopper'd in that night before, and then my buddy to my left, he's a machine gunner, (Owertoski? 40:10) is hit in the head and he's delusional. You don't treat really head wounds with morphine. So I'm hit, you know, and I'm just saying, "Everybody keep cool. How you doing?" Finally got out of the hole and got back to where my CP was. But from where I was, I didn't get evac'd out probably for about two hours later, it was still hotly contested.
So even when you're hit you're keeping that role?
I'm trying to, yeah. We had what they call a CP that was knocked out or at least it was overrun, probably about 70 meters from where we were, these were observation posts of about four men. Two men were killed and I think two were injured out of those four. So we had a group of guys go out and try to get their people out at that time. It was pretty hairy, it was pretty scary. One thing about the VC, NVA, they knew where all of our positions were. They were well prepared. It was a very tenacious enemy, very dedicated. As I said in that ceremony here a couple of years ago. But from where I was and when I got wounded, I thought it would take forever to get me out, but yet I didn't want to go. But the platoon sergeant said, "Nick, you're leaving, you're getting out of here."
Why didn't you want to leave?
Commitment. I felt lightly wounded compared to where maybe some of the other guys weren't. I mean I could move around. I had shrapnel, but still, I felt there was an obligation to stick around.
So you're a medic there lying wounded.
Well, your energy, everything, you want to get out, you want to get the hell out of there, but then when your unit's been hit pretty hard, that night on July 3rd, we had, like I say – I didn't even realize this until a friend of mine – I don't know if I can give names or not – Chris (Gaspero? 42:20) from New York. He's an attorney now working for (Adderson General?). I'd mentioned the fact, “Doc, this is what happened that night. We had close to 44 casualties that night.” Didn't even realize that. I thought maybe – here we go in the numbers system – 20 were injured at the most, but I didn't realize more than that, more than half are some major casualties.
You're dealing with death all the time. How did you feel about death?
That's a good point. You know, when you talk about spirituality, I work with spirituality kind of as a therapist were at the VA, I worked there for ten years, my last job with the VA system. They talk a lot about spirituality and veterans and post-traumatic stress. Well, I lost a lot of spirituality while I was over there. I didn't believe in a lot of that crap about religion and saving and Jesus Christ and stuff like that. I sensed that since I was with this brotherhood of fellow soldiers and then we started losing people, war does that. I mean that's part of war, you lose people. A lot of us got to face the fact that since we were in combat, we weren't expecting to get hit that hard, but things happen.
And you sense that change about how you feel, your character about how you feel about yourself. I had a psychiatrist that I worked in Saudi Arabia with when I was sent over with the 140th Alpha Vac – yes, I had another war I went to, too, ‘long with it. But he had mentioned the fact that, "Nick, that war colored your life." Well, I think for many people, it colored our lives to the fact where some things that people take seriously, I take for granted? No, I don't take for granted, I take it as something that's very special, very important. Maybe just smelling roses a little bit more.
So you're saying that over there you came as a hopeful spiritual and you left as a different person?
I did, Sally, I left as a different person about really evaluating my whole religious experience. I was raised Episcopalian but then the sense of – I just can't understand where this is all about my identity with God, Jesus Christ, how I felt about as a young medic where I went through with this experience. And lucky to be a survivor. I mean all of us are survivors, you hear that time and time again, I'm sure, but in my own experience, it impacted me.
How long did it take for you to recover from your wounds?
I really wanted to stay there forever. They had MOS's that were really desirable in the military and one of them was a medic, especially a field medic. And my wife is what they call – just very quickly, is a 91 Charlie, she's a specialist and she pointed out today, "You were a basic medic." I was, I was a field medic. We were the ones who were the initial keepers of the wounded to get them on choppers if you can, to manage that bleeding as well as you can, the ABC's of first-aid, we all know it: Airway, breathing, and circulation. All that. But I think that was important about how I felt about myself. And I kind of lost track here.
You're recovering and how long were you out of combat?
All together, for convalescence and all that stuff, I would say Cu Chi was probably about two weeks and then I was sent up to – sorry Gary, I can't remember, Cam Ronh Bay which is way up there. I was sent up to Cam Ronh Bay for another three weeks for rehab on the right side, just strengthening. Then I was sent back down to Phuoc Vinh. Yes, back to the 101st.
Had you changed? What did you see in that hospital, did anything change?
I just saw a lot of wounded guys, guys who were there second, three times for wounds. Some of these guys from the Marine Corps were telling me they'd been wounded three or four times, some serious wounds but yet not serious enough to be sent to Tokyo. You're back in the field. You're gonna be another part of the cannon fodder that was going on during that time, from '68. Because I think '68 was when our highest casualty figures, as I remember. It's really high in numbers. But yeah, that whole period of not wanting to go back simply because of the fact that I had my orders cut for Japan. You're out of this crap. But then they rescinded the orders and they sent me back because the wounds weren't that critical. I had shrapnel up here, little bit here and I think the toe. If it had hit the toe, it cut off, I probably would've gone to Tokyo, but it just went in between my big toe and my smaller toes. So no, they sent me back to Phuoc Vinh.
Funny story about that, personally, I stayed hidden in a hooch in Phuoc Vinh; that's the base camp – because I did not want to go back out. I'm just telling it truthfully about how I felt, simply because of the fact I saw enough of my unit to say I'm dedicated, but yet at what cost? And I spent almost about a month and a half, maybe a month in this hooch doing the aid station stuff as a medic but having that fear of being called back up again to go back out again in that because of how, where I was at. But yet I felt there was a dedication of what was left of the platoon that I'd served with. And to be honest with you, Geoff, there weren't that many guys that I recognized. When I got back from my convalescence and from Phuoc Vinh and from ordered to go back out again, and I looked at that platoon and I says, "Oh my God, I don't recognize anybody. I probably recognize about two of about 13 of ya here." It was new, it was all brand-new. There was nothing there that I could really identify with and communicate with except maybe a couple who were dwindling back again based on their wounds.
