You see them often here, aging veterans in reunion hats, still wondering if anyone cares about their nightmares in the bush of bloody Vietnam. They’re senior citizens now, limping a little yet standing tall; brothers, arm in arm, in the cruelty of combat as well as the respite of retirement.
“I’m unable to say whether or not I was adversely affected by having been there,” says James Vanden Bosch, of Missouri, who shed blood, sweat and tears in service of his country as an enlisted corpsman in 1968-69.
“I’ve explored my feelings personally with a close friend and counselor who helped me deal with them … superficially buried in a readily accessible portion of my subconscious. Once that region is tapped, the memories flow rather easily,” he explains.
“Doc” Vanden Bosch was a senior corpsman serving down and dirty with Marine infantrymen during the worst of it. He wrote and recently published “They Call Me Doc, Memories of a Combat Corpsman in Vietnam,” copies of which he signed and handed to each of 11 others who “celebrated” their 50th anniversary of still being alive in the garden of the Hampton Inn in downtown Charleston. Others exchanged blue hats and shirts adorned with service insignias, little jars of New Hampshire maple syrup, artwork and other mementos from their homes in North Dakota, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire and Indiana.
They reconnected eight years ago and have met here and there ever since. They spent four days doing the things visitors to Charleston usually do, including a trip to Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. The display of a Marine base camp and helicopters used in Vietnam was of special interest. “But I took offense at a plaque that described Vietnam as ‘Nixon’s War.’ It wasn’t his war. It was Lyndon Johnson’s war,” said Bill Vurnakes, now a nurse anesthetist of Fayetteville who added an expletive to describe the 36th president of the United States from 1963 to 1969.
Vurnakes, Vanden Bosch and the others were attached to the Third Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. It was an especially brutal year of a futile proxy war, an implacable political game nobody wins in the end. The Tet Offensive began Jan. 31, 1968, the first day of Asia’s Lunar New Year, when 85,000 North Vietnamese regulars along with an unknown number of Viet Cong rebels attacked en masse in the south from Hue to the Mekong Delta. At least 37,000 of them perished in less than a month. The U.S. lost more than 1,000, with 6,000 wounded. The commander of U.S. forces, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, a brooding South Carolinian, asked for a couple hundred thousand more troops to finish the job. So President Johnson increased the number to a total of 550,000.
A photo on the front page of The New York Times at that time jolted Americans back home. A South Vietnamese general stood on a street in Saigon holding a revolver to the head of a Viet Cong prisoner at the moment a bullet ripped through the side of the bound man’s skull. The war had claimed 34,000 American warriors by then, and Johnson could not wash their blood off his hands politically. He refused to seek another term, and died a broken man in 1973.
While looking into the eyes of those corpsmen here the other day, it was unsettling to imagine what each witnessed as “noncombatants” in Vietnam. Tending to Marines in combat is brutal; the corpsmen’s selfless actions over and over again were decidedly heroic. What causes a man in his late teens to brave landmines and barrages of enemy and friendly fire to help a wounded, perhaps dying, Marine he knows only as a name, rank, some numbers and a blood type embossed on a metal tag?
“I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly courageous man,” Vanden Bosch says, “certainly not heroic. … I was afraid of dying, but more afraid of not being able to do my job, of not holding my own.”
Yet despite such trepidation, each of them proved himself with honor and lived to talk about it, mostly among themselves. “The instinct for survival worked powerfully in my actions and thoughts while in combat,” Vanden Bosch adds. “My job was to try and save lives as best I could, and I did that. But at great cost — a depersonalization of myself.”
Depersonalization. It’s what war does to warriors. If he and the others had invested more of themselves in each Marine prior to the mangling and the death, their investments would have died over and over again with the victims. “I could not have survived the loss of any more of my strength or reserve,” he says.
John M. Burbage is a veteran journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and grows organic vegetables on his family farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.