There are many small decisions we make in our lives, seemingly inconsequential at the time, that become major turning points. The following story tells of several small decisions that changed my life forever.
One decision resulted in me being in CAP 2-7-2 from March through December, 1970. Due to bad weather, I flew from Seattle to San Diego a day earlier than the reporting date on my orders for Corps School in September, 1968. Checking in early put me in the last slot in Company 68-15 that would start instruction the following Monday.
Had I checked in on my reporting date, I would have been one week and one company behind Company 68-15. The members of Company 68-15 did not go to Camp Pendleton for FMSS (Field Medical Service School) immediately after graduation, but Company 68-16 did. Instead of going to FMSS, I ended up in Boston for nine months and then was ordered to FMSS en route to Vietnam. Thus I arrived in Vietnam many months later than if I had waited one more day to report at San Diego.
My original orders told me to report to 3rd Mar Div, RVN, in August, 1969. But before I left Boston my orders were changed to 1st Mar Div in December, 1969. Then the date was changed again, sending me to FMSS in January, 1970, and to III MAF in February, 1970.
After CAP School, I arrived fresh-faced and ignorant at CAP 2-7-2 (see my story “It’s a Doc’s Life”). Several months later I was a hardened, confident, combat veteran full of arrogance and ego. Then a couple of small decisions and events placed me in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was mildly wounded at about 2300 during the night of August 31st. I was hit by fragments from a hand grenade tossed, presumably, by the VC that Duncan and Hucklebuck spotted earlier in the evening (see “Doc Doggett gets wounded”).
The next morning I was treated at 1st Med Bn and sent to CACO for a few days with my shoulder wound packed but not closed. A return trip to 1st Med resulted in my arriving back on duty with my CAP with the stitches still in place.
I was scheduled to return to 1st Med on September 11th for another and final wound check and removal of the stitches. They were treating the wound cautiously because one fragment had gone all the way through my left deltoid and they were worried about infection.
During the day of September 10, 7th Company’s Senior Corpsman radioed the CAP and suggested I take a night of R&R at CACO so I could go to 1st Med first thing in the morning. I had never done that before — left my CAP uncovered — but I accepted the offer. Things would never be the same again.
As I was getting ready to leave the day haven site, a few of the guys gave me some letters to mail. I arrived at CACO around 1800 hours or so after catching a ride on the evening chow run. After cleaning up a bit, I had a bite to eat and flaked out in the medical hooch for awhile.
After darkness fell and the cool of the evening came along, I went outside the hooch and was sitting on the front steps smoking a cigarette when someone came up and said, “Hey Doc! Your CAP’s calling for emergency medevacs.”
I figured he was just giving me a hard time and gave him some kind of smartass reply to which he responded, “No, man, it’s for real and it sounds bad.”
I went over to the comm bunker to listen in and see what was up and there were several people already there listening. I scooted inside and sat on the floor with my back against the wall listening to the horror taking place out at CAP 2. I remember the anguish in Roch’s voice as he made his radio transmissions, especially when he yelled that someone had fallen out of the Dustoff chopper.
Somewhere during it all commanding officer Capt. Bob Mallard turned around and noticed me sitting on the floor. His eyes got real wide as he asked, “What the hell are you doing here?”
My blood froze in my veins and I had the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach that I have ever had, either before or since. All I could manage to say was, “It’s okay as long as Mac’s alive. He can do anything I can.”
Awhile later, after everything had settled down, they asked me to radio and get the casualty report since I would know who everyone was by initials and rank. I spoke with Mac for a few moments and got the list of dead and wounded. Then Mac paused for a second and said, “I know how you must be feeling Doc, but it’s okay. It’s not your fault.” It was comforting to hear him say it, but I would never actually believe it.
One small decision of mine made a big difference that night. I had trained Ed “Mac” McIntyre as an assistant corpsman. I made him practice applying battle dressings and even how to start an IV, letting him stick needles into my arm so he would get the feel for it. Mac used his new knowledge for the first time when he took care of me the night I was wounded.
He also used those skills the night of the LAAW explosion and earned himself a medal that was never awarded, which I have always thought was one of the injustices of the period.
Another decision I made has left me haunted and guilty for 29 years.
Several of the letters I had been given to mail were from Dan Gallagher. Dan and I had just started getting close. With his pre-med background he was interested in what I did and asked me to teach him. So, with Mac due to rotate soon, I started to teach Dan the things I knew. He was eager to learn and conscientious about being another assistant corpsman. I liked him a lot.
I liked Arteaga a lot too. He and I had been “Back Alley” card partners for several weeks and had shared some really good times together. I missed him when he was gone.
So, I found myself out behind the medical hooch with a handful of Dan’s letters wondering what to do with them. Unfortunately I made a very bad decision. I thought it would be horrible for his family to still be getting mail after learning that their son was dead, so I burned them.
I later realized the enormity of my action. Despite the best of intentions and wanting only to spare them any additional pain, I had robbed his loved ones of the last words he had ever written to them. I can only say that it was done out of compassion by someone too young and inexperienced to understand what I was doing. I only hope that they might forgive me. I never have. I have never told anyone what I did that night in my grief and despair.
I returned to the CAP the next day knowing that I had committed the unpardonable sin of not being there when I should have been. I knew that I had let them down and that they would never forgive me. Like good combat Marines, they never spoke of it and I never mentioned it. We just saddled up and drove on.
The events of that night in September, 1970, have haunted me for 29 years. At our 1998 reunion, Roch and the others helped lay some of the demons to rest when I finally raised the issue and told them how bad I felt about letting them down.
To my surprise none of them had ever felt that way. They accepted that my absence was just the fortunes of war and no one’s fault. Roch pointed out that the two who died had non-survivable wounds and all the other wounded had lived. So what difference would I have made?
My only answer is that at least I would have been where I was needed. In reality, I would have been in my usual spot right next to Dan, John and Erp since that was the position I occupied in the Alpha team.
So, in the end I would probably have been killed or wounded and of no help anyway. But that still doesn’t make me feel any better. Looking back at the pictures I have from the fall of 1970, I realize I never smiled much after that night.
Posted Dec. 21, 1999