It was just another day in the jungle. I was sitting along a trail with the LT (Lieutenant, our platoon leader and his RTO (radio operator) and the 2nd and 3rd squad when I heard a loud boom up ahead. Knowing what that sound likely meant I grabbed my aid bag and ran up the trail in the direction of the noise; as I was leaving I heard the radio call, MEDIC UP! SGT S’s squad was out ahead reconning the trail before the main body moved out in the direction of our mission. I ran into an open area which had been reported as an old LZ (Landing Zone).
As I entered the widened area, SP4 Kenny was silently pointing down toward the earth on the right side of the opening. By the time I realized he was giving the sign for a trip wire, it was too late. The trip wire was rigged to a grenade and I had tripped it. Kenny quickly unscrewed the body of the grenade from the trigger mechanism. It was a dud. Thanks Kenny; next time yell TRIP WIRE and just toss the grenade. A few yards ahead was SGT Jim S badly wounded with the other members of his squad trying to assist him. One leg and one hand were badly mangled from a booby trap device. One foot (still in his combat boot) was still attached by a bit of skin. SGT Jim was screaming loudly, GOD, HELP ME; GOD, HELP ME!
Emergency treatment for partial traumatic amputation is the application of a tourniquet and pain relief (morphine) if necessary, then protect the wounds and treat for shock. The RTO requested for a DUSTOFF (air ambulance – Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces). I applied a tourniquet above his mangled leg than gave him a morphine injection. Next was to report his condition by radio to the DUSTOFF medic. When the DUSTOFF landed Jim was placed on a stretcher. I was at the head of the stretcher holding the IV bag and directing his care. The rest of Jim’s squad lifted onto the litter; the DUSTOFF medic grabbed his boot containing what was left of his lower leg and boot (the skin may be helpful in creating the stump if needed). Thus ended the military career of SGT Jim S.; he had wanted to be a career soldier (Lifer).
I had not realized how much this event had effected point man Mike S. Below is the story as related by Mike S to psychiatrist COL Hoge in the book, “Once A Warrior, Always A Warrior” (used with permission):
The next event changed my life for thirty-six years. I stood up and
slowly walked about twenty-five steps when Sergeant S stood up and took
three or four steps in the same spots that I did and hit a booby trap. Sergeant S hit the ground, screaming, “My fucking leg!” as I hit the ground
just ahead of him and looked back and saw him grabbing his leg while
writhing and squirming in massive pain. I crawled back to him while firing
into the elephant grass. Doc came from behind and administered first
aid on Sergeant S’s leg.
The rest of the patrol blindly opened fire into the elephant-grass hilltop.
After a frightening few minutes, a cease-fire order was given by the LT.
Frantically we determined there was no VC in the elephant-grass hilltop,
and that the booby trap was old. Attention shifted to Sergeant S’s condition while securing the LZ for a medevac chopper to land and pick him
up. Sergeant S’s foot had been blown off cleanly at the ankle just above the boot. Within twenty-five to forty minutes, the medevac chopper set down.
Doc and I put Sergeant S on the stretcher, then loaded him onto the chopper.
I picked up his foot, still in the boot, placed it on the stretcher next to him,
and signaled the chopper pilot to take off.
During the next thirty-six years I blamed myself because I hadn’t seen
the booby trap that exploded and ruined Sergeant S’s life. Shortly after
my mental crash and burn during the beginning of my therapy sessions,
while narrating my story, I was told by my psychiatrist that because combat
events can happen so fast, warriors only remember fragments of an event.
In my case, I for sure thought that I was responsible for what happened
because of my negligence as point man.
My closure for “causing” this came while attending my Vietnam platoon’s
first reunion in July of 2007 in St. Joe, Missouri. Fifteen members from
2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Geronimo Brigade,
101st Airborne Infantry Division (Screaming Eagles) attended. We spent
four days reconnecting, laughing, crying, and talking story together. The
experience was truly outstanding and long overdue. During this reunion I
talked with Doc, now a lieutenant colonel, and asked him what he remembered
about that day. Doc told me, “Not much, except a lot of chaos, yelling,
blood, putting Sergeant S onto the stretcher, and putting his foot next to him
before the medevac chopper took off.” During my retelling of the story, I told
Doc that I had put Sergeant S’s foot on the stretcher, not him.
