Gary Bradshaw served with U.S. Marine Corps. He originally began service with the U.S. Navy Reserves in 1966. He was born and raised in Billings. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Bradshaw: "In 1966, I graduated from high school and my dad saw the Vietnam era approaching and he thought the best thing to do would be to get into the Naval Reserve, and as a naval reservist you could go to college, get a degree, maybe go in as an officer. I messed up his plans. My first year of college I didn't keep my grades where they should have been, and they sent me active duty in June 1967."
After boot camp and a short tour on a destroyer, Bradshaw realized that not being able to see land, coupled with sea sickness, meant he wanted to do some other job.
Bradshaw: "So one day in an auditorium, we were in some training and somebody got up on stage and said, 'Who wants to be a corpsman?' And I said, 'What's a corpsman?' And the guys behind me said that it was the Marines. They go with the Marines. They're the medical part of the Marine Corps. And I said, 'Well, that's for me. Marines are on land.' Again, I messed up my dad's plans. He wanted me to be in the Navy, safe on a ship someplace."
Gazette: What did your dad say when they put you on active duty and then when you said, 'I'm going to go on land?'
Bradshaw: "Well he didn't say much about that. At that point, there was very little that could be done. When you're in the military you do what they want you to do."
"I went to a summer tour at Bremerton Hospital. They threw me into a dirty surgery ward, and that was ugly — guys from Vietnam. I had no training, and it was nasty. So my dad ... I don't think he realized what I had gotten myself into."
Gazette: Did you realize what you had gotten into?
Bradshaw: "Not really. Not until you got into corps school. The training started. It was a pretty intense course, pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, first-aid. You do a three-week tour on the hospital on the floors where you actually do care, nursing care. It doesn't really come home to you until you get more involved in your active-duty duties. From there, I served on an officers' sick ward, and we had three officers come back from Vietnam who were wounded. I was there for about seven months, then I spent four months in the emergency room at Camp Pendleton hospital."
Bradshaw got orders for Vietnam with nine months left to serve.
Bradshaw: "It's kind of shocking. But apparently they needed corpsmen. ... I flew into Salt Lake City and met another corpsman who had the same orders I did. While we were waiting for the plane to take us to California, Larry Turner was his name, he and his wife had been married about two years and she came over to me while Larry was in the restroom and she said she doesn't know what's the matter with him, and I can't reach him. And I said, 'Well, he just doesn't know how to tell you goodbye.' And unfortunately, seven months into his tour in Vietnam, she wrote him a letter and said she wanted a divorce. So that was one of the casualties of Vietnam. It just about killed him."
Gazette: Did you have any interest in being a medic before? Did physiology, anatomy — those things interest you before?
Bradshaw: "I had a lot of biology in school. My courses were pre-med when I went to college, and my mom was a nurse and she was always talking nursing. She taught nursing. I had a bent in that direction already."
Gazette: What did you learn working in the hospitals? That put you front and center to the realities of the war in Vietnam, right?
Bradshaw: "Taking care of officers because those were the ones that were wounded that we took care of. Some of the casualties you couldn't believe how calloused their feet were. I took it upon myself to soften their feet and try to massage those callouses out. One officer, he was a colonel and he'd gotten hit by a fragment off a rocket ... he was in body cast from his waist down. He was a great guy. He knew I had orders for Vietnam so he coached me on what to take. He always said, 'Marines don't care.' One night — the first night he was there — he asked for a bedpan and I gave him the bedpan and I completely forgot about it. I was on nights. That's what he said when I came and apologized for leaving him with that. He said, 'Ah, Marines don't care.' Col. McCain — a great guy."
Gazette: What kind of advice did he give you about what to take or what to do in Vietnam? Was it helpful? Scary?
Bradshaw: "He mostly told me about what physical things to take. He said, 'Take a good sharp knife with you. Plenty of handkerchiefs, or a good raincoat. Military raincoats don't stand up.' The problem with my raincoat is that it was too heavy. When you went out into the bush, you wanted to lighten the load as much as possible. When it rained, it was warm and you just got wet. And when it rains, it rains. ... The drops are huge, the size of quarters."
Gazette: Having seen something like you did, was it disconcerting going?
