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THE VIETNAM EXPERIENCE
of

Donald "Doc" Reynolds
173rd Assault helicopter Company - July 67 -July68

Webmaster Note: I am presenting a long story about the experiences of a medic, who was assigned to the Robin Hoods at Lai Khe. His experiences I think, are very much what most of us went through, that is why I felt I should post the entire story without editing it down. Most helicopter crew members who were in Nam can easily identify with the basic experience, however, "Doc" also had his own very unique set of life circumstances there that were most moving to read. I ask you to read the full story and appreciate what it was like for him and others during this time of their young lives. Doc never wanted to be a hero - but in my book he stands tall!   Bill McDonald

 


At Lai Khe the Orderly Room - Photo by Don "Doc" Reynolds

               From Doc's email in his own words:

My name is Donald W. Reynolds. I am a 52 year old Vietnam veteran I
left home at the beginning of my junior year of high school in Tacoma,
Washington, and spent the remainder of my junior year living at Dyslin's
Boy's Ranch for abused children.

I voluntarily entered the United States Army on August 26, 1966 at the age
of 17 and completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. I was then
sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) as
a field medic. Following my training as a medic at Ft. Sam, I was sent to
Fort Gordon, Georgia where I worked in the Emergency Department and in the
Dermatology Clinic. I submitted a 1049 (request for transfer) to
Vietnam.

I received orders transferring me to Vietnam in June of 1967 and after 30
days leave arrived in Vietnam on July 25th 1967. When I arrived in Vietnam
I was 18 years old. We came into country on a World Airways 707 who held
a contract with the government to transport troops both to and back home
from Vietnam. I was three days late getting to Vietnam as I had been
partying in Los Angeles with my older sister and her roommate.

My first memories of Vietnam were of landing in country on that plane. The
pilot informed us that, given the very real possibility of taking incoming
fire on landing, we would be making a steep approach and landing and that
we should be ready to exit the plane as soon as we came to a stop. When
we landed in the evening, the sun had gone down and the heat, humidity,
and the smell were overwhelming. There were artillery pieces, either
155's or eight inchers, firing outgoing rounds. I couldn't tell the
difference between incoming and outgoing, as at that point they all
sounded the same to me. We were transported to the 90th Replacement
Battalion in Long Binh in buses with screens on the windows. When I asked
the bus driver the reason for the screens on the windows, he explained
that they were to prevent the VC from throwing grenades through the
windows. That information, in addition to the fact that the bus driver
drove the bus like he was driving a sports car on a road course, kept me
in a state of absolute fear for the first two weeks I was in country. I
realized at that point that I could either live in fear for the next year
and develop an acute case of ulcers, or I could resign myself to the fact
that I had little control over whether I got killed from some errant
incoming round or some other crazy happenstance.

After arriving at the 90th replacement Battalion, we were required to
attend formations three times a day in order to receive our assignments.
I was fearful that they would punish me for arriving three days late by
assigning me to an Infantry outfit out in the bush. As luck would have
it, on my third day in country I received orders transferring me to the
11th Aviation Battalion in Phu Loi. I was taken over to the helipad at
Long Binh and told to report to the operations shack and let them know
where I was trying to go. I did so, and about 40 minutes later a Huey
landed. They told me to put my stuff on and climb aboard. We got to Phu
Loi and I was taken to Battalion headquarters. I received my assignment
to the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company. I stayed overnight there in Phu
Loi at the transient barracks at the 11th Avn. Bn , and was told to
report the next morning to flight operations for a flight to Lai Khe, the
headquarters of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company.