So this was a demarcation for you.
Yeah. I mean everything. I was hesitant, I was antsy, just not wanting to, and praying, that we wouldn't get hit again. Just this continual barrage of, “Oh boy, where are these people gonna send us now?” The upper command who are making these decisions for all of us to be involved with another battle or what have you. Firefights were horrendous sometimes in Vietnam.
How much longer did you have to go when you reported back to your unit?
Probably all together, since when I got back to the unit around October, August, September… latter part of September of '68 I was sent back to the unit but then I had R&R. So they shifted me over to Australia for seven days of luxury. Drinking beer and enjoying the sand on Bondi Beach, Australia. So I spent my seven days there. And learned a little bit about the English habits of coat ties and coats during the nighttime. You can wear whatever you want during the daytime, but there was a luxury of saying, this is a whole new world for me being a grunt for almost 18 months.
So were you over halfway through your tour when you went back?
A little bit over, yeah. Little bit over.
Describe that horrendous firefight. What does it look like, what does it feel like?
Sally, we have to go back to certain dates here because I will tell you three of them were just horrendous. July 3rd of 1968 probably was the coup de grace for us because they had picked, or the NVA or whoever made the decision to hit our unit compared to some of the other units that were lined up two miles away or two clicks away, to hit our unit. Because we were basically an (unstraiffed? 51:24) rifle unit at that time, rifle company. We had 90 men, from what people have told me. And they hit us where they felt the vulnerability was. That was a pretty good-sized group of NVA soldiers that hit us that night, VC, whatever you want to call them. Ran around probably about between 175 to 250 coming into our position and that stuff. It's like I say, we had an FO, Forward Observer – got on a hooch and call in. Finally got out, just took the courage to get up there, call in, find the artillery, 1-5-5 millimeter, I guess you'd call it in the artillery, to finally get artillery support, otherwise I wouldn't be here today.
I've been saying that to a few folks over the years. I have to recognize his heroism of getting up on that hooch and calling in because I tell ya, that thing was hot. You could just see the .51 millimeters just like large basketballs. That's why I say basic was really good for me, training, because I did go low. I mean I didn't move around a lot while I was around that battlefield. Like I say, the closest I really got to was that other position that had been knocked out from where I was with the CP – that's the command post – and going about, oh, 15 to 20 feet to that knocked-out machine gun in that area. So there was a lot of heroism that day, that night, from a lot of different individuals.
So what did you witness?
It's chaotic. It's like you want to protect your own little privacy there. “I don't want to go out no more.”
How do you communicate?
I don't know, I'm just hoping that no one would call me, you know?
You're hearing everything.
I'm hearing everything, it's chaotic, they're coming in our position, my platoon's position. I'm sure there are other elements would try to come in other sections of other platoons, but it seems like our platoon was getting the wrath of God. These people were dedicated to knocking us out. When you start cutting claymore mines at what – how far away is a claymore mine? Thirty to forty feet? They're pretty dedicated. They were crawling. They weren't coming in on their feet, they were crawling in. So when the guys started saying, hey, these people are talking right out from where we're at you know something's up and something's very wrong.
Could you hear them?
I couldn't hear them. I don't know why, but Sergeant Barnum, to my left, and Chris (Gaspero? 54:26) probably heard 'em. Yeah, because they were a little farther up from where I was. Oh, yeah. I knew Bill had heard 'em. He said, "You can hear these people." Literally communicating with each other. And that's when I decided, “Oh, boy, what's gonna happen now.”
Describe this night battle. Is it flashes?
Oh, flashes, everything Geoff. I don't know, in talking to other veterans of what you've heard, but it's just extreme chaos, literally. I mean with tracer rounds coming in on ya, RPG's coming in different directions. Mortars. Mortars were just horrible because you never knew where they would land. When they started hitting around – I'm not sure what time – one o'clock that night, July 3rd. I thought it was gonna be the 4th, 4th of July, I mean come on, give me one day. We'll celebrate on the 4th. But no, they had to hit us on the 3rd.
But anyway, we knew something was wrong when they started hitting us with mortars, they started prepping us around the perimeter and then the RPG's started coming in. And then the .50s, and then all of the sudden you can hear – I don't know, a hundred AK-47s. It was extreme chaotic. It was crazy. And this little company perimeter of a vulnerable group of young men holding on and this one FO that's taken his life in his own hands and crawling up on that hooch and calling in. I remember my platoon sergeant saying, "This is one hell of a fighting outfit." And I agree. It was a group of young men that really risked their lives. There were a whole bunch of them that went out in that OP that night, four or three of them that risked their lives because of the wounded they had 75 to 100 yards out that should take credit too long with it because of their heroism.
When you came back after you were wounded how long did it take you to adjust to this new brotherhood? You said you didn't want to know their names.
Really didn't. I think the trust factor that I had with the kids I served with for almost, what was it going on now, eight months, nine months? It's almost like, down the drain. “Are you going to show me something? Are you going to show me that you can really lead point or be my flank or what have you?” I felt like I was kind of like the acting platoon sergeant because I was the medic but yet here again I'm the only medic that got wounded in that firefight that night. Somehow I got picked on. But I felt like I had some backing off there. I wanted to get to know them a little bit more. But yet, did I really want to get to know them? Because Lord knows, I don't know where we're gonna go from there when our assignments were in Cu Chi for that period of time, two and a half months, three months.
