Larry Joel of Bridgeport, Connecticut
From Yankee magazine March 1982
The meeting was set for eight o’clock, but now it’s past nine. “It’s his car,” his sister says. “The car’s nothing but trouble, He should’ve left Hartford at five.” It’s the start of Washington’s Birthday weekend and outside light rain falls on the quiet Bridgeport street, the houses separated by small muddy lawns and a scattering of fences. She hears a car pull into the drive and nods. “He’s home,”
Larry Joel walks in, a man in his early fifties, tall, slender, with a groomed Afro. “Took me six months to grow it after I retired.” His face is soft and round with shy brown eyes behind glasses. He apologizes for the delay; there were errands and lots of traffic. He leads the way to his apartment on the second floor, a bag of groceries in his arms. He takes the steps slowly. “There’s arthritis in my shoulder, arthritis in my leg,” he says later, “but I don’t let people know I have pain. I tell myself I don’t hurt, then I don’t hurt as much.”
He’s lived in the apartment above his sister’s since he retired from the army in 1973, commuting the hour to Hartford where he works for the Veterans Administration as a counselor. “The drive’s wearing me down,” he says. “Maybe I should move to Hartford.” He puts water on the stove for the instant coffee he gulps incessantly. “I haven’t had a drink in four years,” he says. “This is my replacement.”
He puts a pack of Kools on the kitchen table, saying it’s the only habit he has left. “I haven’t talked about the medal,” he says. “Too many bad experiences earning it, and too many bad experiences living with it. I’ve been wanting to talk about this a long time. But I haven’t been ready.” He was a medic in the 173rd Airborne, the first ground troops sent to Vietnam. He arrived in May 1965, the rainy season.
“They told us to bring bathing suits, we’d be there only a few weeks. We’d patrol days and never run into the enemy. We had to simulate death so we’d know how to deal with it. One night something was moving in the bushes and some trigger-happy guys let loose. The next morning we found two hogs, 250 pounds apiece. We put one on a chopper and made a barbecue pit at camp. We smoked up some delicious ribs. That’s what the war was for us, until November 8, 1965.
“I was 37 and a lot of the young soldiers followed me around like I was their father. They’d come to me with their problems. Except for our platoon sergeant, who’d been in Korea, none of us had seen combat.
“We were told to travel light that day — we had one more area to check out, then we’d be lifted out. I had a premonition that morning. As I was walking my mind flashed to my daughter and wife and son. They say we crossed water that morning but I don’t remember going through water. I guess there are some things I’ll never remember. We stopped at a clearing where hills rose on two sides. We saw fresh camouflage had been broken; we knew something was in there. Nothing was moving. But there were three regiments of North Vietnamese just waiting for us.
“All of a sudden it was like the Fourth of July. I was with four riflemen and we dived behind this little rock jutting up by the side of the hill. The rain had washed away the soil, and we just piled on top of each other. We could hear bullets ricocheting off the rock. One of the men with me got hit in the kneecap. He was bleeding bad and I bandaged him up, gave him morphine and a can of albumin serum. I thought for sure he would make it. After about half an hour it got real quiet. I heard, ‘Medic.’ That’s all I could hear – ‘Medic. Medic.’ I looked over behind the rock and saw them lying on the side of the hill, some sitting up with rifles across them. That’s how they got killed, as if they were sitting on the side of the hill sightseeing.
“I’d always wondered what combat was like when I heard my buddies tell World War II stories, and I always figured I’d be a survivor – until it happened. They were calling for me and I looked out and I couldn’t see anything but jungle though I knew the enemy was all around. I was afraid, and I just froze. I couldn’t move…”
When he pauses you can hear the steady drip from the shower across the hall from the kitchen. He gets up stiffly to put on more hot water and knocks the tape recorder to the ground. “Is it all right?” he asks. “I’m opening up, but I can’t do it myself.” He gets his coffee, and taking no chances on disturbing the tape recorder, changes his seat.
“I could hear a kid named Swoboda moaning. I called over to see if he could make it to where we were, but he acted as if he didn’t hear me. He’d just turned 18 and it was his first patrol. I could see him lying on the side of the hill and I thought, ‘If they ever ask, hey, Doc, where were you? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.’ I tried to run to him but they opened up on me and I got hit in the leg. I ran back to the rock and bandaged it up and gave myself morphine. I tried crawling back to the kid. That’s when we called in the artillery. It fell short and hit some of our own people. One of our guys went wild from the pain and we had to run and catch him and hold him down while I patched him up. I got mad then. I just forgot my fear. I said a little prayer, ‘If I get hit, please don’t let it be a vital area, because I’ll be knocked out of action. Let it be just a little bit, so I can still do something for my people.’
“All morning long we moved the wounded, but the helicopters couldn’t get in to evacuate them. Another company came to help us and got pinned down. I ran out of supplies and grabbed some more and began treating their men too. The other medics were a lot younger than me and weren’t moving fast enough — I just took over and told them to straighten bandages. Three different times I had a cigarette in my hands and never got to light it. A few hours later I got hit in the leg again. It swelled real bad but I didn’t want more morphine. I got a stick and used it as a crutch. I’d throw it to the ground, treat the soldier, then move on to the next one.
“Once it got real quiet. I said, ‘Please let them be going home. They’ve hurt us enough. Let us pick up our sick and dead and let us go home.’ Then they blew their bugles on us — they were charging — the saddest sound I ever heard. The battle lasted all day and into the night. That night I went back to where I thought would be a clearing for evacuation but there wasn’t a clearing, only the wounded and dead lying on ponchos. I found the soldier who’d been hit beside me that morning. He’d become delirious, knocked his IV out, and he’d died. It’s always bothered me knowing that if I’d stayed with him he’d have lived. But there was too much going on.