Vietnam Medic Terrence “Doc” Plank: Earns Respect Under Fire

Medics and wounded, Tet Offensive, Vietnam

This is the story of Vietnam War Army Medic, Terrence Plank. of the 101st Airborne. And what a story. I looked up “The Life Expectancy of a Combat Medic, which is . . . The length of the battle. If the medic is doing his job, he’s moving from casualty to casualty…all the while exposing himself to enemy fire. While the grunts are ducking for cover, the medics are crawling from wounded man to wounded man (or dead man to dead man, to verify his status)”. But not only could the military medic crawl and treat wounds, he was an armed combat soldier who could also stand and deliver. At one point in veteran Plank’s gripping story, he tells who his heros were. I would call them the heroes of a hero. Here is his story. — Linda Smith/The Village Smith

Terrence Plank

In the summer of 1967 my unit was training in preparation for fighting in Vietnam. I was in the U.S Army 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division based at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. My battalion was pitted against the rest of the Division in what they call “War Games”.

If there is one thing I’ve treasured both during my time in the Army and all of theSong Be '68 years since it’s the nickname “Doc”. I don’t doubt that all of the other Doc’s in the military, whether true MD’s or ground pounder medics like myself, feel much the same. It’s a nickname that denotes respect.

In addition to “Doc” I had an unusual radio call sign — “Malpractice”. Let me tell you how I came to adopt such a strange call sign.

In this particular exercise we were designated the “Guerilla Force”, the bad guys using the same kind of tactics that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were using against our guys overseas. The other battalions were trying to locate us, ambush us, and capture us. We had blank adapters over the muzzles of our M-16’s and they shot blanks.

During our training over those long, hot summer months, veteran Vietnam NCO’s told us that it was not uncommon for the enemy to get on our radio frequencies and try to coax a medic or soldier to answer a fake distress call. This would force them to give away their position searching for the phantom WIA [wounded in action]. But the enemy used the generic call signs like “medic” and “bandaid”

We Were Wanted Men

I was told that certain members of a platoon had a bounty on their heads. They were the Platoon Leader, the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), and the Medic. Knock these guys off and that platoon is in a world of hurt. The word was that medics were worth $10,000 piastra and a captured aid bag $5,000 P. That’s a lot of money to a Vietnamese.

Colonel John C. Geraci, our battalion commander, was designated “Mal Hombre” and there were wanted posters for “Mal Hombre” posted in the town of Corbett, Tennessee. The Sargeant Major was tagged “Mal Function” — which I’m sure was in jest. So to follow along in the spirit of things I came up with “Malpractice”.

I remember lying in the bushes one night on my watch and hearing some VC or NVA whispering “Medic. Medic. Help. Me”. Whoever it was knew we were in the area but not the exact location. So our medics were encouraged to come up with a different designation.

The first benefit of the “Malpractice” call sign was that this was a hard word for Asians to pronounce. The second benefit evolved when other troops picked up my sign and I was sent in to take over when their medic went down. I doubt if any of them ever knew my first name.

A Little History

Let’s go back to the beginning of my military experience. I joined a reserve Mash unit between my junior and senior year of high school. So upon graduating in 1965 I was immediately sent to Ft. Ord, CA, for basic training. After that eight weeks I reported in to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, for another eight weeks of basic medic training.

Suffice it to say it was like going through a Red Cross first aid course. Oh, we did learn how to give injections and perform “short arm” inspections. But, there was no Emergency Room rotation or ride along in an ambulance. It was a totally bloodless experience.

I returned to Spokane and worked various jobs until the I became restless and enlisted into the Regular Army in February of 1967. I was in Jump School in April and then on to the 101st.

We Changed The Future

I must interject here that both today’s Paramedic program and the Physician Assistant programs that are now common place and accepted by both the medical profession and the general public, were developed from the experiences, expertise, and independent duty of the combat medics who served in Vietnam. Today’s MediFlights were the result of a stretcher attached to the skids of a Bell Ranger Helicopter in the Korean War. Just watch the intro into the much beloved television show “MASH”. Though I’ve ridden in, and jumped from, beaucoup helicopters, I wonder what the ride must have been like for the poor wounded grunt lying outside the chopper. I doubt any of them thought, “Man, what a view!”)