Are you beginning to count off the days that you were short?
Short was probably right after Australia, after I took R&R from Australia. And it was that November I think, early November. I guess that's their summer. I don't know if you've ever been there.
Did you keep a calendar in your head?
Yes, I did. Actually what I did, I extended one month, so it was up till December. So I kind of held my breath. They finally got me off the line I think in November, latter part of November, December.
Why did you extend a month?
Because that was the criteria for the brigades. That's a good question because you had to extend a month in order to stay with the unit that you were with, and that's where the loyalty. Oh, man, as a medic, do you think I want to go up the first brigade, 101st where they're catching all hell up there the first of January of '68, which was horrible anyway. And I don't know if you've talked to people from that period who went through hell with that up there, but it was nuts during January. So there was a group of us that decided no, we're going to stay with the unit, we're going to extend one month. I don't know what the policy was on that, I never could figure out why the extra month. I certainly don't want to be in that piss hole for another month.
Where were you January 31st '68?
(laughs) Ever heard of the Bountiful Bowl?
Yes, I have.
Okay, if you live in Bountiful, I got back. I had another year of the 82nd Airborne. And for most of us who had survived that stuff over there in the pond, we either had other assignments or we went back to another airborne division which was the 82nd, I had served two tours with the 82nd stateside. So during that month they gave us for DROS'ing out of Vietnam. I spent a month, I think, as I recall, couple of weeks in a bowling alley having a few drinks, and then from there I went down to see my uncle in Florida.
I'm talking about Tet.
No, we were fortunate, okay, Geoff, as far as Tet was because our system brigades were catching all hell the 2nd and 1st up in Tet of January, February, of '68. We were on call but we were basically fulfilling the bunker lines of Phuoc Vinh. But I remember that stuff going off with little flares around Phuoc Vinh but we weren't really as engaged as what those units were up in Hue where our system brigades were either reinforcing marines and what they were going through pure hell in trying to recapture Hue. But we had heard a lot of what was going on, and we were on-call. That was almost a month. I remember, it was a month or so of intense fighting up there during that period.
What did you hear?
I hear that those units were catching all hell, a lot of casualties coming in from both marine units and airborne units and any infantry units because of the fact they caught us by surprise all over the country: Saigon, all parts of Vietnam. The VC, NVA had just been building up cache supplies all over the country. And they hit us and they hit us hard and that's where that Johnson diplomacy and all that other stuff got into that.
Tell me what a medic hears and sees that other soldiers don't see?
That's a good question, Geoff, and I wish I could give you a really direct answer on that. More being alert on what could happen or what can happen to, let's say, an individual. Whether it's jumping off a deuce and a half the right way instead of behind, elbow, and everything else. They used to call it PFL, when you jump and Prepare For Landing. But just being alert with the members that you knew might have had some weaknesses with their arms or legs. Mental health-wise, that's another story too. Yeah, that's a different story because of the fact I was called upon to go to, what is it, a summary court-martial? Is that one of the highest court-martials they have? I think summary is.
Long story made short, soldier in our platoon decided not to go and be involved with a mission that we had to take a village back in February. This was during the Tet Offensive, he decided he's gonna stay in the deuce and a half, he's not gonna go anywhere. For whatever rhyme or reason, girlfriend back home, maybe he had some diarrhea problems, I have no idea. I had literally to counsel him and say, "Hey, are you gonna get off the trunk? We need ya." He just decided to back away, he said, "Doc, I'm not gonna go. I can't go." Apparently what had happened was he had some issues back home with his girlfriend, she became pregnant and he said, "Bound and determined, I'm not gonna go through this war. No matter what the army's gonna throw at me, I'll get back there." And I had to go through his trial and I did not like it.
He had served honorably beforehand. I mean he was involved in missions but somehow that stopped him. What he got, I have no idea. I mean you could probably get what, a $30,000 to $50,000 fine plus ten years in Leavenworth. I'm not sure it was. I remember the platoon lieutenant in our company, my platoon officer had wanted him to dig an eight-by-eight with a teaspoon. I thought it was degrading. I thought it was ridiculous. And most of the guys in our platoon felt it was ridiculous.
So this special role you fulfilled, dealing with men's minds.
You had to keep your own mind straight. If you'd lose it, the guys would say, "Can we trust you, even for a Band-Aid," and that stuff. I was kind of a funny kid over there. I remained kind of isolated but I didn't. I wanted to observe where people were at. I love people, don't get me wrong, I still enjoy people quite a lot, but during that whole experience I just felt like there was a need to just observe what was going on with the people that I was involved with. And yeah, get drunk with them and go to the massage parlor and all the stuff that was offered there. But there was another part of me, that sensitivity, it felt like there was another commitment you've got here too, Nick, and that's to take care of people. The mental health thing was a big thing 'cause we had a couple of instances where a guy accidently shot himself cleaning the M-16 and hit his foot and, “Guess who's over there, Nick. What happened?” Then they go through all this interrogation as to what the hell happened to this guy. It was just one incident. And then the other one with not going into this NVA hell village. Those were two, and there were others I think in our company about how people were reacting.
Did you come across guys with creative ideas as to why they weren't safe for their unit?
Yeah, in fact, I had two that I knew or heard of. One, the night that I came and got hit in the foxhole there was a young kid that came on board that night, just chopper'd him along with three new people. Out of those three new people, one was killed, the other one was injured, and the other one went psychiatric. Guess who went psychiatric? The kid that was to my right when I was wounded. I'm in the foxhole, I said, "Throw anything at 'em. Rocks, anything that you can get your hands on." Because I had no rifle, machine gun, the M-60's knocked out, with (Skee? 01:07:35) next to me who was delirious, doesn't know what's going on. And I'm trying to fix my leg with a morphine syrette. But this kid eventually said, "No, I'm not going back out again. Screw you." And he didn't.