On the last day of the reunion, I finally worked up enough courage to
talk story with Sergeant S, who was also there. By then, we were the only
ones who remained at the hotel. So I finally asked him what he remembered
about that day. He said that he did not remember anything after he stepped
on the booby trap. That’s when I told Sergeant S of my guilt—that I blamed
myself and accepted responsibility for him losing his foot because it was my job to clear the way as point man.
Sergeant S’s response completely surprised me. He looked at me for a
few moments, gave me his Georgia chuckle, and said, “That’s silly, Mike;
what happened was nobody’s fault except the son of a bitch who put the
booby trap there in the first place.” He also added, “Besides, I was the one
in front when we walked up to the LZ.” I said that I remembered turning
to look back toward him after the explosion, but after we talked about it, I
realized that Sergeant S had actually been off to my left as well as behind
me, and was probably not directly in my footsteps as I had been remembering
it through the years. Somehow talking this through lifted a great weight
off my heart. My reaction was to laugh and feel real stupid for having
accepted the guilt and blame all that time.
My point here is that although the three of us—Doc, Sergeant S, and
I—were involved in the same incident, we all remember that day differently.
Each of us will swear that we “remember” correctly. The truth, of
course, is that we are all correct, and to accept this as a fact.
Instead of dwelling, analyzing, and feeling guilty about combat experiences
Only two of this platoon would continue in the military, Mike S also served in Desert Storm and retired as a SGM. I was later commissioned as an officer (Army Nurse) and served in the National Guard, Army Reserve back on Active Duty after 911. At a later reunion one veteran asked, ‘We all served in the same war, why don’t we all have PTSD?’ I would have nightmares for at least six months, but as of this writing have never developed PTSD. I was, however, effected by Jims screaming GOD, HELP ME; GOD, HELP ME.
I had entered the military as a conscientious objector; I had been a member of the 7th Day Adventist Church which is group that does not believe in killing. When I was drafted I was sent to a special basic training unit for conscientious objector then to combat medic training, all at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. As a young boy I had learned God would do miracles and it seemed Jims calling for God’s help was urgent and that God could help Jim (like the stories in the Bible) if he would only show up.
No God showed his face on this day, only Doc Lamunyon (combat medics are called Doc – we are the only medical care available during combat operations). On this day I completely lost my faith in God. I did not understand that God HAD showed up on that day using my hands to heal Jim’s wounds. Later I would read Carlos Castaneda’s books Mexican sorcerers then discover the master – disciple relationship by watching the Kung Fu television series and thru the study of Yoga (Richard Hittleman). The first Star Wars movie suggested faith in The Force and later I would study Eastern Philosophy as a student of OSHO Rajneesh. My faith had been restored.
Later at a second reunion I was told the DUSTOFF had refused to land because the LZ had been booby trapped. The guys from SGT Jim’s squad had threatened to shoot down the DUSTOFF if it did not land. Good move, men!
According to his family, after initial treatment at an EVAC Hospital in Vietnam (most likely 95th EVAC in Danang) he was sent to Walter Reed Medical Center to begin rehabilitation. Trips to see Jim at Walter Reed were taxing for the family and after about 3 months of rehabilitation Jim was transferred to a VA Medical nearest him.
When I called Jim to tell him we were planning a reunion he said in his slow, Southern drawl, “Well, I guess I oughta’ thank ya’ for savin’ my life.” After fighting infection for 10 years his other leg had removed. With one eye and several fingers on one hand missing Jim had been able to work as an auto mechanic and rebuild his home. The VA had upgraded his house to be wheelchair accessible. Jim died in 2013 of infection all related to his wartime injury.
During the first reunion, Jim told a TV reporter the reunion was, “Another part of closure to a part of my life; I worried about, wondered about for 36 years.” He also told the reporter, ”I don’t have no regrets and if I had to do it over again as long as I had this bunch of boys.” More than most other injuries, our platoon had been effected by the wounding of SGT Jim S. on the Booby Trapped LZ. Video of SGT S. and many other from our platoon may be seen on YOUTUBE titled “2007 Reunion 101st Airborne Division Geronimo 1/501 Vietnam”