Service Reflections: ‘Marine Doc,’ Medal of Honor recipient recalls Vietnam jungle combat
Service Reflections: ‘Marine Doc,’ Medal of Honor recipient recalls Vietnam jungle combat
A comprehensive, easy-to-complete self-interview called Service Reflections is available on TogetherWeServed.com which enables you to create a permanent record of key people and events from your military service. Your Reflections may be shared with other family members by way of a web address personal to you.
Editor’s note: The following Service Reflections is one of many recorded on TogetherWeServed.com, a secure online community with a membership of over 2 million active-duty and veteran members. This story may contain language which may not be suitable for young children.
HM2 Donald Ballard
Status: U.S. Navy Retired
Service Years: 1965-1970
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE NAVY?
My whole family has served in the Army or Navy beginning with World War I and in all our wars since then. I grew up thinking that I had an obligation to serve this great country, either in the military or in some other way. I knew that I wanted to go into the service but I wanted to be a dentist first. I started college to become a dentist then ran out of money so I looked to the military as a source of financial assistance. The thought that I would "play soldier" out in the field getting cold, dirty and looking for a soft bed to sleep in just didn't sit very well with me so the Army was out.
Then the Navy told me that I could be a dentist after I completed some enlisted time and finished my education. It sounded okay to me and since I was married at the time I talked it over with my wife and we agreed that Navy was better than the Army for me. I thought that Navy life would be cleaner and I would be working in a hospital somewhere my wife could be with me. I really thought about making it my career as a dentist. My childhood dentist was a reservist and I remember him telling me how proud he was that he could serve our country by "taking care of the troops" as he called them. He was the one that influenced me the most to serve.
I joined the Navy in 1965 before Vietnam really got started. I had never heard of the country or our involvement in their civil war and I didn't care since I was joining the Navy. I did not for one minute think that I would be fighting in their war.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
The Navy was quick to tell me that they did not need a dentist and that they needed Corpsmen more. It was explained to me that I would be studying the whole body not just the teeth. I was told that if I decided later I could apply for a change to the dental side of the medical department. I quickly learned that the needs of the service were greater than the needs of the individual.
After Hospital Corps School I was stationed in the Naval Hospital in Memphis, TN. I worked orthopedic surgery where I learned how to clamp-off bleeding arteries and learned not to be afraid of the badly injured bodies. We treated 40 new Vietnam patients a day returning to the States. We did surgery on them and sent them to the military or VA hospital closest to their hometown. That training helped me later when I was in Vietnam.
I must have irritated someone because I was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force. I was sent to my second boot camp but this time it was all Marines yelling, pushing and generally harassing us. I thought, "What am I doing here? This is not what I joined for." You can believe at that time I was one mad Sailor.I lived mostly in the field hating the treatment I was receiving and wishing I had joined the Army. I was later assigned to 1/6 at Camp Lejeune, NC.
My life changed when we made our first landing on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. I was in Charlie Company and we stayed on the island for weeks living in the jungle, humping the hills and working with the French Foreign Legion who had just come back from Vietnam. I learned a lot from those guys. This shared experience created a bond between the Marines and the Corpsmen; we all lived together and put up with the same harassment and had a reasonably good time. I treated several real world casualties and the Marines started accepting us as "Marine Docs" - life changed for me.
I fell in love with those Marines and I felt sorry for them, with all they had to go through. It is difficult when you are the toughest fighting force this country has and you have to live up to it every day that you serve. In my opinion that's not only tough, that's Marine tough. I learned that life as a Marine was much more demanding than any other service requires. If I had to go into combat again, you can believe I would be with the Marines.
I served with Mike Co. 3/4, 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. I knew what my job was and I tried to do the best I could. I returned home with 3 purple hearts and an attitude. I was sent back to the Navy where that same attitude got me into trouble.
The Navy was cutting back on Corpsmen and I believed that my career was going to be short. I got out and joined the Army believing that it had to be better than what I had been in. I was awaiting orders to report to Officer Basic when I was called to the White house to receive the Medal of Honor. I stayed in the Army for a short time then returned home and joined the National Guard.
In all, I spent a total of 35 years in the military: Five years in the US Navy which included two years in the FMF with the 1st Bat 6th Marines and 3rd Bat 4th Marines. I then went into the US Army got a commission and finishing finished my career in the military as a Colonel (06) in the Kansas Army National Guard.
