In his book “Medic,” author Ben Sherman quotes a training sergeant giving the final lecture to a class of graduating Army medics: “...listen to me one more time. ‘Restore breathing! Stop bleeding! Make mobile!’ And you WILL do everything you learned here, every technique, every field drill, every maneuver...you will do everything absolutely perfect. And you will do ALL these things with tears in your eyes...and your stomach in your throat.”
Often over-looked in history books, the Army medics and Navy corpsmen are fully appreciated by their fellow soldiers. Almost without exception, the Marines and ground-pounders refer to their medics as “Doc.”
Wounded soldiers in World War II had an 85 percent chance of survival if treated by a medic within an hour. The percentage improved during the Korean War as helicopters were introduced to bring the wounded into M*A*S*H units (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital). During Vietnam, the survival rate jumped to 98 percent for soldiers evacuated within the first hour. But warfare in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam had a lasting consequence for medics.
The traditional medic helmet with a bold red cross within a circle of white became a museum piece — too tempting of a target. Basically, kill the medic and that kills off the wounded. Consequently, medics in Vietnam were armed for the first time carrying weapons and grenades into combat, along with a 25 or 30 pounds rucksack crammed with pressure bandages, needles, tubes, and pint bottles of life-saving saline solution, not to mention additional canteens of water, hydrogen peroxide, dextrin solution, or anything else he might consider useful. He’s was part-time psychiatrist and part-time mother, a friend when needed, and a valuable person to know if a soldier developed ‘complications’ from his last female happenstance.
Franklin Churchill Monroe carried weapons into combat but was more versatile with his rucksack. As an Army medic, Monroe saved lives instead of taking them.
His patriotic mother named him after President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His brothers received names James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. His mother held a fondness for cartoon characters, too. Other siblings received the names Popeye, Sweetpea and Bluto.
I interviewed Mr. Monroe at the Yellow Brick Retirement Home in Lithonia. He said, “My memory isn’t what it used to be, but we’ll get through this thing together.” We did, and although the sequence was a challenge, no doubt Mr. Monroe was one of the few, one of the saviors of soldiers, one of the angels in jungle fatigues.
1968 -– Landing Zone (LZ) Thunder in Quang Ngai Province about five miles south of Duc Pho, Vietnam. Almost daily, Monroe is riding in the back of an Army truck, well-protected by his unit as they sweep Highway QL-1 for land mines and enemy activity. A loud “boom” would send Monroe to work. He said, “I treated the injured, patched them up as best I could, got the boys home.” One burden he never got used to was picking up body parts. “I will never forget that, but it had to be done and that was part of my job.”
He said, “I caught a piece of shrapnel on occasion, one put a deep gouge between my eyes, but I didn’t get a Purple Heart. The men I treated were heroes, not me.”
Another thing he recalled with fondness was the Army’s helicopter gunships. “I mean to tell you, when you’re pinned down and those gunships arrive overhead, you know your chances are good.”
Monroe was “Doc” to the Vietnamese, too. He visited local villages and gave aid to the sick and injured. He said, “The villagers were very appreciative. If enemy activity in the area was a problem, the villagers would send word for me not to come. They took care of me because I took care of them. I liked the Vietnamese people. They referred to me as ‘peaceful,’ and that was a good thing.”
He talked of becoming thick-skinned after seeing and living through too much on Highway QL-1, of rockets and mortars coming into LZ Thunder; of guys blown to bits, and becoming “cold” because you knew they had parents back home, a wife or sister, a brother or girlfriend. Monroe said, “I hope folks don’t think badly of me, but it’s war, it’s not pretty, you don’t really get used to it, but you can become ‘cold’ in order to get through it.”
Monroe survived two tours in Vietnam. He was in Saigon when America moved out; saw loyal Vietnamese scrambling for choppers leaving the embassy, was offered bribes by panicky nationals trying to escape the communist hordes but could do nothing to help them. “I was just a medic,” he said. “I had no authority. People were crying, holding babies and I couldn’t do anything to help them. That sort of thing is tough for a medic.”
Franklin Churchill Monroe served 24 years in the Army, retiring as an E-7. Tours of hospital duties included Germany, Fort Mead, Md., and Martin Army Medical Hospital at Fort Benning, where he retired and stayed on as a civilian medical technician.
His closing remarks: “I want to tell kids to stay in school, to get a good education. And if I could, I’d tell the Vietnamese who we left behind that ‘I’m sorry.’ I could not help. I was just a small spoke in a big old wheel.”
Of the more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., 1,404 are Army medics and 692 are Navy corpsmen. Army medics received 15 of the 248 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for intrepid action in Vietnam.
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website aveteransstory.us.