The next morning I reported to flight operations, and after waiting for
what seemed like hours, a slick (passenger carrying helicopter), landed
and I was told to climb aboard. I guess in retrospect I should have been
suspicious because of the looks that the pilots and crew chief and gunner
were exchanging, but I was so scared and in awe of all the new
experiences that it didn't occur to me. We took off from Phu Loi in route
to Lai Khe and shortly after taking off, the Aircraft Commander, who I
believe was Timothy Artman , took the helicopter down to within about two
or three feet off the ground. I had never heard of low level flight, and
I thought it was pretty exciting for a while until we began to get close
to a copse of trees in front of us. As we got closer I realized that we
were too close and the trees were too tall for us to go over them, and at
what seemed like the last possible moment Tim turned that ship on its left
side and slipped through a space that didn't seem big enough for anything
to go through. When he executed that maneuver, I was sitting on the far
left seat of the chopper with my legs over the end of the bench seat and I
was looking down at the ground going by at an incredibly fast rate and it
felt like I was going to fall out of the aircraft. After he straightened
the aircraft out I realized that everyone was having a real good laugh at
my reaction to the maneuver. When we sat down a Lai Khe and shut the
ship down, both pilots, and the gunner and crew chief came over and shook
my hand, still chuckling to themselves and said, "Welcome to the Robin
Hoods." From that moment on I was hooked on helicopters and flew
whenever I could.

My first week at Lai Khe was a blur of new experiences. I had to attend
an in- country jungle school taught by the 1st Infantry Division. Most of
the guys attending the school were 1st Infantry guys slated to go to grunt
units and I wondered what I, who had been assigned to an aviation unit,
was doing out here.

I vaguely remember being taught about trip wires, booby traps, the
importance of not walking on trails or rice paddy dikes because of the
possibilities of ambushes. We had been exposed to, and had the
opportunity to fire M-6o machine guns, a .50 caliber machine gun, M-16,
and the LAW at hulks of M-113's. I remember eating C-rations and the
final night march to the firing range at the south end of the Lai Khe
perimeter.

I had somehow acquired an M-3 grease gun, a .45 caliber submachine gun
used in WWII as a tankers weapon, and had filled the three 30 round (I
think) magazines with tracers. I don't know where I got this stuff, but I
thought that it was pretty neat shit. When we arrived at the firing
range and got on line, we were given the order to commence firing and the
sight and sound of about 15 different weapons firing at the same time,
most loaded with one tracer in every five rounds was the biggest rush I
had ever experienced up to that point in my life. When I fired that
grease gun on full auto, full of tracers for the full three magazines, it
looked like an orange rainbow going downrange. It was the finest light
show I had ever seen. I thought that, having completed the jungle school,
I was prepared to survive in the bush if I ever had to, but thank God I
never did.

I got back to the company area at about 2300 hours and stripped off my
clothes to take a shower. I had leaches all over my legs and crotch and
just about freaked out. One of the medics in my hootch, after he got
finished laughing at me, got out a bottle of bug juice and put some on
all of the leaches. They all dropped off, but I continued to bleed from
the bites for about two hours because of the anticoagulants in their
saliva. I went down to the shower area and scrubbed myself raw until I
felt clean, then walked back to my hootch to the accompanying sounds of an
8 inch gun emplacement at the end of the runway firing H&I fire at some
unknown target. I flopped into my bunk and passed out awaking in the
morning to a bunk saturated with blood from the leach bites from the
previous night.

I was a medic with The Robin Hoods of the 173rd AHC at Lai Khe from July
25, 1967 to July 25, 1968. I worked as a medic in the Quonset hut
dispensary at the north end of the company area directly across the road
from an engineer unit and to the west of the 2/2nd Mechanized Infantry of
the 1st Infantry Division. Most of the work we did as medics in the
dispensary was running daily sick call, passing out bandages, suturing the
occasional small laceration, and testing and treating cases of gonorrhea
for those who enjoyed the entertainment of the "ladies" in the village
across the runway from us. After having been in the unit for about a
month or a month and a half, a couple of gunners in slicks suggested that
I come "fly the friendly skies" as a gunner on an occasional basis. Their
names were Gary Wetzel and Jimmy Banicki. They took it upon themselves to
train me in procedures and gunnery, taught me how to strip and clean the M-
60 machine guns and generally made sure that I was prepared to do the job
of a gunner without being an embarrassment to them. I flew once or twice
a week for about four months prior to the 1968 TET offensive on combat
assaults and ash and trash missions.

