Where Do "DOCs" Come From
By HM3 David M. "DOC" Steinberg, USN (Vet)
I don't know how many enlisted in the U.S. Navy specifically to become a Corpsman. I was in my 3rd year of college as a Psychology Major at a University in Chicago, tired of fighting the SDS, Students For a Democratic Society (an organization that disappeared along with the Anti Vietnam Protests once the Draft was replaced by the Birth Year Lottery...it must not have seemed so important once their butts were safe from the Draft). My Navy Recruiter said that with my background I would surely end-up as a Corpsman on a Psych Ward in a Naval Hospital, far from that thing going on in Viet Nam, which was just picking-up in those early months of 1966.
I joined the Navy to serve as my Father did for 4 years plus during W.W.II. I joined the Navy since my Uncle, for whom I was named after, 1st Lt. David Steinberg, USMCR was killed at Iwo Jima and therefore to join the Marines would have been too painful for the family. I joined the Navy because I had 4 years of High School Army ROTC, attaining the rank of Captain and winning a High School Letter for being part of the Precision Rifle Drill Team that won State Championship. After those years of spit and polish, I refused to EVER wear a uniform that had brass and needed to be shined with BRASSO (still cannot get that smell out of my nose to this day)! I joined the Navy because I entered as a HN Hospital Corpsman or E-3 right out of boot camp because of my having college credits.
In June of 1966, I took my oath to join the service standing on the 3rd Base Line in Chicago Cubs Wrigley Field Ball Park. The Cubs Team was lined-up along the 1st Base Line. Our gaggle of Navy Enlisted, were called the Chicago Cubs Company. Our families where invited to watch us take our oath on the ball field and we were allowed to join them to watch the baseball game before we said our good-byes in the stands and promptly boarded awaiting Navy Buses for Great Lakes and Boot Camp for the next 8 weeks.
My knowledge of precision rifle drill and marching automatically put me in the position of ROPC, Recruit Petty Officer Chief (drill instructor complete with sword and responsibility for our Recruit Company). We won all the honor flags and I marched the Company to all classes and required tests (smoke house, gas chamber, swim tests 1-4, etc.) You know I NEVER qualified for Swimming, since I NEVER was tested. Once I marched my men to the pool I was yelled to get my men into the water by the numbers, once the last group jumped in, I was yelled at to get to the other side of the pool and get my men OUT OF THEIR *#% POOL BUILDING!
On the last day of Navy Boot Camp, the men got their striker assignments throughout the Naval Fleet and on-shore operations. The Corpsmen were sent to Hospital Corps School for another 4 months. We learned medicine and healing from Navy Nurses and Doctors. We gave saline injections to one another as practice and we laid out stretchers and practiced using field dressings and preparing for evacuation of the wounded or sick. We were taught how to keep those aboard ships and on the ground safe from injury and disease through sanitation and preventive medicine (although nothing was told to us about supervising the burning of the half barrels from the Shitters) The good news was that there were Women..I mean Waves, you know, those of the opposite sex who were in our classes. The bad news was that we were competing for academic awards throughout Hospital Corp School and while I did Place #3, the first 2 places went to women.
On the last day of Hospital Corps School we were assigned to our new duty stations. Some to ships, some to Naval and Marine bases and others immediately to FMF or Fleet Marine Force training to serve the Marines in Combat. Wherever our assignment, the training we received was adequate and professional, it was said to be equal to a 2nd year med student’s and all were prepared to "Do Our Best" that is all we ever could do in times of peace and combat.
I spent the next year at St. Albans Naval Hospital, Long Island, NY. It was a big hospital and I served on many types of Wards and Clinics before being accepted to Operating Room Technician Training (setup the surgical suites, prepare and sterilize the instruments, circulate and scrub surgery (where you had to know the numerous surgical procedures as well as the Surgeons if you were to pass the proper surgical instrument at the proper time). We did surgery for combat and non-combat injuries and for all the retired and military dependents from all branches of the military.
I was actually seeing the END of the story I was about to live. These Naval Hospitals were exactly where the combat wounded I treated on Khe Sanh’s Hill 881S for more than 3 months and later in the bush along the Perfume River near Hue and the triple canopy jungles off Hill 55 SW of Da Nang would end-up, that is, if they survived my field medical treatment, helicopter medivac to an in-country Medical Battalion, transfer to a Hospital Ship or NSA DaNang and then on to Japan, etc., finally ending up in a Naval Hospital as close to their home as possible for further treatment, surgery and rehabilitation.