He got a medical I-don't-know-what, a mental health wise. So yeah, that's one. Another one, this, I guess, could be serious, but the other one was in, I think, 1st platoon, that's our companion platoon, went nuts one night, got an M-60, put some ammunition in it. Guess what happened? Just obliterated the whole hut and he was another one that lost it. This is after some of these engagements. So yeah, this stuff does come back. It takes a while to focus in on it but yeah, he did not want to go back out again. He said, "Screw this stuff."
And you can understand that, right?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Breaking point. We had one medic, highly decorated, by the name of Dennis, two Silver Stars, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts. Dennis did not want to go back out the same time I did, and we were in the same position, there were two medics back in June, July, that were ordered to go back out to be with their people. Yeah, I had a lot of doubts but yet I knew there were guys there that I knew that still needed help and assistance, so I took up the courage.
You used the word "breaking point." Tell us about that.
I don't know, I guess when you talk to Korean, World War II veterans, Persian Gulf veterans, whatever they might be. I mean what is the breaking point? I mean I worked at the VA for on and off for ten years as a therapist for addictions around the curves of post-traumatic stress too or where people were at. I don't know. Where is the breaking point, Geoff? There were some guys in my company that were right on that edge of losing it. And there were other people that felt like they could just go on with this forever because they loved the killing. Oh, yeah, they loved the killing. There was a couple in third platoon like that. And I didn't know these guys. They just had a different mentality whether it was from the streets of Chicago or New York or San Francisco or LA, I don't know, but they loved it. Not all. Not all, mind you. But that's kind of spooky. But good to have it for a backup, but I don't know. I mean afterwards, mental health wise, that's where issues come in. As a former aid man as well as being an addiction therapist over at the VA, I could relate to a lot of those people when I was working the VA and the folks coming in with their war stories. And I just had to really be very objective. My wife, Debbie, will tell you about that.
As a medic what was the role of the nurses?
No, I was just glad to see an American female nurse there. They were just special when I got hit, they were there. I was more independent in this war because I could still walk around even though they said doctor's orders, you're not gonna walk around. Sergeant Miller, I guess, Specialist Miller.
Talk about the nurses in the hospital and the relationship there.
Nothing really. These were dedicated nurses because they'd been going 24-7 and I'm sure they'd been rotating 12-hour shifts, whatever they could do. Being a former medic and being with the 144th medical vac for a few years, I would say theirs is a medium care unit compared to the intensive care units that I saw there. Overlooking to my left, that one day that I walked out of this medical unit where I was at and I'm looking over to my left and seeing a lot of guys without legs or arms or what have you. I mean it reminded me so much of the Civil War stuff of what was really happening to a lot of these kids in tank units who were getting hit very hard every night while I was in Cu Chi. It seemed like every night I heard this bang-bang, unbelievable rumble going on from one side of Cu Chi. Cu Chi base was a good sized base but you would hear how these guys were still hitting our units and these guys coming in with shrapnel on their arms and stuff.
And I'm asking questions, "How'd you get hit?" "Oh, I'm with the Fifth Mechanized," which did a lot of operations in Cu Chi in that area, in fact where my brother-in-law was assigned. And they had mentioned the fact that there were guys that lost their legs. And I just remember seeing these other intensive units with limbs lost and stuff like that. That blew me away. I mean we came in as a bunch with a lot of wounded from my company and sister companies, but to see these tank units hit and RPG's, they do a number on the body. I don't know if I want to talk about this one, this is one where we had a direct hit on one of our RTO's, Radio Transmitting Operators and he got a direct hit and that's all I'm gonna say about that. It's not fun to look at or be exposed to.
Can you talk about the VD ward?
I can't, because I was assigned this area and they really didn't throw me into any BD. Oh, VD. I keep thinking it's behavioral disorder. Yeah, they called it, I guess the black water syphilis. I heard all this stuff when I got over there and everybody did. I treated some guys with venereal disease, the 600 unit penicillin shot in the – what's the word we call for it? Yes, posterior. But otherwise, no. We did pretty well in keeping an eye out for venereal disease even though it ran in units, being careful with venereal disease. We knew where to send 'em. I did not pack any of that stuff because usually you had to either keep it refrigerated and compact. But it was a big thing. It could've wiped out a whole battalion if you didn't watch it.
Did you have a medical officer that you reported to?
Normally, I did. And we rarely reported to him, usually after we came in on a mission what have you, I usually went up with my M-5 kit which was the larger kit we used for combat operations and they call an M-3 kit too along with it, which was for smaller, let's say two-to-five day missions and stuff like that. So yeah, we went in, resupplied. Basically the training that we got as medics, and most of us went through this at Fort Sam Houston, Texas for ten to twelve weeks of basic training, cravats, the whole triage scenario. But then afterwards when you're assigned to these type of units, usually, as you said, you have a medical chief there. And normally they would check in on you and how you were doing. You would go up their report. We didn't report casualty figures because they usually had that established anyway. I don't know why, but they knew way before we did as to how many casualties we were taking. I would say the 506 headquarters did a fairly good job with their medics. We had some grumblings because of particular situations, politics with one medic going out there for one night doing great work, great work with kids who in one unit was being overrun. He got some certain medals about it and here we've been out for six to seven months and you know, we haven't been nominated for anything and who cares, we just want to get the hell out of this war in one piece, but yeah, there was a little bit of –
You're feeling kind of topsy turvy.