IF YOU PARTICIPATED IN COMBAT OPERATIONS, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ACTIONS WHICH WERE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT TO YOU AND, IF LIFE-CHANGING, IN WHAT WAY.
I participated in several combat operations but I do not remember most of the names and dates of the operations. I tried for years to forget and just block out the whole Vietnam experience.
I cannot remember any good times in Vietnam, just the terrible haunting sounds, smells and noises.
OF ALL YOUR DUTY STATIONS OR ASSIGNMENTS, WHICH ONE DO YOU HAVE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY? WHICH ONE WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My memories of combat were different than those of the Marines. My fears were not of dying, sometimes that would have ended my problems. My fears were that I could not save the lives of the Marines that I loved and depended on every day for my own survival. I was more worried about not having the right equipment or supplies to do my job or not having enough training to save the lives of my closest friends. I prayed at night that somehow the war would end and we all could just go home. Over time I really lost my willingness to go on. It's extremely difficult when one of the guys that you spent your whole combat life with is killed.
I suffer from PTSD today because I could not save everyone. I was forced to make choices during a firefight on who lived and who died. I cried with the Marines that died or the guys around me that cried when others died. I wake up at night even now hearing the Marines calling for me to help them or their buddies. I treat myself by helping others get through their problems. I still love the name 'Doc' and I still use it today. I lived my life with a purpose that was and is to serve others; I don't have a life that I can call my own. I will continue to serve and be a problem solver until the day I die. I owe my life to God and another corpsman named Doc' Pickard.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Hospital Corpsman Second Class Donald E. Ballard, US Navy, Company M, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, 3d Marine Division. Place and date: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam, May 16, 1968. Entered service at: Kansas City, Mo. Born: December 5, 1945, Kansas City, Mo.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life and beyond the call of duty while serving as a HM2 with Company M, in connection with operations against enemy aggressor forces. During the afternoon hours, Company M was moving to join the remainder of the 3d Battalion in Quang Tri Province. After treating and evacuating 2 heat casualties, HM2 Ballard was returning to his platoon from the evacuation landing zone when the company was ambushed by a North Vietnamese Army unit employing automatic weapons and mortars, and sustained numerous casualties. Observing a wounded Marine, HM2 Ballard unhesitatingly moved across the fire swept terrain to the injured man and swiftly rendered medical assistance to his comrade. HM2 Ballard then directed 4 Marines to carry the casualty to a position of relative safety. As the 4 men prepared to move the wounded Marine, an enemy soldier suddenly left his concealed position and, after hurling a hand grenade which landed near the casualty, commenced firing upon the small group of men.
Instantly shouting a warning to the Marines, HM2 Ballard fearlessly threw himself upon the lethal explosive device to protect his comrades from the deadly blast. When the grenade failed to detonate, he calmly arose from his dangerous position and resolutely continued his determined efforts in treating other Marine casualties. HM2 Ballard's heroic actions and selfless concern for the welfare of his companions served to inspire all who observed him and prevented possible injury or death to his fellow Marines. His courage, daring initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of extreme personal danger, sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the US Naval Service.
IF YOU RECEIVED ANY MEDALS FOR VALOR OR AWARDS FOR SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENT, PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THESE WERE EARNED.
The Medal of Honor.
OF ALL THE MEDALS, AWARDS, QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICE YOU RECEIVED, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ONE(S) MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
I would say that my uncle, a WWII Navy man who taught me all the basics, had a tremendous impact on me. He taught me about knowing right from wrong and doing the right thing even when it's not in your best interest.
My philosophy is to be the man you most respect and treat others as you want them to treat you. In my opinion, life is a game for which we don't make the rules.
Learning to play 'the game' with a win-win attitude and helping others to win so the game goes on is to me what it's all about. I think it's important to seek to understand others before you expect them to take the time to understand you. If you stay motivated and keep a positive mental attitude you can deal with anything.
I also give all glory to God.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL(S) FROM YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY STAND OUT AS HAVING THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
When reflecting on my service I have to remember and give special thanks to 'Doc' Charles Pickard, a fellow Navy Corpsman who saved my life; otherwise I would not be here today.
I also remember all those magnificent men that deserved the Medal of Honor but did not get it for one reason or another.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR PRESENT OCCUPATIONAL SPECIALTY?
While serving in the National Guard I also served as a Captain on the Fire Dept. I retired from both and I currently own a funeral home and cemetery.
