From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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By Walt Cronin

A Vietnamese fishing village near Chu Lai
in Walt's area of operation in 1970.

The Combined Action Platoon (CAP) to which I was assigned consisted of 12 Marines and one Navy Corpsman. We later described ourselves as Peace Corps workers with rifles operating as units in the countryside of I Corps outside of Da Nang, Vietnam in 1970.

Winning the hearts and minds was the official mantra we were told when being given an area of operation to conduct patrols, ambushes and operations to attempt to ensure that the Viet Cong and NVA not control the locals by kidnapping village chiefs and murdering them or using their terrorist tactics to convince some villages that wished to have allegiance to South Vietnam be left unmolested from their influence.

As a nineteen-year-old Navy Corpsman, I have to admit that my knowledge of politics was minimal and our involvement in Vietnam by the late sixties was obviously a "let's get the hell out of here" mentality. We flashed peace signs to each other everywhere we went, while hitching rides on military vehicles on Highway One, the main asphalt artery running north to south. Mainly, our platoon of Marines worked with a larger group of local militia types who were called Popular Forces. These were locals who were their National Guard (young, old and in-between) that we tried to train while living in their hometown villages in our area of operation. I was more idealistic in the beginning, trying to work the civic action principles of this very different type of infantry unit.

I would hold medcaps, which were basically mobile clinics where I would set up a wooden table and chair in front of a Vietnamese home on a dusty main street while the villagers all lined up to be examined and diagnosed by me, a nineteen-year-old Navy medic. I was called Bacsi, which is Vietnamese for doctor. A heady title for a teenage corpsman. They usually just called me Bacsi-doc.

The tedious drudgery and sometimes freakish minutes of terror in the CAPs seemed to blend into the day to day existence of never knowing when you might die or be horribly wounded as we witnessed this around us. Our Vietnamese counterparts seemed to appear to bear the brunt of this since command had dictated a year previously that the Vietnamese had to take the lead on patrols and operations. There was always the fear of a sniper round or stepping on a booby trap while on patrol or the knowledge that the same CAP a year prior had been wiped out in an ambush while on patrol.

I told a Vietnam vet friend of mine recently that my recollection of Vietnam was comprised of two words: chaos and bullshit. Chaos being the insanity of war and bullshit being the reasons we were there in the first place.

There are so many memories, many of which are blocked and repressed, but will still creep up in a sweaty nightmare some 40 years later. There is the recalling (if I wish to go there) of other mundane recollections as well. Basically I was just trying to do my job as a medical corpsman, of which I had gone through much training to become.

Before leaving my last duty station at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, DC, I had worked in the ER learning skills that might only be approved to be performed by medical doctors in the civilian world. I knew other competent corpsmen that could set a broken limb or apply a cast among many other skills. I also remember going to The Moratorium To End The War in October of 1969, which as military personnel we were strictly prohibited from. But being politically naive, curious, and very interested in girls, I attended along with a half million others. Pete Seeger performed that day.

After receiving orders for Vietnam the next month, I was officially designated as a Navy 8404 FMF (Fleet Marine Force) Combat Corpsman since we were now Navy personnel officially attached to Marine Corps units, which I learned had one of the highest mortality rate of any MOS (military occupational specialty).

After completion of Vietnamese Language School, which was a 2-week course when arriving in-country to help us understand Vietnamese customs, we were then assigned to 1 of the 4 Combined Action Groups operating in I Corps. The Lt. Col at the completion of the course seemed to take some kind of sadistic pleasure in telling us 40 corpsmen lined up that day that only 50% of us would be making it home. He said if we wished to have him write a letter to our folks at home, he would tell them about what job laid ahead of us in the civic action program we were about to embark on.

After being there a few months in the CAPs, I was doing the best I could under the circumstances. This one afternoon, I was told that a local farmer had sliced his hand open while in the rice paddies. He was in a nearby hamlet to where we moved that evening since being a mobile CAP was now our modus operandi so that the enemy would not know where we might be set up on any given night.

We'd learned that the older stationary units could bring on an attack more likely from the Viet Cong. We also knew that we never knew who to really trust living among the people, and knew that we actually lived with Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers, in what I perceived as a very screwed up war indeed.

What I learned most interestingly early on was that these poor peasant farmers and their families just wished to be left alone by both us and the Viet Cong.

As the Marines I was with set up our nightly perimeter and sent out their ambush team, I entered the farmer's humble straw-made home to set up my medical bag on a rough wooden table with a kerosene lamp. I tended to his wound, cleaning it with anti-septic while laying out my suture kit. I injected lidocaine to help numb the area. Using forceps and a needle, I then carefully applied individual stitches along the length of the meaty part of his thumb he had sliced open.

I realized that this farmer had never been treated by anyone in his life for anything medically related and I also thought he could very well be either a Viet Cong or sympathizer.

Years later I learned that the Viet Cong actually highly respected us for the humanitarian works we performed while in these CAP units, and sometimes didn't harass us because we were actually helping them in some odd perverse way in this equally strange war.

As I squinted in the poor light to mend this Vietnamese man's hand, I heard a Marine who was sitting quietly nearby say: "Geez, Doc, where did you learn to do shit like that?"

Walt Cronin was a Navy Corpsman (medic) with the Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam in 1970. He is on 100% service-connected disability due to PTSD. He is a folk and country singer/songwriter, writing about his experiences of life in America as a disenfranchised veteran. Visit his website at

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