DAMASCUS, PA — Imagine you’re a combat medic in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, trying to save the lives of your wounded comrades-in-arms who lay alongside grievously injured …
DAMASCUS, PA — Imagine you’re a combat medic in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, trying to save the lives of your wounded comrades-in-arms who lay alongside grievously injured farmers in small villages caught in the middle of battle in a land far, far from home.
Imagine finally coming back to your cherished home in the Upper Delaware River Valley and coping with the soul-searing memories that lingered in your mind: flashbacks of the mortally wounded in a country laid asunder by fire and smoke, cries for help seemingly forever embedded in your spirit, images that are locked into the fabric of your psyche, pictures from the fog of war that may fade into the mists of time but are always present, yet to be accounted for in the future.
Life and death played out in an unforgiving jungle landscape, a place where, in the blink of an eye, your life can change for all eternity. So much so that, when you returned to “the real world,” you shouldered a backpack, headed into the hills along the coast of California, walking north to Oregon. While thinking of your comrades still fighting in a foreign land, you tried to drown yourself in a flooding cave.
This is the start of a soldier’s story as told by Chuck ‘Doc’ Heyn, a U.S. Army combat medic who served with Headquarters Company, 1/327, 101st Airborne, a battalion often bloodied while fighting the vaunted North Vietnamese Army as they tried to take over South Vietnam.
During 1966 and beyond, the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment made history in the war as it fought in the Central Highlands, coming under intense enemy fire during search and destroy missions.
Heyn got his “welcome to the war” notice from Uncle Sam two weeks after getting his first post-college job as an electronic engineer. “I accepted that as my duty,” he recalled. He went on to basic training at Fort Knox and, later, advanced training at Fort Sam Houston.
After medical training, he considered becoming a chopper jockey, but not wanting to sign up for eight years, elected instead to join the 101st Airborne “to learn how to jump out of airplanes.” Because of a critical shortage of combat medics, Heyn was assigned to the Headquarters Company, 1/327, 101st Airborne, a sure-fire, all expenses paid ticket to Vietnam.
He served his 12-month tour and then extended his time for another three months. “There weren’t enough medics to fill the roster. It was just after Tet in 1968,” recalled Heyn, who served in Vietnam from February 1967 to May 1968.
He participated in numerous search and destroy missions, including the 1967 actions of Operation Summerall in April, Operation Malheur 1 and 2 of May-July and Operation Wheeler of July-August.
“We would chopper into the jungle with anywhere from a company-size to battalion-size force. We moved in platoon-size, 40 strong, one medic, two to three klicks from another platoon,” said Heyn.
While on these missions, Heyn and his comrades would be out in the boonies from four to six weeks, getting resupplied every seven days if they were lucky.
His longest mission was 74 days, and after each mission, the soldiers looked forward to showers “and sometimes a hot meal. We often had cold beer at the aid station.”
Heyn saw action in the A Shau Valley. As the 1/327 moved northward, they ended up in combat along the Demilitarized Zone.
“As time advanced month-to-month, I ended up not quite knowing what we were doing there,” he said. At first, he noted, “I thought I was serving my country to further our ambitions of being a force for good, being a democracy that was moving to help other countries join that dream.” But as the body counts continued to increase, Heyn’s perceptions of war began to shift like blood disappearing in the sand.
“We were instruments of causing great harm to the local people... It was very disheartening to see the effects of war on the country and the destruction of the local people, the subsistence farmers caught in the middle of this conflict.”
As a combat medic, your primary job was to carry arms until called upon to risk your life to save others, but as the casualties mounted, you sometimes came up short in your fight against death.
“It took a while to get used to the fact that you were the one up and running while everyone else was hunkered down. You really had to come to grips with your own death.
“A lot of times, you failed and people died,” said Heyn. “The reality was not easy... the memories of those failures are pretty deep. It was only until I left Vietnam and got back to the states that I had trouble coming to grips with what exactly I was part of, why we were there and what we accomplished.”
Like a lot of combat vets, 73-year-old Heyn had a hard time adjusting to civilian life after the traumas of war. Flashbacks and dreams were no strangers in the night.
After being released from active duty in California, Heyn was so troubled by his wartime experiences that, upon returning to his hometown, he headed back to the West Coast, “Because I could not talk about what I had gone through... I walked the California coastline to Oregon, camped on the bluffs... at the end of every day, [I looked] out over the Pacific, knowing my guys were in the thick of it.
“Sometime in that period, I attempted suicide by drowning myself by staying in a cave I found that would flood at high tide.”
However, Heyn discovered the will to live was stronger than a desire to end it all. “After several failed attempts to swim out against the tide, somehow I managed to make it, failing in my task.”
Along the road less traveled, Heyn fell deeper into the depths of depression until he listened to a 1968 speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Riverside Church in NYC. “It changed my life. It was the first time I had heard someone describe my experience in Vietnam. It instilled in me that I had some work to do. I felt for the first time some hope. I was not alone. MLK saved my life through his words.
“I have been on the side of peace, to abolish war ever since,” said Heyn. “It was the thing I could do to honor my guys, those who died and those who survived.”
In conclusion, he said, “I am a patriot. I believe in my flag that stands for justice for all. ‘All’ means that we, the people, have yet more work to do to make that come true.”
In March 2019, Heyn was interviewed by Doug Sandberg, host of WJFF’s “Let’s Talk Vets.” To listen to the broadcast, visit www.wjffradio.org and click on archives.