I continue to serve military veterans and their families; I want them to receive the respect that they deserve. I continue to stand on guard duty in my cemetery and I provide discounted funerals and caskets for veteran families to keep prices low.
I am a spokesman for the National Combat Medical Memorial and Youth Education Center, for corpsmen and medics that were killed in combat saving the Marines. I'm trying to help earn money to get it built during my lifetime. I spend considerable time educating the youth of this country as I realize they are our new leaders. I want this memorial to continue to educate long after I am gone. Freedom is not free and we must remember those that paid the full price.
I am retired, but I failed at that job, so I watch over an 82-year-old, 120 acre cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas. I also manage commercial and residential rental property I own.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
I have learned to love and respect people, men and women alike. The military gave me the education I needed to deal with life and every challenge that came my way. I learned that teamwork is the only true way to success and that by helping others get what they want you ultimately receive what you want.
I never wanted any medals, certainly not the 3 purple hearts. I wear the Medal of Honor for all of the guys that were with me, they kept me alive.
When reflecting on my service I have to remember and give special thanks to 'Doc' Charles Pickard, a fellow Navy Corpsman who saved my life; otherwise I would not be here today. I also remember all those magnificent men that deserved the Medal of Honor but did not get it for one reason or another.
I think it is important to understand that Medal of Honor recipients are just American Veterans that did what they thought needed to be done at that time in their lives. I was just doing my job to the best of my ability. I had a wife and 2 kids at home and I wanted to get home safe and alive like everyone else. There were days when I was afraid that I would not make it home. It was the love for the Marines that I was serving with that kept me going and the knowledge that we were all just trying to get home. It was all of us working together and supporting each other that kept us alive - there is no greater love than combat buddies.
This photo shows nine of the Medal of Honor recipients attending the inaugural 2014 Medal of Honor Bowl all-star game on Jan. 11, 2014 at the Citadel's Johnson Hagood Stadium, Charleston, South Carolina. That is me in the front row, far right.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU REMEMBER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND THE FRIENDS YOU SERVED WITH.
Even with the Medal of Honor I did not feel that I could deal with my PTSD. It was not until I hooked up with the guys that I served with that I began to feel better about myself. They were my treatment and they allowed me to be what I needed to be without being judgmental of my feelings or how I was or wasn't dealing with my problems. I looked at life in a much different way after I attended my first reunion. I continue to meet with my fellow veterans and I get stronger after each reunion I attend. I encourage everyone to attend reunions. I don't care how much they hurt at first, healing can't start until you can live with yourself and better understand why things are like they are.
I want to personally thank all of the TWS team members for what you do for our troops. I believe that this networking resource is a very important tool that helps heal all veterans and may even prevent PTSD. We can go through life alone or as part of something bigger. We can associate with our brothers and sisters and continue to build a network to help each other or we can go it alone.
I didn't have the opportunity to talk with any of my buddies after leaving the service, I didn't know if they lived or died. We didn't have this type of communication so it took years to meet up and talk about our problems. Meeting with other Veterans I learned that they felt the same way I did, and by us talking and crying together, we were able to solve or at least deal with problems better with mutual understanding of why things turned out the way they did.
I personally believe that the TWS network is very useful in finding and developing friendships and bonds that help everyone live their lives to the fullest. You will never know when or where you will need someone but by maintaining contacts among friends and combat buddies all will certainly benefit. I wish that this site would have been available to me when I needed help. Sometimes the smallest contact will reassure you when you need it the most. I totally support your efforts to maintain this web site and believe that no one will fully realize the importance of this until they need help. Bonding is very important and I believe that there is no greater love than combat buddies.
I want to help support and motivate our military personnel. I am glad that we have the most patriotic military that America has ever seen. I am quick to tell them that I had motivation to join the military in the 60's, it was called the draft. I was not drafted but I sure didn't want to be either, so I joined. I can tell all those who are currently serving my heart goes out to them each time they are deployed. My thoughts and prayers are with them when they are on patrol or on watch, no matter where they are. I want them to know that I'm behind them 100%, as are all true Americans.
The Vietnam vets are not going to allow the new returning vets to be treated like we were treated when we returned home. No one can ask for more, you have joined the ranks of fearless warriors that have gone before you to fight for freedom, that's what makes America the greatest country in the world. God Bless America and God Bless our military for the freedoms we enjoy today. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you.
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