Well, it was. You always got these political situations. There was always one guy staying back there the whole tour of duty without even going out in the field and doing all this stuff and then we're out there humping with the guys doing what we can as grunts as well as medics and making sense of all this.
What else did you face? Tell us about spiders and snakes and ticks.
Have you seen 15 guys going in 20 different directions with a python? Who cares about the war and the NVA. I've slept on scorpions who were that size, black, and smaller ones. And she had a bunch of little ones there. I had no idea. This was one night when we were biff wacked out in a perimeter. And sometimes you'd just sleep where you were put without really noting where you were. We did have a couple of bites that we had to vac out and that's always spooky because you never knew what operations you might be on where the NVA might be close. But we've had, what else? Spiders. I don't know if any of you have heard about the three-footstep-and-then-you're-dead type of snake. It's a small snake that bit you and then you wouldn't last too much longer. We didn't have incidents like that at all. I didn't have any problems with that type of situation. But I think more with scorpions, rashes, whatever that might be. And mean when you're in the humid jungle, sometimes depending on where your operations were, men would pick up these unbelievable types of rashes. You had ointments, Benadryl, stuff like that that would help, but still, here again –
Fungus, exactly. Jungle rot. I developed some jungle rot over there between my legs and everywhere else. I'm helping everybody else out but guess what? The medic is starting to develop some of that stuff. I had elephantitis, my feet were that big before I went to Australia. You know, they were enormous. Penicillin, VK would help out. We used that as an alternative to help the swelling, help the bacteria, things like that. So there was a lot of things that we had to be observant about.
I knew a guy who got a fungus and couldn't take a bath for three years. Moved to Utah because of the dry air.
Yeah, that desert air will really cure a lot of things from what I hear.
How about drugs?
Yeah. Interesting story. We suspected, latter part of my tour that there was what they called a CID. I'm not sure if that's Central Intelligence Division or what have you, that they put a plant in our company. We suspected this guy was in fourth platoon, I can't remember. I got chummy with him. I enjoyed him. PFC, Private. But then here again, it was under cloak and dagger, I think he was a second lieutenant before he left, when we got out of the cloak and dagger stuff. But there was drugs. We experienced heroin. We had marijuana, I mean typical scenarios that you'd probably hear from other soldiers about that stuff. It was rampant, you could get it anywhere in any village. Sad to say, I would think that my squad leader, our fearless leader from my platoon, second platoon was killed that night when he's roaming around the perimeter the 3rd of July, 1968, he might have been under. It hasn't been proven yet and I could care less. But he did some heroic things but I often wonder about his marijuana usage. Yeah, he'd smoke a lot of that stuff, too, before and during Vietnam. Got a Silver, but at what cost? His life? One hell of a leader, a very good leader. And to this day I think about Sergeant (Connie? 01:22:00), a good man. And the men respected him.
Did it help them though? Often these guys say they didn't smoke before they went into the mission, but boy, did they smoke when they got back.
You hit it right on, Sally. Yeah. It was kind of like decompressing. So what would you do when you got back? Clean the rifles, clean your equipment up. Go smoke and dope and whatever you wanted to do. Yeah, there was a lot of drinking. I drank a lot.
There were rations?
There were rations, two cans per person in the field. If you dug in your perimeter everything was taken care of, you had your two cans and they were warm. They weren't cold most of the time, but yeah, we did have rations. Just depended on where we were, what we were doing. Then when you got back all hell broke loose as far as drinking and drugging. Not so much the drugging that I know of. Usually I think the village would have that where we were located, but yet, within our compound, a lot of drinking going on. Tremendous amount of drinking. The services never had any control or that during that period. It was a nightmare. That's the reason why you had so many druggies and alcoholics when you got out of that service, got out of that period. It was a big problem we had at the 82nd when I finally ETS' d out of from Vietnam to E-82nd, just a lot of people were into drugs or alcohol. It just seemed like the whole element, the whole area was induced by drinking.
Talk again about the medevacs and their role and the intensity.
Oh, they were phenomenally great pilots, great aviators. The medevac people, all the way from your pilots, your co-pilots to your technical people on board, including your medic – because there was always a medic on board that would get these people on board and start working on 'em. I just don't have higher praise for these people. Just unbelievable courage. You know, they'd stop at a dime, just like I said in that recent firefight that we had on the 21st of June of '68, these guys were all over. And like I say, they flew through some horrendous fire to get to us. And I don't know if they were notified we got a hot LZ coming on board. You realize that? I don't know. You would think they would but then, even with guys wounded, dying, what have you, needing extreme triage in our local units there, they just took unbelievable amount of courage and stamina, willpower. I don't know how many adjectives you can call. I mean I thought about going medevac myself, but after I saw what these guys do, I said, "No, I'd rather be down on the ground than dealing with it because they can suffer tremendous casualties.
And they came in day or night?
Well, it depended on where you were, what you were doing. When we were up near Hamburger Hill, it had not happened – Hamburger Hill had not happened. Near the A Shau. Probably about six months before the A Shau and Hamburger Hill, we had a guy come down with appendicitis and we couldn't evac him out. My company commander at that time I was in charge of the company as a senior aid man. I had felt like he needed to be vac'd out. Company commander rescind my orders about how I felt about it and he says, "No, can we give him morphine?" So eventually we gave him morphine throughout the night and got him out. It was just we didn't know where the situation would be with the surrounding area, with that area of the A Shau. A Shau was just too unpredictable.
I'm just glad I missed it four months, five months. I wasn't gonna reup for that crap.
But that was your unit?
Well, it was part of the units, yeah, I know the second of the 506 went up there. First the 506 was acting as a rear guard there. Yeah, we were all part of it, definitely. Yeah, took a lot of heat, definitely took a lot of heat.
What do you mean we were all part of it?