Bradshaw: "There's nobody who can really prepare you for war until you're there. They said corpsman only last about 15 minutes, and I said, 'That can't be possible.' I stepped off the plane at Da Nang and heard machine gun fire off to the right and thought, 'Maybe they're right.' We got on a plane from Da Nang to Quang Tri City, and I checked into the 3rd Marine Division Headquarters and they sent us over to a tent. ... I ran into two corpsman who had come out 3rd Recon Battalion and said, 'You have to volunteer, but it's the best thing you have to do to save your life. If you go to a grunt company, you'll just be shot to pieces because you become out in the bush all the time with 3rd Recon.; you go on missions with four to five, maybe six guys, they insert you in a chopper and you're out for seven days looking over reconnoitering four grids of country. You're only great exposure is insertion and extraction. If they ever find you out there, and there's only five or six of you, I think I only had about 170 rounds with me, and you don't have much firepower, but it was the safest thing to do.'"
Gazette: What did you think when you step off the plane and you hear gunfire?
Bradshaw: "You're kind of in shock. You don't know what to take in. It's disconcerting because you have no idea where you are and where they're (about to) take you. That's one of the things about the military is that you just do what they say to do and hope it comes out all right. Our decision to go to recon was the best thing to do."
Gazette: What does Vietnam look like?
Bradshaw: "The lowlands are grass — high grass, probably 10 to 12 feet tall. Elephant grass that cut your arms if you walk through. It's serrated-bladed grass. Then there are leeches that can reach out 10 to 12 inches to hook on to you. You don't know they've hooked onto you until they've fastened on your skin some place and even then you don't know until you feel something, and then, 'What is that?'"
"It's the whole smell and the jungle. In 1987, a TV series called 'Tour of Duty' and I watched that and it was on for three years. All of those smells from the jungle to the sand to the dirt all came back. Those olfactory nerves in your brain bring them back. It was a flood. It's pretty amazing that you actually can put yourself through the TV in that setting. It's just uncanny what it feels like."
Gazette: Are there still sounds or smells or things today that trip your memory and take you back?
Bradshaw:"Unfortunately, I've seen enough trauma, and I'll be sitting in church and for some reason, somebody's head in front of me will be blowing off part — because that's what we dealt with — a lot of trauma. I ended up after six months with recon, they pull you out of the jungle and they put you in 3rd Medical Battalion. I was fortunate to have a first-class (sergeant) who took me over to battalion that got me involved in triage rather than getting me involved in the wards where they were taking care of wounded every day. Triage was a place where choppers would bring in the wounded and the dead. We would handle anywhere from 20 up to 60 wounded at a time. And if it happened at night and you weren't on — we worked 12 on, 12 off. If it happened in the middle of the night and you heard choppers coming, you just got up because you knew they'd need help. You usually had four to five corpsman on. The docs would come, too. We had career docs, colonels, terrific surgeons and they saved a lot of lives. I watch "M*A*S*H" a little bit. I saw a doctor save a guy's life. Sometimes, when they're just about ready to die, they clench up. Everything would clench up, your teeth. You can't get an airway in. He broke his teeth getting a scope down to force a tube down his throat to get an airway started. He saved his life, but he lost a couple teeth.
Gazette: Probably a small price to pay for your life.
Bradshaw: "For sure. But we had all kinds of wounded — head injuries, shrapnel, one time there was a truck came in with this guy who had gotten hit by a land mine. He went out to open a gate, stepped on a land mine and we went to take him off the truck and ... all of his bones and legs were just mush. There was nothing of substance in his legs. ... That kind of trauma — you just get numb to seeing that kind of stuff. And so you just react. You do what you know to do, and you just react."
Gazette: Is it good that you become numb?
Bradshaw: "It is good to become that way because if you become emotional about what you see, you become ineffective."
He met his wife after he got home. At first they seemed to be opposites. She was interested in church. He was not. But after a few conversations, something changed.
Bradshaw: "Every time we'd ride up to Red Lodge (to ski), she'd talk about Christ. She talked me into going to church with her. It was the first time that I had heard that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I knew I was a sinner, but I didn't think I was a terrible person. I came to realize that I was a sinner and that Christ had died for me. And it took me five months to surrender to him and ask him into my heart. And he saved me from myself. I don't know where I would be. The Bible talks about becoming a new creation when you do that. It's a mystery, and I'll never understand. It was like a ton was lifted off me. It took me awhile to comprehend that Jesus' love goes beyond what I ever did and who I ever was. That he died for everybody and wants them to know that."