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Vietnam Voices: 'How am I going to survive this?'

From the Vietnam Voices: Veterans' stories, told in their voices series
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Charles “Doc” Pickard graduated from Billings Senior High School in 1962. He went to Eastern Montana College in business administration from 1962 to 1964. He transferred to the University of Montana to finish his degree but by the second year was “totally flat broke.” He enlisted in the Navy in 1966. This is his Vietnam story.

Pickard: “All my fraternity brothers were getting drafted, and I knew if I dropped out to earn some dollars, I was going to get drafted, so I thought, ‘I want a little more control of this,’ so I enlisted in the Navy with a fraternity brother buddy of mine. The deal with the Navy was a four-year enlistment, and so we both went in for four years.”

Gazette: Was there a reason you picked Navy versus another branch?

Pickard: “I thought I would have a little more control, and I had a doctor in my family that I thought, maybe that might be the route rather than the business. ... I had read all about the corpsmen training ... that’s the route I went.”

Gazette: So could you enlist with a specific job?

Doc Pickard

Vietnam veteran Charles “Doc” Pickard.

Pickard: “You go through boot camp, and there’s a period of time in boot camp where they put you through career (assessment) and what you want to strike for — what schools you want to go to. The Navy is funny because at times they only have certain openings for certain things, and you may have your heart set on something and there’s no openings for it and you go into the fleet. ... They did have openings for dental technicians and medical corpsmen technicians. I had absolutely no interest in the dental, but the medical appealed to me. So, I agreed to go into that. I went to aid school in San Diego which was originally supposed to be a 10-month school, but because of Vietnam, they reduced and made us go on Saturdays and Sundays and told us that if we were in the top 10 percent of the class, we’d get our choice of “C” schools, which was neuropsychiatry or lab tech or whatever. But what they didn’t tell us was because the Vietnam War was heating up, none of us would go to “C” school. We all went to Camp Pendleton. ... That was also a two-month school. They reduced it because of the losses in I Corps and made us go on Saturdays and Sundays until we graduated. Some guys went back home for a 30-day leave, some were shipped right over because of the corpsmen losses, especially in 1967 — there are a tremendous amount of Marines that were killed. When Marines are killed, corpsmen are killed, too. We were pretty well destined to go over there as fast as possible, but what they did do to give you some more seasoning, they’d send you out to hospitals in the United States. The maximum time you could be in a hospital was nine months. Some went in three months because of the need. I happened to get Oaknoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif. I was there nine months before I had to go over in December of 1967. I was assigned to a plastic surgery ward and worked 100-hour weeks on that ward. We would work two 14-hour shifts on the weekends. That was 28 hours on the weekends. Most of our patients on that ward were burn victims of one sort or another from the Vietnam War. A lot of burns from tanks, Willie Peter (white phosphorous) grenades, that sort of thing — a lot of scar revisions.”

Gazette: Did going through this intense training dissuade you?

Pickard: “It didn’t at that particular time. I was still pretty well gung ho. I wanted to continue it. When I was dissuaded and decided not to pick the medical field was after I returned from Vietnam. I had had enough.”

Gazette: You’re stateside and you know you’re going to Vietnam. That’s a foregone conclusion?

Pickard: “We all got orders to begin with to the First Marine Division. ... One day I note to go to the admin. office and I thought, ‘What the heck is this all about?’ They switched us all to the Third Marine Division because of all the loses in Khan Tieng. August through September of 1967 at Khan Tieng was absolutely brutal, and the number of deaths and wounded was astronomical.”

Gazette: You’re back in Oakland, taking care of people who were coming back from Vietnam. Having not been over in combat yourself, did that scare you?

Pickard: “It worked on your mind because you look at these people and say, when I go over am I going to be the shrapnel wound in the head? Am I going to have my leg blown off? Those were the things that would work on you. And so it was sobering.”

Gazette: Tell me about arriving in Vietnam.