Reinforced as far as the first 506. I'm not sure where the first 506 was associated on Hamburger Hill.
But not you personally?
No. I heard about it, no, I wasn't part of that at all.
You said during Tet you went into villages to do some sweeping?
Let me sidetrack on that, Sally. We were in Phuoc Vinh when Tet started. And Tet lasted about a month, I'd say, from January, February. But as I remember it, we just didn't do that many village sweeping because of the fact, we just didn't know if the NVA would be around that time too. We were in Phuoc Vinh, we stayed in Phuoc Vinh. We did, after Tet, however long Tet lasted, we did do some more indoctrination to the heat and stuff like that. We'd just gotten over there in November, December, so we were still training in many ways. But we would've been sent up, I'm sure, to assist with the first and second brigades if that order came down. I know we had some units going to Saigon too and drop into the hotel there where the NVA and the VC were and did some crazy stuff on the rooftops. All this stuff that we were hearing. It was pretty chaotic. And for those who served over during that time, politically, socially, everything just changed about how we were doing as a military over there in that area. American public did not like hearing high body counts, but they were getting them during that period of time.
Did you have relationships with any of the Vietnamese or can you describe their culture?
Not really. I really didn't really get too close with the Vietnamese at all. We had people who had transferred over from being the enemy to assisting scouts. I can't remember what they called them. Tiger scouts or whatever it was. They were good, they really were. But no, I never really got close to any sort of relationship with the Vietnamese at all. I wish I would've, but I just was too focused on staying inside the compound and not really wanting to go out unless I went out with a group of guys and got involved with taking on the whole bar or what have you.
Talk about the whore-house.
For many initiations, I guess for those kids who really never had any sexual gratification, that was the place to learn. And one thing about that war, and I guess the one thing – I'll be honest with you, folks – what I learned about sex came from Vietnam. That was my first time I ever had an experience with a woman, at 21. Yeah, for many of us it was an initiation with the steam rooms and the whore houses and things like that. It was all set up for GI comfort and that stuff.
But the thing I was kind of concerned about, too, and for a lot of GI's, was how much information – you've got to be careful. I mean what we were told was keep our mouths shut. The village was secure and we can go in and have our fun, but yet once the GI's start opening their mouths with alcohol, what happens? You'll hear the whole story and more. Different side of that, how it changed my flavor with women, I love it. (laughs) I mean, it was a different story. It was a whole different turning point for me, too, because I did learn about sex. And for a few of us, yes, “What do I do now?” (laughs) But, yeah, Sally, that was a side bender I didn't expect.
Did they train you or give you instruction to take condoms?
Normally, as a medic we were told, bottom line is you wear condoms. We would hope you would. You would hope that you would take care of your bodies because of the fact we need you in the field. We don't want you to go into any sort of massage parlor and take on anybody or everyone. Some of the guys who have had 18, 33 beers and you feel like you hate this war but yet you need to go back to your unit and play soldier. It was that two-sided situation, decompressing. But to answer your question, Sally, no, not really. No.
Yeah, it was very busy and people did contract gonorrhea. I mean as a matter of fact, we went over, there was a special program set up for the medics to go over there and give the injections to the whore houses and things like that for the gals that needed 'em. I never went there, I don't know why, they never delegated me. Usually it was the senior aid man or somebody there who was an E-5, E-6, and those guys – the lifers, I mean people who wanted to stay in the military who maybe had been over to Vietnam maybe one or two times and had that rank, they'd go over there and shoot up the prostitutes with 600 units of penicillin or what have you. To take back anything that I did as a medic and what I learned as a person, I wouldn't trade it for anything. Especially with the kids I served with.
So you're short and what's your last day like?
That year, that one-day period?
Or the week before.
A lot of anxiety, Geoff. I was over in Bien Hoa ready to not ETS, but DROS out. That's a different term, for people who have known this scenario, it's just getting out of the country. Just anxiety, just wanting to leave. I really can't remember anything particular about that one week before leaving, I just didn't want to hear any incoming mortars or whatever. We were in a pretty secure area. But what was secure over there? There wasn't much, to be honest with you. If they wanted hit you, they'd hit you in any direction. But I'd felt like just let it go. This was around 24 December, 23 December of '68, so I'm getting really close to the big bang. You know, wanting to get the hell out.
What day did you leave?
I think it was December 31st? I took out of there – I think – now don't correct me on that, but I think it was around close enough to December 31st of '68. So I arrived back in Oakland the 1st of the 2nd. And from there it was all uphill.
How did you take off from Vietnam?
Jet airline. It was out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, have you heard of that? There was a bunch of us in, I'm not sure, they gave back our camie's I think, or whatever the call the tan uniforms, Army uniforms. You had to have all your ribbons, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff. And everything sewn on. And it was just a relief, it was just whew! It's over. Now the journey continues to get back stateside without the plane going down. That's what a lot of people feel. It's just a tremendous overpowering relief that you survived it. You survived the crap no matter what it was, the orders given, the missions, the hurt people, the dead people, the people that touched you, the kids who survived but lost something along with it too, whether it's limbs or their minds; everything was kind of compacted there. What better way to relieve it through what? Drinking. For me, as a medic.
So they close that door and you're on the runway. Are you guys are drinking? What are you thinking?
I don't know if they served booze or not on the airplane. I think they did, as I remember. January of '69. I think they did, but I don't know. I might have had a few drinks, I'm sure I did.
Were people really quiet?