This is also where I saw the real tragedy of war. Not the loss of life or limb, but the reality of our fighting men and women returning to the “World”. Many of the amputees did not realize the true extend of their life-changing wounds until they arrived at the hospital where they were to finally be reunited with their loved ones again after their trip to Hell and Back. Remember that once wounded, the future amputee was in a daze with immediate surgery of the limb if beyond all hope or following unsuccessful debridement, uncontrolled infection and subsequently the decision to sever the limb to save the life of the wounded. Following months of surgery, stump revisions and getting around on crutches or in a wheel chair on some Ortho Ward in many places along the way back to our Naval Hospital, they remained with other amputees in the same circumstances. They joked around, played games and raced down the halls in wheel chairs doing wheelies. They had become accustomed to their life among the other wounded and helped each other out as they did in war. But “Oh Baby” they would tell me, I am back in the “World” and my gal and my family are coming to see me! They were still the young warriors who left for war and they survived unchanged in their minds and surely they were getting along well, although they had never been tested outside of the accommodating environment that a Naval Hospital provides with ramps and other things that today we take for granted with Disability Laws and provisions.
The tragedy I referred to was more horrific than I would ever later experience in the field and later in many years as an EMT back in civilian life. The tragedy was days later when I passed-by that “Oh Baby”, my gal and family are coming this weekend soldier. Instead of being filled with stories of hope, he laid under covers, depressed and appeared to have given-up. While a one-eyed man is King among the blind, these heroes finally saw the “World”, but the “World” saw him completely changed, not able to move around as he did and stunned with the loss of future potential as it was once imagined. The family mourned his loss of limb instead of being overjoyed at his very survival and his gal was kind, but he knew from her hollow eyes that she would not be back. I cried for him and promised myself that I would never forget this true tragedy.
I continued my time in surgery as a member of the Open Heart Scrub Team. I did my job and learned to be the best I could, receiving my new rank of HM3 or E-4. Each day other Corpsmen I knew in the Operating Room or in the Hospital in general were receiving their orders to FMF training and Nam. The rumor was they needed so many because the life expectancy of a Corpsman in Viet Nam was about 7 days. However, I was an important member of a specialty surgical team and besides not every Corpsman was sent to Nam. I was still there and others were shipped out. One day, a few of my “buddies” entered the Surgical Suite as I passed the instruments to the doctors during a long case. I could see their sardonic smiles even under their surgical masks………Dave, it is your turn to become a “DOC” not just a Corpsman…..you got your orders to report to FMF training at Camp Pendleton, California, 1st Marine Division.
I wrote a song while I was in College that went:
Today I received a letter it was from Uncle Sam,
It said “Greetings My Child”, you are off to Viet Nam!
Well I picked up that letter and read those words of Woe,
Then quickly call my draft board to see if it weren’t so.
Well, I told them I was classified as a Student,
But they said so sternly, “By order of the President”!
Without a choice I packed my bags and kissed my sweetheart good-bye,
And before I knew what was happening I lay under bomb-shelled skies!
Now listen to the moral for all you students classified 2-S,
Don’t be so sure that your Exempt for YOU may go next!
Well, now I was next. HM3 David Steinberg reporting to the outskirts of beautiful Oceanside, CA. Thankfully, our new Marine Uniforms with the subdued Navy Rank on the sleeve did not have brass requiring BRASSO, but what is this stuff about putting our utility hat on a circular hat block and spraying the hell out of it with Spray Starch! Another entire sea bag with all the Utilities, Khakis and Greens (FMF Corpsmen do not rate the Marine dress blues. We still had our own blues, complete with fashionable bellbottoms for those formal occasions).
My first day in the chow hall line, I finally understood what they meant by rank has it’s privileges. I was culled out of line and invited to dine with the non commissioned officers in their OWN mess area. In the Navy a E-4 Petty Officer is nothing and deserves nothing, except less duty nights and weekends. I like this Marine stuff.
We played jungle combat, qualified with the M-14, the 45 Colt pistol and the practice hand grenade, dug trenches and shared a poncho tent half and pole with a comrade who provided the other poncho half and pole so we could sleep in a cozy pup tent….just like we would in Nam…are you kidding me! We manned fighting holes on top of a tall hill overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and shivered all night due to the cool October Night…not the fear of Victor Charlie that might be lurking in the hills of Camp Pendleton.
30 days leave home to Chicago and off I flew to San Bernadino Air Force base to catch a flight to Nam. Where were the troops I trained with, the comrades who took shared the perils of the 22-day trip to Nam by ship? I, HM3 Steinberg reported alone, corpsmen were sent individually to Viet Nam via Continental Airlines to Okinawa and then Flying Tiger Airlines to DaNang. That 7-day life expectancy for a Corpsman in the bush must have been more than a rumor if they were sending us over one-by-one EXPRESS!