On January 8, 1968 we were doing Eagle flights supporting the 9th Infantry
Division. ( I don't remember the unit) We were sitting on the ground at
the old French Fort along the Nha Be River eating C-rations when we got
the order to crank up. We loaded up the slicks and flew to the LZ which
was just outside of Ap Dong An. As we were about 1 minute out of the LZ,
and flying in a heavy right formation we received orders to go in heavy
left. Gary Wetzel's ship, piloted by WO Timothy Artman switched places
with mine. He ended up the trail ship on the left and my ship, piloted by
a Japanese CWO, was the trail ship on the right. I had taken sporadic
fire before but was totally unprepared for the amount of fire we received
flying into the LZ. I saw so many big orange fireballs flying through the
air as we flew into the LZ that I really had no idea what was going on. I
knew that we were in big trouble because there was a lot of excited radio
traffic flying in. I could not fire as I was on the inside of the
formation and ended up being an observer. As we came into the LZ Gary's
ship was hit in the left, or Aircraft Commander's door with an RPG,
(Rocket Propelled Grenade) as they were about 4 feet off the ground. They
crashed immediately and as soon as they hit the ground, I saw two more
explosions inside the ship and troops came flying out. As we sat down to
insert our troops, I said to my Aircraft Commander "I have my aid bag,
I'm gonna go help." The AC replied "If you step one foot outside this
ship I'll shoot your ass. You're here to protect this helicopter. We flew
out of the LZ leaving two ships in the LZ and another, carrying Jimmy
Banicki, was hit flying out and set down somewhere outside the LZ. The
rest is, as they say, history. WO Tim Artman was critically wounded and
died in the LZ later that night. Gary was awarded the Distinguished
Flying Cross the next day in the hospital and subsequently was awarded
the Congressional Medal of Honor. We figured out later that the
artillery and air strikes had prepped the wrong side of the river and left
for us a horseshoe shaped ambush with 3- .51 caliber machine guns, more
RPG's than we could count, and shit-loads of small arms fire. I didn't see
Gary for 18 years. In July of 1986 I had the opportunity to travel to
Chicago for the Welcome home parade and weekend and finally had an
opportunity to sit down and talk with Gary. I had felt and still feel
guilty that I didn't just grab my aid bag and run to his assistance. I
feel guilty that because of fate, he was injured and his pilot was killed
and I survived with no injuries other than the emotional ones I carry to
this day.

I have vivid memories of three or four other situations to which I was
exposed during my tour in Vietnam, all of which happened during the 1968
TET offensive. Lai Khe was referred to by the individuals who lived there
as "Rocket City" because of the enormous amount of 122mm rockets that the
Viet Cong showered on the base during TET. The 122mm rocket consisted of
a rocket body about six feet long with a 100 pound explosive warhead.
They sounded like a jet flying overhead and when they landed, caused
extreme destruction to the surrounding area. For a period of
approximately one month leading up to TET we experienced rocket attacks
three or four times a day, usually in flights of three or four rockets.
We lived in constant anxiety and terror of a rocket landing in our
vicinity.

Early one morning, I awoke on the floor of my tent and was attempting to
determine why I was there when I heard a rocket explode a short distance
away. I stayed on the floor until the rockets had stopped impacting and
then ran, with my aid bag, to where I heard people screaming. At least
one rocket had impacted in the rubber trees directly above the mess hall,
and on my way to the mess hall I observed an individual, (Bill Gleixner,
408th TC Det.) who had been hit with a large piece of shrapnel in the
head. It had taken the entire back of his head off. Realizing that
there was nothing I could do for him, I continued on to the mess hall and
as I entered I was confronted with the sight of 15 or 20 people in various
stages of injury. I was the first medic on the scene and it felt like it
took me forever to identify the most severely injured person. This
individual had been hit high on the left thigh with a large piece of
shrapnel and his leg was attached with only a small piece of tissue. His
femoral artery was spurting blood six or seven feet in the air and, as I
arrived at his side, I placed a tourniquet on his leg and attempted to
bandage his leg. I remember saying to someone who was helping me " We've
got to get this guy to the hospital. We won't be able to save his leg,
but we might be able to save his life." After transporting him to the
surgical hospital on base, I thought no more about him, hoping that I had
saved his life but never knowing how he had turned out. When I returned
to the states after my tour in Vietnam, I was stationed at Madigan General
Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. I was walking down the hall at the
hospital one day when an individual approached me and said "Hey Doc, how
are you doing?" I didn't recognize him and told him so. He reminded me
of the rocket attack over the mess hall in Lai Khe and told me word for
word what I had said while treating him. He looked at me as if I was his
hero, which made me extremely uncomfortable, and said " I want to thank
you for saving my life, but more than that I want to thank you for the job
you did that day. This is my leg I'm walking on." I muttered something
about just doing my job and left as soon as I could. In retrospect, I'm
pleased that my training allowed me to treat his injury, to save his leg,
and to save his life, but I have never been so uncomfortable in my life
as I was when this guy was thanking me. I'm not a hero and I really
didn't know how to deal with the adulation I saw in his eyes. I would
like to sit down with him now and talk with him, but I couldn't do it
then.