A lot were exuberant, a lot were just exuberant. You've got some good questions, man, and this is one that I would think that it's just a natural relief to say, “hey, let's drink, party, and get to Oakland,” or what have you, wherever we were to transport ourselves to different directions of the country and that stuff from then on. But it was just that sigh of relief. And I'm sure the booze was rampant. I can almost guarantee you it was rampant, except the pilots. But yeah, I'm just glad that it was over and it was through, but yet I had another year to serve which I personally detested.
So you landed in Oakland?
Landed in Oakland and from there we were given orders for 30 days leave. I thought we had two weeks leave, I didn't realize I had 30 days leave. So I got back to Salt Lake probably about the 1st or 2nd of January, met Mom and Dad – that was a real interesting experience – just coming down from that cab from Salt Lake City Airport, after I picked up a cab from Salt Lake City. And I'm in this uniform and then my brother sees me first, saw me, and just got really exhilarated. Then here's mom and my father. It was like many soldiers, it was just great coming home and seeing a whole different world.
So you're in uniform.
Yeah, I was in uniform.
Any problems with that?
I didn't have any problems. I've heard a lot of other soldiers having issues. I blocked everything out. I would not let that bother me. Somehow, I just ignored it. I didn't hear anything that was extremely rude or vulgar for me, mine own experience. I've heard other guys say differently on that but no, it was straight home.
What was the first thing you did?
Well, I stayed in Oakland and then they just quickly got us into – I can't remember if they changed our uniforms or what, I think I got on my winter greens because of the fact – I don't know what it was, I'm just trying to think about this right now. We didn't stay that long in Oakland, we just transferred to other planes and what have you, got our orders for Fort Bragg in 30 days. Little realizing that I had 30 days instead of two weeks. “Nick, wake up,” you know? “Enjoy this.” But I party when I got back. I hit every private bar that you can imagine when I got back. Pretty quiet. Salt Lake was like every other town in this country. "Oh, really, you've been to war? Oh, okay, well you're home. Enjoy." Hmm, okay.
So now what do I do? Hit the bowling alley for a few drinks? Maybe go downtown, check out the Iron Horse or some of these other private clubs that were around? Drinking was around in my life at that time. And I think the isolation of not really wanting to say much, yet I was very proud, I still wore the uniform, whereas I'm a few tossed their uniforms away. I guess I was proud because I did something as a medic, tried to save lives. Still proud of the unit too. I valued that.
When did you start making plans for after the military?
After the military? Not until I met my first wife. I'm sorry, Geoff, I'm really jumping on that one. After the military, after I DROS' d, or ETS'd out of the service in November of '69, and immediately got on the plane with my uniform and then got home, was immediately hooked up on a job with the University of Utah Marriott Library. And worked there and met my first wife there. And the rest is basically history. But still, with that foundation of what I had behind me, wanting to keep it behind me. I want to make a comment and I don't know how people are going to absorb on this one, you let things go. I've heard that so much. Or a few from a few people, I let it go once I got back. That was it. No more. I just moved on with my life. That's another that kind of catches me by surprise. Out of that "moved on" and "kept on with my life," how many really have been affected by that "moved on" and "went on with my life"? Somehow, the psyche sometimes can come back at ya years later and it bothers ya. Or you've done very well. I'm amazed of what the human mind's done in working with the VA and those veterans that I have worked with. But I've seen a lot struggle still. And a lot of the veterans of the Vietnam era have done very well too. I want to give them the kudos.
April of '75 when Saigon well, were you watching on TV?
I remember seeing, yeah, the NVA soldiers coming in on board. I had mixed emotions about it. I said, “Whew, it's over. I'm relieved. Yeah, I fought that soldier, he was tough, he was die-hard,” but yet I was glad it was over, but yet concerned about the people left behind, the ones that would be put somewhere. I was concerned about that. Yeah, re-education camps, I was really concerned about that as with a lot of soldiers were, I'm sure, about that.
You seemed to have had a renaissance sometime in your life about this whole experience.
I think what changed me was I really had to go and talk about it at the VA with my wife about letting things go, moving on. I held jobs back and forth: state, federal, county jobs. But renaissance for me was athletics: Running, swimming, something there that really kind of kept my sanity along the way too. I tried to keep the weight down. I hope this doesn't sound too simple, but something there that I had to rely on besides booze and Valium and uppers and downers and everything else along with it. I had felt that's not the way to go for me. For others, they really struggled, there was a bunch that have really struggled with that stuff, but I felt like there was a different way.
I'll tell you another thing that saved my butt was the fact that I got back into school in my first marriage at the University of Utah and that kept me going, under the GI Bill. That kept me focused on what I needed to do in order to get my life back in order, and to try not to think about what happened in the past even though I think I still and knew I was struggled with some of that stuff; the losses and the people – and I'm glad a lot of them didn't go over, but yet could they understand us? It's a lot like these Iraqi and Afghanistan vets of how they feel misunderstood in certain directions about that war and the reasons and the causes and everything else, the politics, all that stuff, all that junk. But I felt like for me, it was a reincarnation there. School, really. The university really saved my life as far as doing something there for myself.
You make a valid point, I needed to do something with it and I was darned if that war was gonna kick by butt and let me get into doldrums even though I fought depression. I've had to fight anxiety issues. But I've used this in my own life to help others, I would hope, along, with it, to give them some sense of recourse that there is a valuable meaning with this life. And Sally talked about spirituality and all of that.
You seem to have this interesting balance.
Yeah, I would say it's been almost a healthy balance with my life. I have to look at the demons too. I have to sometimes look back at my past and say “Hey, that quote that bothers me sometimes,” I've moved on by others. What do you mean by moving? I moved on, Nick. Once I got back from that war, I moved on. I've heard about eight or nine veterans tell me that. Great. But isn't there something there that has bothered you? I mean I'm not trying to dig into their minds. I don't know if I've answered your question, Geoff.
