Week of May 19

Week of May 19

This week we recognize the contributions and service of all Vietnam-era medics and corpsmen with the account of Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Donald E. Ballard’s actions on May 16, 1968.

Donald Ballard was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in December 1945. He enlisted in the United States Navy in late 1965, as the war reached full-scale escalation, and enrolled in the Naval Hospital Corps School in Illinois. After his training, he was assigned to 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, 3d Marine Division and deployed to Vietnam in early 1968.

Ballard served with the Marines in Quảng Trị Province, near the Demilitarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam. The province saw some of the heaviest fighting during the war. Ballard had been in Vietnam for only a few months on the afternoon of May 16, 1968, when he and his company were on their way to link up with 3d Battalion. It was a swelteringly hot day in Quảng Trị, and Ballard had just treated and evacuated two men suffering from heat stroke. As he returned from the evacuation landing zone, his company was suddenly ambushed by a concealed unit of North Vietnamese Army troops.

Attacking with automatic machine gun and rifle fire as well as mortars, the enemy troops inflicted several casualties on the Marine company before they could dive for cover. Ballard ran toward several of the wounded, unhesitatingly sprinting through the field of fire to reach them. He managed to stabilize one, and directed four nearby Marines to take him to the rear of the makeshift defensive perimeter. Just as Ballard did this, however, a concealed North Vietnamese soldier rose from his position and threw a grenade that landed inside the company’s perimeter, directly next to the wounded men. Ballard shouted a warning to the Marines and immediately jumped on top of the grenade, covering it with his body. For several heart-pounding moments, he waited for the explosion, but none came. Miraculously, the grenade had a faulty fuse and failed to detonate. Ballard rose calmly, though no doubt shocked to be alive, and then quickly set back to work treating the wounded.

Ballard would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, and Richard M. Nixon presented it to him almost exactly two years later, on May 14, 1970. Ballard also earned two bronze stars and three purple hearts for wounds he suffered in combat. After the third one, he was evacuated to Okinawa and eventually returned to the United States. Not finished with his service, Ballard later received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army National Guard Medical Services Corps. After attaining the rank of Colonel in the Kansas National Guard, he retired in 2000.

Army medics and Navy corpsmen routinely risked their lives to render aid to wounded soldiers in combat. They were the first and frequently most important personnel to treat wounded troops and prepare them for medevac, often plunging through firefights to do so. They helped ensure that proportionally fewer Americans died of their wounds in Vietnam than in any previous American conflict.

Medics and corpsmen were trained in the essentials of disease, sterilization, human anatomy and physiology, emergency medicine, and triage. They also received relatively little combat training. Army medics, for example, spent just 14 hours outside of a classroom performing combat preparedness training. Medics and corpsmen patrolled with infantry units, though, and while their primary job was to care for wounded men, they were also expected to act as infantrymen when required—including participation in firefights. Ideally, each infantry platoon had two medics or corpsmen at all times. The high casualty rates for medics and corpsmen, however, made maintaining those numbers difficult. Medics served with Army units, while Navy corpsmen served in naval facilities and with Marines in the field. Medics and corpsmen also provided medical attention to Vietnamese civilians through civic action programs.

As has been the case in most of America’s wars, medics and corpsmen were among the most valued and appreciated troops in the field, and they were generally highly respected by their comrades, who frequently referred to them affectionately as “Doc.” Approximately 1,300 medics and 690 corpsmen died in Vietnam, and 12 medics and 4 corpsmen earned the Medal of Honor during the war.1

1Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 733–35; Jack E. McCallum, Military Medicine: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003); Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1994); “Donald E. Ballard,” United States Marine Corps History Division, http://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/Pages/Who's%20Who/A-C/Ballard_DE.aspx (accessed 5/17/16); “Medal of Honor Recipients: Vietnam War,” Center of Military History, http://www.history.army.mil/moh/vietnam-a-l.html (accessed 5/17/16).