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MY FIRST FLIGHT IN VIETNAM ON MEDEVAC
by Terry A. McCarl
Historian, 15th Medical Battalion Association
It was 10 December 1968 when I had my first ride on Medevac. I had just
reported to the 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division in Phuoc Vinh,
South Vietnam, five days previously. I was the new 1st Cavalry Division
Sanitarian. My task was to keep our fighting forces in fighting condition
health-wise. I would be dealing with all types of preventive medicine
activities, including food service sanitation, water supply, waste disposal
and malaria control. (I found out later that the M-60 machine guns on the
Medevac helicopters were often referred to as "preventive medicine.")
LTC Guthrie L. Turner, the Division Surgeon and 15th Med BN CO, told me
that morning he needed me to travel to Quan Loi to investigate the cause of
an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease (diarrhea) at one of the units
there. I asked how I would get there (not even knowing where Quan Loi was).
He said," Go to Air Operations and tell whoever is there that you need to
get to B Co. at Quan Loi. No doubt someone will be going there soon. When
you get there, report to CPT Decker, and he will have someone take you to
the unit that is having the problem."
This flight was to be my first of many helicopter flights in Vietnam! I
knew nothing about helicopter aviation other than that was the way I would
need to travel throughout the Division's area of operation to perform my
Medevac Air Operations
I headed to Air Operations. I assumed that it would be an up-and-back in
the same day trip. At that time, everyone in the Division had to wear a
steel helmet and carry a weapon whenever they left their assigned company
area. I assumed that I was all ready to go.
When I got to Air Ops, the only person there was a CPT sitting at a desk
doing some paperwork. When I walked in, he glanced up and said, "What do you
need, Lieutenant?" I saw an- ever-so-slight glimmer of a smile, which I
later realized meant, "Time for a little fun with the new guy!"
I said, "LTC Turner needs me to go to Quan Loi." (I thought it would be a
good idea to mention LTC Turner's name). The CPT said, "I'll be making a run
to Quan Loi in about an hour." Then he asked the question that I'm sure he
knew the answer to, which was, "Have you ever flown with Medevac before?" I
replied," No, Sir." He then said, "In that case, I need to fill you in on
our passenger policies."
Quan Loi and red clay
He began, "We're happy to give you a ride wherever you need to go, but
you must be aware that our primary duty is to the wounded. For example, this
trip to Quan Loi today is called a "milk run." We are returning some
recovered wounded soldiers to their units. I expect that it will be a
routine up-and-back trip. However, while in the air, we may get a call to
pick up wounded. If that happens, be aware that you are going with us. We
won't drop you off in a safe location and then make our pickup.
Furthermore, if we need room on the aircraft for the wounded, you will have
to get off and stay where we pick the patients up, probably in the jungle.
Getting back to Phuoc Vinh will be however you can get there. We won't come
back for you. Do you understand?" I remember gulping and saying, "Of
He continued: "Were you issued a field jacket? You just got here, so you
probably don't know yet that although it's normally hot all the time here,
nights can be damn chilly! If you are stuck out in the jungle for a night or
two, you will wish that you had taken it with you." I acknowledged that I
had been issued a field jacket and would go back to my hooch and get it.
He looked at the M-16 that I was carrying and asked," Do you know how to
use that 16?" I said that I had qualified on the rifle range. "How much ammo
do you have?" I pointed to the single magazine in the M-16. He said," That's
not enough! If we get shot down, we need everyone on board to defend our
aircraft and patients! Better get at least ten more magazines!"
I don't remember what else he suggested. Still, there were more items,
including a change of underwear and several canteens of water. As soon as
possible, I collected all the items that he said to get and put them in a
duffel bag, which was nearly full and returned to Air Ops.
Just before getting on the aircraft, the CPT said, "Oh, one more thing,
did anyone give you one of these cards to carry around that tell you what to
do if you are captured?" I said that no one had, so he handed me a card and
said, "Be sure and read this before we take off."
That was the crowning touch! I had not given much thought to the
potential dangers of making this trip. I was somewhat freaked out at that
point, with all kinds of visions of potential disasters racing through my
As I boarded the helicopter, I noted the other crew members seemed to be
laughing and smiling as l hoisted that duffel bag on board. One of them,
grinning, asked, "Sir, can I help you with that heavy bag?" I thought
perhaps someone had told a joke or something of that nature.
Bravo Company, Quan Loi
When we landed at the B Co. helipad at Quan Loi, the CPT said to me,
"Now, when you are ready to go back, come back here and tell Air Ops that
you need a ride to Phuoc Vinh. It's not likely that it will be us."
What about my mission that day? Someone in a mess hall at Quan Loi had
failed to realize that ice made with contaminated water was also
contaminated. Easy to solve, don't buy locally- made ice. Get ice through
regular supply channels.
When it came time to return to Phuoc Vinh, I returned to B Company.
Within an hour, I could catch a ride on a different Medevac that was
returning to Phuoc Vinh. Again, as I loaded that duffel bag on that
helicopter, I noticed that crew also seemed to be in a festive mood, smiling
and laughing. Again, I thought maybe someone had just told a joke.
Throughout my year tour, I made about 100 such trips, all without mishap.
Still, every time I boarded a helicopter, I thought about what that CPT had
said to me that day and when we landed safely, I always, in my mind, kissed
Since this CPT has been deceased for several years and since he cannot
confirm or deny this story, and since my memory of the occasion may not be
100 % accurate, I am not mentioning his name, but in the several months
afterward, we became good friends and had many good laughs about that day.
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