One of the other effects of the constant rocket attacks during that period
of time was that base ammunition dump at Lai Khe sustained a direct hit
early one morning. A number of us were sitting on a bunker about a mile
away from where the ammo dump was exploding and enjoying the 4th of July
like fireworks when a large chunk of metal crashed through a building
about five feet from where we were sitting. We walked into the building
and found of a 90mm artillery round on the floor of the building.
Completely sobered by what we had seen and realizing how lucky we all were
to be alive, we adjourned to the safety of the inside of the bunker until
the ammo dump had quit exploding.

One evening, we received orders to take our ambulance to the helipad
across the airfield from where we were stationed to assist in transporting
wounded from a unit of the 1st Infantry division that had been ambushed.
Apparently Alpha company of the 2nd of the 28th Infantry had walked into
an ambush. We waited for about 45 minutes and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter
landed. We had been expecting to transport wounded troops to the base
hospital, but we soon found out that all of the casualties were dead. We
spent the rest of the evening and most of the night transporting bodies
and parts of bodies to the graves registration point, assisting them in
trying to match body parts to bodies, and cleaning up the bodies so that
they could be prepared for burial.

The final incident that I remember seems so senseless to this day. One
evening I was assigned to CQ (Charge of Quarters) duty in the dispensary
to deal with whatever medical emergencies might arise, when I heard a
gunshot about 30 feet away. An individual was brought into the dispensary
with a gunshot wound to his left hand. The bullet had entered just
beneath his left thumb and exited under his little finger. I applied a
pressure bandage to the wound and transported him to Charlie Medical
Company of the 1st Infantry Division across the runway from our unit.
When I arrived at their dispensary, I turned my patient over to the medics
there and observed the Doctors at Charlie Med working to resuscitate an
individual from our unit, (John "Ranger" Stevens) who had been shot in the
right chest with a .45 caliber pistol. They did venous cutdowns on both
legs in an attempt to get replacement fluids into him all the while doing
CPR on him. After about twenty minutes of working to save his life, one
of the doctors said "count two minutes on your watch" I did and told him
that two minutes was up at which point he said "All right, lets stop,
we've done everything we can for him, he's gone."

I subsequently determined that two individuals from the 2/28th Infantry,
1st Infantry Division, one black and one white, had been drinking in our
NCO club and insulting one another all night. The white guy went out the
back door of the club to use the urinal, and the black guy approached the
bartender, said that he was leaving, and asked for his pistol. John
"Ranger" Stevens had been listening to the two of them argue all night and
had a bad feeling. He exited the rear door and walked in between the two
troopers. John tried to talk the guy with the gun out of shooting, but to
no avail. The black guy shot himself through the left hand and the bullet
entered John's right chest and exited out the left armpit. When they
called an end to the lifesaving measures on John, I very quietly walked
into the other room where the staff sergeant was being treated and
proceeded to choke him. The other medics pulled me away from him and
carried me outside. When our troops heard that John had died, they armed
themselves and were in route to kill the sergeant who had killed him. The
sergeant was transported out of Lai Khe within minutes. We later heard
that he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two
years in Leavenworth.

I returned to the States finishing up my last year in the Army at Madigan
Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington.

"Doc"

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