An Army medic's tour of duty
Jim Hart, of Worthington, served in the jungles of Vietnam from May 1970 until May 1971.
WORTHINGTON — To the Army buddies he served beside in the jungles of Vietnam, Jim Hart was known as Doc.
It was a nickname — a term of endearment, perhaps — but when those same men, under enemy fire, felt the searing pain of a bullet wound, “Doc” wasn’t the word they cried out.
It was Medic.
Hearing “Medic” on the battlefield indicated an emergency. A wounded soldier needed his help, and while other soldiers tried their best to stay hidden from the enemy, it was Hart who made his way to the injured.
From deferment to draft
A graduate of Fulda High School, Hart was enrolled at Worthington Community College when the U.S. declared its involvement in Vietnam. After completing two years there and going on to earn his teaching degree from Mankato State University, he secured a teaching position in Jackson knowing that he would likely be drafted.
Two years into his teaching career, Hart — then 24 — received his draft notice. He had a mere seven days between receiving the letter and reporting for duty.
“I was ready to accept going into the service,” Hart shared last week from his Worthington home. “I got deferments for being in school and then teaching. I got the draft notice and said, ‘That’s fine. I’ll go and do my two years.’”
Hart reported for duty on Aug. 7, 1969, and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training.
“Most draftees were going to Norfolk (after basic), but they sent me to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for medical training,” Hart said, noting his degree in physical education may have led to his ultimate assignment.
Becoming a medic
By Christmas 1969, with his training completed, Hart anticipated he would be sent to Vietnam. Instead, he was assigned to Fort Carson, Colorado to work as a medic in a dispensary there.
“One of my main duties was giving shots,” he said, noting his work with a doctor who had already completed a couple of tours in Vietnam. “He taught me some things that might help me out when I got in the field; it gave me more confidence.”
Hart was sent to Vietnam in May 1970. His flight left from Oakland, California, with stops in Alaska and Japan before reaching Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. From there, he was assigned to the 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry and taken to Fire Base Snuffy along Vietnam’s border with Cambodia.
He served as a medic with the second platoon in the jungle, and assisted with guard duty when they returned to base.
As the only medic in his unit, Hart was called upon not just for battle wounds, but for basic health and wellness. He carried with him medications and powders — the basics that were needed.
“Malaria was a big (concern),” he shared. “You took a malaria pill every day and one every week. You had to make sure everyone was taking those pills.”
Jungle rot was of equal concern since the troops slept on the ground in the jungle every night.
“You had to make sure people were taking care of their feet the best they could — take their boots off at night, make sure their feet were dry. You just try to do the best you can do,” Hart said. “I had stuff they could put on their feet to prevent it. That was the main thing — prevention.
“In the rainy season you were always wet,” he added.
Hart had an important job to do taking care of the men in his unit, and he always felt appreciated.
“As a medic there, I kind of had it made,” he said. “They love you; they treat you really good.”
Within four months of his arrival in the jungle, Hart was promoted to head medic for the company. He managed four medics and ensured they had the supplies they needed. He also was responsible for calling in medivacs when needed and went out on patrol with different platoons.
“I made sure new medics coming in could handle what they were going to run into out there,” Hart shared. “I think I handled it better because I was older. We had a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds there that didn’t have the experience yet.
“I often wondered what I’d be like if I was there at 18,” he added.
“It was survival. You were fighting for your country but you were fighting to survive — everyone wanted to come home.”
Grunts on the ground
Working to defeat the enemy deep in the jungle, Hart said they frequently wore the same clothes for 10 days, and the packs they carried weighed them down.
“The Army has a rule that you need three squares a day. Sometimes we got hot food on log day,” Hart said. “You’d get your supplies — 30 guys with 90 meals and you’re not going to carry all this stuff with you.
“You took what you wanted and machete’d the rest of it because you didn’t want the (enemy) to pick it up,” he added.
When clothes arrived, the soldiers would dig through the bag and find something that looked like it would fit.
“I had my same pair of boots the whole time,” Hart said, adding that he wishes he had kept his. He traded them in for new boots just before he left Vietnam.
Twelve months after arriving in Bien Hoa, Hart boarded a Freedom Bird for the flight back to the U.S. He’d served his time; he’d done his duty.
“When we left Bien Hoa, you never heard such a loud cheer in your whole life,” he said. “Everyone had a different experience. I’m just glad I could serve my country.”
Hart said he was so happy to be back on U.S. soil that he kissed the ground when he landed in Oakland, California in May 1971.
With his job waiting for him in Jackson, Hart settled in Worthington and returned to the classroom, as well as to the farming operation he’d left behind. Both of his jobs helped to take his mind off of everything he experienced in Vietnam.
Hart retired in 1999 after 32 years of teaching in the Jackson school district. The retirement came four years after he retired as the school’s wrestling coach.
It’s been in retirement — and particularly since losing his wife, Marlyne, last summer — that Hart spends more time thinking about a lot of stuff, including his stint in Vietnam.
The two were quite active in the VFW, both in Worthington and at their winter home in Arizona. Marlyne served in the auxiliary, while he was commander for several years of the VFW. In Worthington, he remains active in the Honor Guard.
The medic’s medals
For his service, Hart earned the Bronze Star, the Air Medal to signify at least 24 combat assaults in enemy territory, the Combat Medical Badge, an Army Commendation Medal with an oak leaf cluster — and another without the cluster, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, Vietnam Combat certificate, and the 5th Battalion 7th Cavalry’s Garry Owen certificate.
Only once, since returning from Vietnam, has Hart attended a reunion of the cavalry he served in, though the group plans an annual gathering. He’s really only kept in contact with one of the guys he served with — an Evansville, Indiana veteran who visited the Harts several years ago in Worthington.
There are others Hart has wondered about from time to time — soldiers he patched up in the field.
“Some, you wonder whether they survived or how they turned out,” he said, recalling Sgt. Woods, who’d had one leg blown off and the other barely attached. “We loaded him in a chopper and he gave us the Peace sign as he was going on. I wondered about him, but I saw his picture in one of our magazines afterwards — he was working with the VA in California.”