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Spooky Action At A Distance

Introduction to Joseph Hoepner's A Grunt Corpsman's Memories Of Vietnam

By Jim Chaffee

In early 1969, Bob Garrison, a good friend from USNH Yokosuka, Japan, and I worked together in Receiving I, the triage unit for NSA Station Hospital in Danang. We'd been in triage for over a year and were damned salty, as the expression goes, so when Bob told me that a Navy corpsman who had come in wounded was really fucked up, I knew the guy must have been bad. Bob also remarked he'd arrived on a Huey gunship, uncommon for a medevac.

That wounded corpsman was Joseph Hoepner. I knew it immediately when he and I first communicated a few years ago when he told me about his wounds and how he'd arrived. I remembered Garrison remarking about this one, in part because he was a corpsman, in part because of the gunship, and in part because of the injuries, though we saw those sorts of injuries on a routine basis. Not so often on a corpsman.

Doc Hoepner is the only person I now know who was treated in our triage. He talked to me on the telephone sometime in the late 90s, before I made my own mental therapy visits to Vietnam. That discussion is recounted in the memoir I published with Navy Medicine Magazine, reprinted in this journal at NSA Station Hospital . The last three paragraphs of the memoir discuss Doc Hoepner without naming him.

"Some time after my second revisit to Vietnam, I found a message posted on the internet by a former Navy FMF corpsman. He described our triage and pre-op area from the casualty point of view. I wrote him an e-mail and he responded. We had a discussion by e-mail and he left me a phone number. I called him. He had come through our triage during my tour, though I probably did not work on him. The circumstances are special enough, however, that I believe I remember my good friend Bob Garrison talking about it.

"The Corpsman had triggered a booby trap while treating a wounded Marine. He sustained the following wounds: traumatic amputation left leg below the knee; deep shrapnel wounds to the left thigh; massive shrapnel wounds to the right ankle; multiple shrapnel wounds to the groin, including both testicles, with half the left testicle removed; massive shrapnel wounds to the left arm including a severed radial artery; shrapnel to the right eye, still there. He says he regained consciousness after we got an IV going, yelling at someone to cut the damned leg off, not aware that it was gone until he sat bolt upright and looked down at the mangled remains. He probably would have died had there not been a Huey gunship in the area that picked him up and got him to us within minutes. He lived. In fact, he has lived a very productive, full life, with a family, a career, and a mission as counselor for a church.

"Our conversation was not long, but it moved me. After thirty years I had found someone who lived because of us. It was always in the back of our minds, just how would those who were mutilated consider us, those who had saved them? This former patient and fellow Navy hospital corpsman remembers the NSA Station Hospital and was glad we were there."

Now Doc Hoepner has written his own story. I hope this is only the first installment. It’s an important and timely memoir. It discusses how he was wounded and how he and the wound were treated, all from a corpsman's perspective. I think this is a rare event.

The account is unedited for content, with only minor editing for prose. I find that it moves well without a lot of artifice. For anyone interested in the effects of war, it is a worthwhile read.

What will amaze many is the number of amputees in Vietnam due to land mines. It doesn't surprise me. We saw at least one daily. Our quotedian morning amputee had become an inside joke: almost invariably first thing in the morning as the units began to move someone would find, the hard way, something set the previous night.

This memoir gives a direct experience few will have the misfortune of suffering, though not few enough.

The accompanying photos are from Minas Gerais in Brazil, work of a world famous Baroque sculptor who went by the nickname Aleijadinho, which means Little Cripple.

chopper flying low on perimeter

© Jim Chaffee 2007