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Vietnam Voices: 'It was very hard to watch these connections of family. It was great to watch it'

Vietnam Voices: 'It was very hard to watch these connections of family. It was great to watch it'

From the Vietnam Voices: Veterans' stories, told in their voices series
Lawrence McGovern

Vietnam veteran Lawrence McGovern was assigned to Chelsea Naval Hospital outside of Boston as a corpsman.

Larry McGovern joined the U.S. Navy in 1966. He was born into a Navy family, his father was a career officer. He served as a medical corpsman. While he was never deployed to Vietnam, his job was transporting and caring for the wounded returning from Vietnam. This is part of his Vietnam story.

McGovern: "Some of the most vivid memories are growing up as a dependent of a naval officer. (I) got a haircut every Monday of my life with my father. And then would be dropped off at whatever school I was at, unless it was summertime."

Gazette: Was it the military haircut?

McGovern: "There was very little left once I left the barbershop. The immediate respect that we were taught to have (for) all people in uniform was automatic in our household, and that has stayed with me for my entire life, as I have never since I was discharged from the Navy in 1966 let a person in uniform get by me without attempting to stop them and thank them for what they're doing for this country."

McGovern originally joined the U.S. Navy Reserve. After a short stint in college, he went active duty and did hospital corps training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.

McGovern: "Clearly at that time I had no idea what that was going to mean to me for the rest of my life from the standpoint of relationships and ... I had wonderful experiences as a corpsman for the Navy.

" ... At that time, Vietnam was starting to rear its head and the need for corpsman to be assigned to the Marines became quite realistic and visible to all of us. My recollection is that every corpsman who graduated from hospital corps school was pretty much on notice that you were likely going to be attached to the Marines at some point in time. There were some that went to ships, some to naval hospitals, which I did right out of corps school.

" ... It was really quite startling the number of those young people who came out, went with the Marines and went to Vietnam. The frequency of their being injured and/or killed was exceptionally high. Most Navy corpsman would easily be able to talk about that. It was unnerving, for sure."

Gazette: When your father said it was about time to go into the military, was active duty something expected or anticipated?

McGovern: "I did anticipate it because part of the Navy Reserve program was a certain amount of time of active duty that was expected."

Gazette: Navy because of your father?

McGovern: "Navy because that was the only choice. I have a son who is a Navy veteran as well. He surprised me with his enlistment. He knew it probably was the wisest place for him to go."

Gazette: What's a Navy corpsman trained to do?

McGovern: "A Navy corpsman is trained to do certain health care, medical care that is significantly less than, obviously, than a physician or even nurses do, but a long tradition in the Navy that the corpsman were there to render basic, primary care. Before they'd be sent into combat they were really quite well trained by the Marines Corps to be combat Navy corpsman."

Gazette: When you went into active duty in 1964, Vietnam was rearing its head as you said ... did you get the sense that there was a war coming and it could affect you?

McGovern: "Yes, and it was actually part of the training program. The likelihood of this was looming and it would be faced."

Gazette: Did it scare you?

McGovern: "Yeah, it did a bit."

McGovern was assigned to Chelsea Naval Hospital — beyond the city limits of Boston.

Gazette: You didn't go to Vietnam, yet you experienced Vietnam in a very real way. Tell me what you found yourself doing in Chelsea.

McGovern: "The returning wounded from Vietnam were returned to the region that they enlisted in so that young men that were wounded and had initiated their service from that particular part of the United States, we will call it New England, were flown to an Air Force base just west of Boston and the corpsmen from Chelsea Naval Hospital would take ambulances to Hanscom Air Force Base and we'd pick these wounded military personnel up and take them to Chelsea Naval Hospital for continued care. They were obviously stabilized elsewhere before they were flown those long distances. That was the beginning of a remarkable part of my life, being almost exactly the same age as some of these kids coming back that were terribly, terribly injured; certainly something that made the Vietnam stories more vivid for me. One of the other corpsman who seemed to be the ambulance mate for me, after we picked up this first young person — I wish I remembered his name — he was Army and he had had a lot of abdominal injuries and had IVs hanging and so forth. We determined through quick discussion with him that he would really like to inform his mother and dad that he was on U.S. soil. For those of us that can't live without a cellphone today or a laptop computer, that didn't exist in those days. Our solution was to go to a store and get some change and hold this young man up to a roadside pay phone, not a phone booth, but a roadside pay phone that was housed in an aluminum shell ... That particular afternoon, we were a witness to a call between a young man and his parents that I'll never forget."

Gazette: What did he say?

McGovern: "He said among tears that he was home and where he was going. We did this many times. I couldn't tell you how many times but it was in excess of 50 during the next period of months. One of the things that happened routinely was the parents would get to Chelsea Naval and find out where these kids were, whether they were in orthopedic wards or surgical wards or wherever. (They) would insist on meeting the corpsmen who provided the service — the ride and the half a dozen dimes or whatever it took. As I mentioned to you earlier, I often thought of writing a book about this. I never gotten to it ... In eight or 10 months when I retire, I'll maybe give it some further thought. It's an event that occurred over and over and every one impacted me almost identically the same. It was very hard to watch these connections of family. It was great to watch it. It was very hard to watch."

Gazette: What made it hard to watch?

McGovern: "The emotions were just incredible. Many of them would practically not be able to talk, and we would intervene and say that we were the Navy corpsmen and were from Navy and Chelsea Navy hospital and that we were bringing your son to Chelsea, and he looks pretty good and hopefully you'll be there pretty soon."

Gazette: Because they were overcome by emotion?

McGovern: "They couldn't talk."

Gazette: It strikes me the routine of it. You would have to stop at a pay phone just right after you got them off the plane? How did that work?

McGovern: "After the first experience, we never went there with less than four or five bucks' worth of dimes, we were ready for that. And we used the same phone."

Gazette: Really?

McGovern: "Yeah."

Gazette: Why not wait until you got back to the hospital? Surely they had long distance there.

McGovern: "They did, but they'd been traveling for a long time. Most of the flights came from San Francisco and they would stop at several bases across the country. I assume their families knew they were on the way, but they just needed to make contact."

Gazette: Were most of these guys who were coming back ambulatory?

McGovern: "No."

Gazette: So how would that work?

McGovern: "We would hold the litter up to the pay phone. If it was one Navy corpsman, it might not have happened. It took a couple of people to hold them up those pay phones. We would actually initiate the calls and then lift them up almost always. There were some who weren't able to talk — they had neck injuries and so forth."

Gazette: What were the parents' reaction?

McGovern: "We didn't hear all of that, but when you did hear it, there was lots of emotion, lots of loud noise."

Gazette: Most of these parents knew their son was injured and coming home, right?

McGovern: "They had had initial contact."

Gazette: What a scene that must have been: You're just on a pay phone that the public uses. You're here and there's this ambulance with two medics and these people who were wounded making a phone call. Seems like a surreal scene.

McGovern: "It got the attention of some passers-by."

Gazette: Did you notice them?

McGovern: "I did."

Gazette: Did any of them ask what was going on?

McGovern: "I don't recall any asking or stopping. We were instructed by senior enlisted personnel at the Air Force base that we were to take them straight to the hospital, no stops and so forth and so on. We broke the rules on the way, but it was well worth the effort."

Gazette: When you loaded them back into the ambulance, what was the reaction afterward?

McGovern: "They seemed very relieved. They seemed like they were home."

Gazette: Did every one of them ask or did you offer?

McGovern: "We offered after the first one."



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