I arrived in late October of 1967 with most of my gear left in Okinawa in the slim chance that in 365 days I would DEROS to back to the “WORLD” and pick it up. I was thirsty as Hell in DaNang wearing those heavy green starched utilities from the states. I was thirsty and my American greenbacks would not even buy me a Coke until I ran into a departing “DOC” who swapped me for MPC, Military Payment Currency, available in green or red and changed often, leaving the Black Market with wrong colored worthless paper.
I reported in and found a few interesting facts, like it’s MIND over MATTER, They Don’t Mind that I Don’t Matter. First, due to heavy casualties among “DOC”S in I Corp, my orders where changed from 1st Division to 3d Marine Division. Second, my hopes were shattered about spending my year in an OR Suite when the officer at the holding company told me that, “he was very impressed with my rank and training in the Operating Room and confirmed that one day soon, after about 6 months with a Marine unit in the bush if I was still alive, I would have that opportunity”. I guess it did not matter to him and that is why I found myself on a 6-by truck heading North along highway 1 the next day to Camp Evans. There I was assigned to the BAS, Battalion Aid Station of the 26th Marines, who were engaged at Con Thien, Gio Linh and along the Cua Viet. I had my own Willy’s Jeep Ambulance and got my ¼ ton Military License to drive it everywhere and to fool around on the mule, a pallet on wheels that they used to drop loaded with supplies dangling from a parachute. For us it was a go-cart. I remained with the BAS through early December, when we were ordered to pack-up the BAS, turn Camp Evans over to the Army’s 101st Air Born Unit and move to Dong Ha where we were to set-up the BAS in preparation for 3/26 to move to that headquarter base. We took over a few hooches and dug a bunker even the rats would have been proud to share with us during incoming. We no sooner completed the bunker than we received word not to unpack and move the BAS, which broke down onto about 15 pallets, to the Dang Ha Air Strip for shipment to a lovely, quiet, mountain view local called Khe Sanh.
After nearly 15 days of sitting on the airstrip with the gear, our ride to Khe Sanh arrived. It was now early January and I reported with the gear to the far end of the base to Dr. Feldman. I was one of the Senior Corpsmen and did my daily sick calls by day and typed up death notices on the KIA’s by night (Died in Thau Thien Province from whatever). Life was good and the clock was ticking, we just didn’t know it.
Something in the air was different earlier in the night before the ammo dump got hit early the next morning. We were told to burn all of our letter from home in case we were overrun….overrun…..that was a good bedtime thought as my eyes closed and those of us in the tent side-by-side on cots drifted off to sleep.
0530 or whatever…….BOOM BANG BOOM…..we all ran from the Corpsman Tent and jumped into any depression in the red dirt, Incoming, Outgoing, the ammo dump was lit-up like the 4th of July. It was dark and we scattered to safety. I curled up like a ball under a pallet near the end of the Khe Sanh runway and fell back asleep. The morning sun and the relative quiet woke me and I climbed out from under the depression I had clawed-out with my bare hands during the chaos. Yes, the pallet of 105 rounds protected me just fine…..was I nuts!
Later that day I was informed that there had been heavy Corpsmen losses on Hill 881S and that I should take a few things and as a Senior Corpsman, go up there and check things out. I flew in by Huey Helicopter and jumped off with my Unit 1 Medical Bag across my chest. It was a hot L-Z with incoming still pounding the Hill. "Corpsman Up", was the first thing I heard and I crested the hill near a motor or gun pit where a Marine was on his back clutching his chest and gasping for air. After months at the BAS, here I was with my very first immediate casualty and he has a sucking chest wound. All my training came back to me and I quicky took the plastic bag from a field dressing bandage and was able to seal the air leak. I wrapped him tightly and a few Marines got him into the saddle for a medivac chopper.
I finally reported to Capt. Dabney and told him I was to check on the Corpsman situation on the Hill for the BAS down on the Khe Sanh Combat Base. I asked him where the other “DOCs” were on the Hill. He told me that one was standing in front of him…He meant me! I was immediately taken over, ordered and further assigned to Lt. Lawrence Boudria of the 3rd Plt. India 3/26 for all my days on the Hill and what was to turn out to be many interesting months through the summer with that platoon after leaving the Hill in April. There was one other “DOC” on our side of the Hill and Dabney ordered me NEVER to be on the same side of the Hill as him EVER! As it turned out, the 2 of us were it for a long time.
The story of the Hill and the “DOCs” like myself that survived the entire siege is best saved for another time…..my intent was to show, WHERE “DOCs” COME FROM. We are all brothers,,,,Eternally Bonded.