Reflections on FMF Corpsmen

                       How could we make it without them?                                                                            

Earlier this week something happened to me that caused me to reflect on relationships I have had with that wondrous group of men who have saved so many Marine lives during our wars. These are the U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsmen assigned to Marine combat units, or as we called them in my day, Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Corpsmen. I don’t know how they are referred to today since the name Fleet Marine Force has gone out of style. Before I get to this week I need to go back into the past and tell you about two of these fine gentlemen with whom I was privileged to serve.

To the uninitiated and during peacetime FMF Corpsmen were generally seen as sailors unwillingly assigned to Marine units who needed haircuts, maintained a sloppy personal appearance and had poor military bearing. You cannot truly appreciate these guys until you have served with them in combat. When a Marine goes down under fire, Corpsmen run to their aid without a second’s hesitation. Many have died while performing their duty, and twenty one of them have been awarded the Medal of Honor during our various wars. A lot of us owe our very lives to FMF Corpsmen.

I commanded Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines in Vietnam during 1967-68. We usually had a Chief Corpsman assigned to the company headquarters and one Corpsman with each platoon. All of them performed their duties admirably during my time with Fox Company, but two of them stand out.

Eddie Schultz was more Marine than sailor. He was full of mischief and always seemed to be in some kind of hot water, but the Marines of his platoon loved him. 2/1 was assigned to the outpost at Con Thien on the DMZ from late December 1967 to late January 1968. The outpost was within range of enemy artillery from across the Ben Hai River in North Vietnam, and we were hit daily with artillery fire, and with mortars from NVA units closer in to the position. We lived underground in bunkers and had an extensive trench system that the Seabees had helped dig for us with ditch diggers. The standing battalion order was that no one left a bunker without a helmet and flak jacket. Those in Fox Company who I caught in violation were assigned to fill sand bags, which you never seemed to have enough of on Con Thien. Doc Schultz filled more sandbags than anyone else in Fox Company since I seemed to continually catch him running around bare chested and bare headed with incoming rounds only seconds away.

The time came while we were on Con Thien that Eddie was supposed to transfer back to Headquarters and Service Company. The idea was to rotate the battalion’s Corpsmen between the battalion aid station and the rifle companies to allow all to be exposed to approximately the same dangers during their year’s tour in Vietnam. Well, Eddie did not want to leave his platoon, and hid among the bunkers of Con Thien for about three days before the Battalion Surgeon found him and dragged him screaming back to H&S Company. Eddie’s reaction to leaving his platoon illustrates the strong unbreakable bonds that form between men in combat.

Eddie Schultz…center rear with glasses and cigar. Picture taken at Da Nang CP prior to the move to Quang Tri in October 67.

That was Eddie Schultz. James Loy was another Fox platoon Corpsman who had recently joined 2/1 several months prior to our deployment to Con Thien. He was a courageous and highly respected member of his platoon. The position at Con Thien was surrounded by an antipersonnel mine field approximately 75 yards wide. There were marked lanes without mines through the field to allow patrols to depart from and return to the position. One night in January 1968 a squad size ambush patrol of which Doc Loy was a part, was leaving the position and inadvertently left the lane and walked into the mine field detonating two mines. Doc Loy rushed to the aid of the three wounded Marines, and seeing that one needed immediate evacuation to survive, picked him up and started to carefully make his way back to the unmined lane. Unfortunately and tragically, he stepped on a mine and was killed by the explosion, along with the wounded Marine he was carrying. These were grievous losses for Fox Company, but then again, every casualty was. He was awarded a posthumous Silver Star for his actions, but no medal for valor can replace the loss a man such as James Loy.

Members of Fox, 2/1. James Loy on far right. helmet in hand

James was from Green Bay, Wisconsin and died before his 21st birthday. He left a wife and son who was born six months after his death. It was an honor to serve with him. Rest in peace, James, and God bless you.

Fast forward 40 years and we arrive at this week. At about 0200 on Monday morning I got out of bed to make a head call. I wasn’t fully awake and tripped, striking the top of my head on something. I came fully awake when the back of my head hit the wood floor. Contact with the floor didn’t do any damage, but whatever I hit before had gouged a nice chunk out of my scalp. I was bleeding like a stuck pig, and my rudely awakened wife patched me up as best she could after we got the bleeding stopped. I went back to sleep after a while and arose at 0500 as usual and got ready for work.

After several hours at work I decided to go the sick bay at the Navy Annex next to Arlington Cemetery where I work and have the medics take a look at my head. I wandered into the dispensary area and, not being familiar with the layout, walked into the Information and Health Records office. There were two Corpsmen behind the desk. One of them, a Second Class petty officer named Vasquez, had several rows of ribbons topped off with a Combat Action Ribbon. That said to me, “FMF Corpsman”. I approached him and asked if I could get someone to check out my banged up head. He informed me that they did not treat retirees at this clinic, and recommended that I go to my regular doctor. I asked him who he had served with when assigned to the Marines. He said, “3rd Battalion, 1st Marines”. I told him that I had been with 2/1 in Vietnam. He then told me to follow him and we proceeded to one of the treatment rooms down the hall. At this point Doc Vasquez said he would check me out and let me know if I needed stitches, but that was about as far as he could go. He removed the band aids and cleaned up the wound and informed me that stitches wouldn’t be required. He said that butterfly strips would hold the wound together sufficiently for healing. He then left the room for a few minutes, returning with a Chief petty officer who checked me out and told Doc Vasquez to proceed with the butterflies. As he was patching me up he told me that in Iraq he was doctor, surgeon, nurse and father confessor to the Marines in his company, but at the Navy Annex he had to get permission to put a band aid on an old retired Marine’s head. Such is the difference between a combat zone and garrison. I thanked him for bending the rules for an old Marine and went back to work. I was an old broken down Marine and he an FMF Corpsman, but despite our differences in age and in the wars we had fought, between us blood was thicker than water.

So thanks Doc Vasquez. You could have kicked me down the street, but you didn’t, and I sincerely appreciate it. This may seem a small thing to you now, but as the years go by you will learn to appreciate the gestures that other Marines and sailors make, and they become cumulative with time. The self esteem that you acquired during your service as an FMF Corpsman will not be fully realized until many years have passed. As each year goes by I appreciate more and more what it means to be able to say that I am a Marine. The same will be true for you.

Semper Fi

Dirck Praeger sends