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A Volunteer Medic Describes Combat in Vietnam

Wayne Smith grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the second of eleven children and the oldest son. When he was ten years old, his father died in a fire in their home, and the family had to move into public housing. Smith served in Vietnam as a combat medic in the 9th Infantry Division from May 1969 to 1970.

....I was very naive.  I thought we were going to help free the Vietnamese from Communist aggression.  I volunteered.  I believed in it.  My family was proud of me.  The African American community was very divided about the war.  There were some certainly who came out against the war like Dr. King, but there was also still a belief that we should go into the military to show the nation that African Americans could make an equal contribution to the cause of freedom and equality.

....Combat was horrible, but there was a beautiful side as well—the brotherhood between black soldiers and white soldiers and Hispanics and Native Americans.  When we were in combat all that mattered was trying to survive together....I can honestly say I felt closer to some of the people I served with in combat—of all races—than my own family.  Unfortunately, it is very hard to hang on to that communion off the battlefield....

There were very definitely some racial problems.  There were guys who really did hate the other race.  Some brothers just didn't want to be around white guys....

I wanted to be a medic to save lives and I didn't know if I could kill. I wasn't raised to kill. But when I was in combat I was tainted by this blood lust and I, too, became a combat soldier.

....there was a real incentivizing of death and it just f——ed  with our value system.  In our unit guys who got confirmed kills would get a three-day-in-country R and R....I think the kills mattered more to the officers than us.  It was a way for them to get their ticked punched to get promoted.  We had a captain who really pushed us hard for body counts and that pressure came right down the food chain....Ultimately this captain was awarded a silver star based on gallantry in the face of enemy fire.  It was really for putting his men at unnecessary risk and exagerrating the number of people we killed....

When I reupped for another six months I got rotated out of combat and spent all my time going to the villages and treating the Vietnamese.  I was proud of some of the work I did.  Instead of forcing them into this war and telling them where to live and giving them weapons to kill off other Vietnamese, that was legitimate medicine.

Source | Christian G. Appy, ed., Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Penguin Books, 2003) 362-66.
Interviewer | Christian G. Appy
Interviewee | Wayne Smith
Rights | Used by permission of Chris Appy. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website at: http://www.penguin.com.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Volunteer Medic Describes Combat in Vietnam,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed June 6, 2020, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1009.

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