Give me your impressions of the war. Is there something you want to say about it?
Yeah, my gut reaction is, I don't know where other veterans are, and I'm sure we've got a 50/50 on this or maybe even less than that. I detested that war. I detested everything about it. I detested the loss on both sides. On both sides, coming from, I guess, a medical point of view. It didn't have much help to assist with the NVA who were wounded or even killed or what have you. We just threw these bodies in one big large heap after each engagement and that was it. Those families are still trying to find out where their sons are, and their daughters. I loved the people that I served with, but every time you get me on this peace movement, I've been, what do you call it? What's the word I want to put it? Hopefully a humanitarian for peace. And I think there's a few of us out there.
I've seen what it's done on just this one period of my life, along with even Desert Storm, I saw the Highway of Death when I was up there as a medical specialist back in '90, '91, and it really blew me away, the burned-out tanks in that period when I was there with the 144th medical evac. And I just said we've got to do something better than this. And it just continues on with what man is doing to man, whether it's in the Middle East or Southeast Asia or what have you. And sometimes I don't know where to go with that. Go to peace marches? What does that do? Write to your Congressman? They want the votes.
But anybody, and this is my point of view, who talks about marching on the band, marching with the band and who are patriotic, what do you mean by patriotic? You be careful what you say when you talk about patriot and being a patriot, because those who've been there and those that have died and been wounded and scarred emotionally, physically, socially, whatever, have really the right to say, “Watch your words.” This is what worries me about the American public sometimes. We get on this bandwagon and flag-waving routine. Be careful with what we have to evaluate. I love this country, don't get me wrong, but sometimes we get into a mean pattern here about – take the chip off my shoulder, you know? I hope I can still at least leave something there about how I feel about that war or any war that we fought recently.
Do you have survivor's guilt in any way?
Yeah, Sally, I think I do. That night an July 3rd, not being able to reach – but no, I do have some guilt about that. I felt like, it's four guys that went out there, why couldn't a medic have gone out there? And I didn't realize when I got hit that, what can you do? These guys went out, they did what they could to bring these guys back in. We need help out there, we need some guys to go out there and get these guys back and we lost like I say, we lost two and two came back. I do have guilt about that and I have guilt about that medal they gave me about that. But they said I risked my life. I don't like medals. Even though I'm proud to be with a unit. There's got to be a better way of heroism. I just saw so much heroism on both sides. On both sides of that war.
What were the other side?
How many people really commit themselves to suicide attacks knowing they're not gonna come back? That unit that attacked us that night, I mean 250, 300 strong, I don't know what the number count was, but I really admire that soldier. He was very dedicated. This was his country.
Would you have treated an enemy?
Oh, yeah, without question. Even though I think there would've been reservations. Yeah, I would've definitely. But I don't know, would I have bought what the system, what the military would've said to me? "No, Doc Miller, you're not going to go to that NVA, you're not gonna do it." I don't know. I was gonna say something here and maybe Gary, I don't know if you need to shut this off, I don't feel good about something that the unit did about war crimes.
Would you say that guys were pissed off?
When you're humping all day and you don't have flanks out. You know, flanks are people to keep an eye out for anybody that might be crawling. Apparently we didn't. And then those two got killed by this one soldier.
You did it yourself, you got so pissed off.
Well, I was angry because what this guy did, because we were stupid. We didn't have that protection like we should've. That was the anger that I had. We're idiots, what are we doing? We should've learned. But we got lax and that was one issue that I've never felt anything – I don't know if it's a war crime issue or what have you, I don't know, but everybody was pissed, including me, you're right, Sally. But yet, when I look back at that, again, that's one of the most heroic acts I've seen in the Vietnam period while I was over there. Who would crawl up against a whole airborne rifle company and do that? It's phenomenal and I'm sure that the people that took care of him got pretty pissed too.
It was their land, we just forget the humanity of war. Is there something you wanted to say?
Besides being blinded and a great suntan? (laughs)
Something you always wanted to say on record?
In many ways, I'm glad I served as a Vietnam veteran, but the repercussions afterwards with so many of us, you know, in trying to heal our own minds and our own bodies was important. I felt like a very strong bonding issue with that unit that I served with. And I'm glad I've been working with veterans since then on. It's given me that sense of value in my life. Amen.
Not quite. We're trying to give meaning to those who died and to the wounded. Do you think this can be useful for veterans, for their families?
I think for everybody involved in it, the whole production program, the production of this program, I think it's very central. I'm sure we've really thrown a lot about Vietnam on the last 40, 50 years, but I think for each and every one of us, I hope there's something there that he or she gives. You say you've interviewed nurses, females, because that's an important part of this story because nurses over there triage wise, were up 24 hours, if not longer and dedicated to helping these kids coming in with unbelievable wounds and stuff like that. Like any other war that we've fought. But yes, I think it is an education that people need to know, need to understand.
Because does it teach us anything differently about we as human beings, about how we react, how we relate to ourselves in relationship to the world? Not only as Americans, but with other people like the Middle East. It seems to be so complicated today about there's so many different issues with each different section of the world and what we're engaged in. I don't know if there's any answers, Sally, I wish I could answer that one to you directly. And I'm trying to figure it out. I don't like picking up the paper and seeing what's going on. I'm just tragically saying I'd rather go out and do a swim or golf or do something there, but I see so much of it now. And where are we going with this, I don't know. This country has a lot to offer but we've got to help our own people too. We're hurting right now.
Underwriting for this program is proudly provided by:
KUED and the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs invite you and your family to honor Utah's Vietnam War Veterans.
Armed Forces Day
Saturday May 18, 2013
Utah State Capitol
2:00 to 4:00 p.m.