Pickard: “We flew into Da Nang, got staged there for a couple of days. Got some more shots. Then up to ... Phu Bai, then to the different battalions that were going to I Corps. You didn’t know one battalion from the next. You just knew you were in I Corps. I was assigned with a few of my buddies to Third Battalion, Fourth Marines. We all went in about the same time. What we didn’t know, there was about 11 or 12 of us in a two- or three-day time period that were assigned to that particular unit ... The first day we were there all we did was fill sandbags and redo hootches and that kind of stuff and get our gear issued. Then we’d go to the tarmac to see if we’d get in or not. When we got there in December of ‘67, the ceiling was extremely low as far as flights go, so they couldn’t get choppers in. They were tremendously low on ammunition, food, everything. So it got to be real critical. When they finally put us on the chopper, we got up there, we were doing a lot of elevation rising, floating up there, didn’t quite know what was going on, we were under mortar attack. So we didn’t know where to run. We were looking around for where to go, and we saw this head pop out of a trench and we ran in that direction and dove into that trench.”

Gazette: That was your welcome?

Pickard: “That was your welcome. That particular night I didn’t go out on a night ambush. You usually went on an operation during the day or a larger-size patrol, and then at the night, you usually have a night ambush. My buddy went, a guy that I came in with. I was on radio, so I had to learn the radio transmissions and how the radios operated. The next morning we woke up, they said get up to the landing zone. They need corpsmen immediately. We didn’t even know what was going on. One of our sister companies had been out and they gotten into a firefight — a bad firefight the day before. My first job when I got there that next day was to tag seven dead Marines up on the LZ. That was my first job.”

Gazette: What could have possibly been going through your mind?

Pickard: “I had that deer-in-the-headlight look. It was just like I had been slammed. It was pretty stark. And I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to survive this, and this has already happened?’”

Gazette: This is day two.

Pickard: “This is day two. Then the next day we got up and they had left a Marine out there that they couldn’t get to and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) had got the Marine who was from Dana Company and they were moving him around, trying to set up an ambush because they knew we’d be coming for him. So, my company was a blocking force the next morning. We got up at 0400. You couldn’t see a thing. Total blackness. I had never witnessed that before where you couldn’t see a thing. I have no night vision at all anyway, so you had to grab the guy in front of you and hope that you never — I had a death grip on his flak jacket because I knew if I lost him I was dead meat. And we walked and walked and walked and walked and walked and got into our blocking position to find this Marine. They caught the NVA cooking their rice out there and called in air strikes and jets and so forth and that was the first day I actually had to patch a guy up ... a guy that had been hit in the eye with a piece of shrapnel. In my enthusiasm to do the job, I ran down the hill and almost knocked him down the hill on his butt. I got him up, got the bleeding stopped walked him to the chopper, filled out his tag and I was one of the happiest guys in the world that I had done that.”

Gazette: What does a medic do?

Pickard: “It usually starts with an ambush, and you never fight unless they think they have the advantage. It’s usually two or three guys on the front of the column that get hit. It’s usually a KIA (killed in action) because they shoot to kill. Sometimes a guy will get wounded and you’ll have to crawl up through wherever you’re at to find out what the extent of the injuries are and you never know what you’re going to find. ... All of it’s different. Every time it’s different. If it was artillery or mortars or firefights, it was all different. That particular day they weren’t firing at us, this was an artillery round, and he had caught a piece of shrapnel. So I didn’t have guys firing at me that day at that particular time. ... Then later on, we did go through the battlefield the Lima Company had had and there was just what they called “782 gear” — Marine gear of all kinds, packs, shovel, rifles, stuff of that kind that was left behind.

“And they said, ‘Look through all the stuff to see if you can’t find this Marine that’s been left out there because they’ve been moving him around.’ And our (air operations) thought that they saw some activity here so he may be in this area. Since I was the new guy, I didn’t know what I was doing and so I was just kicking stuff and fooling around, and there was this black boot’s toe sticking out of the mud and went over and I went over and kicked it, and didn’t move. I started pulling on it and by God if it wasn’t that Marine — that Lima Company Marine. Then my squad leader came over and he chewed me out. He says, ‘Don’t you ever touch anything like that again,’ because of the booby trapping that was going on. Well, I didn’t know that because I was a new guy. They got a grappling hook, hooked it on and pulled the body out. ... I was pretty happy after that to get myself into it and survive the thing.”

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