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Spooky Action At A Distance

A Grunt Corpsman's Memories Of Vietnam

By Joseph Hoepner

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I departed the 106th with mixed emotions: the Doctors had been great, the nurses wonderful and the food excellent. After I helped them with new admissions, one of the nurses told me that she would take one corpsman to five medics. I was still a corpsman.

I made the short helicopter ride from the 106th to Tachikawa AFB for an overnight in preparation for loading onto the C141 for the long flight to Philly. This time I would remain awake for the entire trip.

There were numerous stops along the way. The first and most memorable was at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska. US Customs agents came on board to ask if we had anything to declare. Let's see, I left my left leg in Vietnam. Should have gotten something for that. Instead, when they came to my stretcher, I just said no! This was the ultimate insult. Almost dying in Vietnam, serving my country and the only thanks I got was, "Do you have anything to declare?" What a way to welcome home wounded troops.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

We eventually arrived at an Air Force Base in Delaware, were offloaded and taken to a receiving hospital for another overnight stay prior to being carted by bus to the Naval Hospital at Philadelphia. That would take place the next day, February 8, 1969. Thirty-four days had passed since I'd been blown up and finally made home turf.

USNH Philadelphia was ancient compared to my old duty station, the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. All the main services were in the central hospital, but the amputee wards were in old WWII vintage buildings at the top of a long ramp. The government had a weird sense of humor when it came to physical rehabilitation. Put amputees at the top of a long ramp and they would regain their upper body strength.

I was reunited with some familiar faces: Dallas Popp, the radioman I had worked on the day I got blown up was there; Michael Mullins, another amputee from Mike Co. and the corporal who was with Popp the day that Popp and I both lost our legs; Sugarbear Strickland, another amputee from Mike Co. who had kept me up one night in the field with dry heaves that were diagnosed as worms. Last but not least was the guy from bed one at the 106th, Tony Rango.

All of us were admitted to the same amputee ward whose letter designee even had personal significance: Ward M. Three marines and a corpsman from "A Company called Mike."

On about my third day at Philly, I was awakened by one of the ward nurses and asked if I could help them out. She wanted me to take the patients vital signs. I agreed and became a corpsman again. Wounded but still a corpsman. Vitals were taken at 0600, 1000, 1400, 1800 and 2200 hours. I did them all. I also began drawing blood on difficult patients and was the ward morale builder. Put a grunt in the bed next to me who wouldn't get out of bed and by the time I was done with him, he would get up.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

I endured two more surgeries at Philly. The one to fix a contracted left thumb was performed by the same hand surgeon who fixed up Chesty Puller's son, Lewis B. Puller, Jr. I can still remember the sight of him and felt that death would have been the better option. He became a Pulitzer prize winning author who would later commit suicide.

The second of my surgeries was the scariest of all of them. I'd been running a low grade temperature every evening and called this to the attention of the civilian doctor on Ward M, but got nowhere. After being transferred back to Ward M from the hand surgery ward, I was greeted by a genuine Navy doctor. He had taken over as head doctor on Ward M. I told him my concerns and he looked at my left buttocks and immediately scheduled a fluoroscopy to be done the next day. He started injecting radiopaque dye into one of my wounds. The syringes were huge and once he got to syringe number 3, he quit and ordered surgery for the next day. I remember him ordering enough blood to replenish my entire supply. He told me that I had a giant abscess in my left buttocks and that he might have to amputate at the hip. He even thought it possible the abscess had grown to my abdomen, but would not know until he opened me up.

The day of surgery, I had a spinal block and remember looking into a mirror so I could see the anesthesiologist and talk to him. He kept me apprised of what was going on and finally after hours of surgery, the surgeon told me I'd lucked out. The abscess was sterile and I would keep my leg.

Plenty more things happened during my stay at Philadelphia and it will take another chapter to get through them. Finally, on the 18th of June 1969, I had my Physical Examination board and the US Navy medically retired me with 60% disability. On 19 June 1969, I picked up the prosthesis with which I had only walked a couple times and departed to the airport for a flight back into civilian life. I was given a direct order by the Commanding Officer of the USNH in Philadelphia not to talk to the press.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

During my time at Philly, I did not permit my parents to visit me. The sight of all those young men would have been too hard on my mother. I would see my family for the first time when I landed in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. No cheering crowds greeted me when I deplaned, only my parents and two brothers. My dreams of a career as a US Navy Hospital Corpsman had been shattered along with my body by a booby trap in Vietnam. My girl friend had sent me a Dear John letter while I was at Philly. I buried all of those emotions, emotions that would eat at me and still eat at me today.

The rest of the story was yet to come. Had I foreseen all of the ups and downs at the moment of the explosion, I would have let go of life!

Semper Fi

© Joseph Hoepner 2007