My Heroes

The “Medivac” or “Dustoff” chopper crews in Vietnam were my heroes. (Ok, the Huey crews that extracted me and my team when we were in deep doo-doo were my heroes too!) It wasn’t uncommon for the choppers with the big red crosses to come down in a “Hot LZ” (landing zone). A Hot LZ means that these brave pilots and medics were setting down in the middle of a fire fight when we had critically wounded kids. They were taking fire when they hovered just above the ground long enough for four or five guys to load a wounded buddy or two.

Minimal Training

I can’t say that medics fresh out of Ft. Sam in that day and age were highly qualified professionals. But there is an Army system that brings people up to speed in whatever specialty they were schooled. It’s called “On The Job Training” or “OJT” . The philosophy of OJT is that if you throw a guy into the thick of things long enough something of value is bound to stick. Luckily for the medics of the 3/506th Battalion we had a top notch Battalion Surgeon who continued our training as we prepared to ship out to Vietnam.

Advanced Training

The Currahee (which means the “Stand Alone Battalion”) medics went through the same combat and guerilla warfare training classes and exercises that all of the paratroopers in the Division went through. We qualified with a number of different weapons, rappelled from cliffs and choppers, and made combat jumps from 800 feet with full combat gear.

We also attended classes written and conducted by Dr. Andrew from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Doc Lovy was not only an eye surgeon but also the first Osteopathic doctor to be commissioned in the US Army. My first impression was that no one would think that this gentleman would ever jump out of airplanes, wear OD green fatigues, and eat out of a canteen cup. He surprised us all with his dedication to make us the best medics he could.

Our OJT occurred in the surrounding woods of Ft. Campbell, the Okefenokee Swamps of Georgia, and the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. We treated snake bites, the beginnings of jungle rot (the skin breaks down when you spend a week in swamp water), broken bones, twisted knees and ankles, and diahrrea. As our confidence and abilities increased, knowing that our unit would soon be in a hostile environment, we knew we could take care of our guys. Training along side the other troopers and caring for them during this time, we earned the right to be called “Doc.

OUT TO SEA

Our training continued aboard the USS Weigel after the entire battalion boarded this troopship in Oakland Harbor in September of 1967. There were 36 medics in the Medical Platoon and we rotated working in the Dispensary during the 22 day voyage. (Don’t dare call it a “cruise”. The food sucked not to mention the salt water showers.)

We viewed World War II films of medics in action and we even saw a film of how to deliver a baby (blush, blush). Remember that we were just seventeen, eighteen and nineteen year olds and back in those days “we were saving ourselves” for the right gal. You’re probably laughing right now but “Flower Power” and “Free Love” wasn’t in full swing in most of the cities and towns me and my buddies came from.

It was on this ship that I learned how to suture and do minor surgery. This is very advanced training for a field medic but it served us well in many instances during our tour in Vietnam. Doc Lovy knew that he wouldn’t be by our side when troopers were struck down by bullets or flying shrapnel or stepped on a booby trap, and he wanted us to be able to perform our duties and handle the most severe cases to the best of our ability.

Our Mission

The primary responsibility of a combat medic — and this may surprise some readers — is to “maintain the fighting strength of the unit”. It’s not our first priority to Medivac anyone with minor wounds or injuries. There is no “injury time-out” in combat or on a combat mission. We treated the sick and lightly wounded and carried on. Our troopers were tough kids and they wanted to keep “drivin’ on”.

It didn’t take long before I realized what an awesome responsibility us medics have. One medic was assigned per combat platoon throughout the companies within the battalion.The platoon strength at Ft. Benning ranged between 30 and 35 members. We were IT for these guys. We were their doctor for the duration and we checked on our guys when “take 10” was called.

We dispensed the anti-malaria pills in the morning and evenings and handed out aspirin for aches and pains. We carried a lot of pharmaceuticals so that we could treat coughs and colds, constipation and diarrhea, allergic reactions, and alleviate pain with pills and morphine syrettes for the seriously wounded. We also carried Serum Albumin (a blood expander) and D5W intravenous fluid in 500 liter bottles.

Doc Lovy taught us how to use intracath needles [needle catheters] that wouldn’t pull out as easily as the standard butterfly. You can’t imagine how rough it is for four guys to carry a wounded buddy with a makeshift stretcher and their gear to the nearest LZ.  Or how painful it was for the downed trooper.

The guys in our platoons had faith in us. They knew that should they become ill or wounded that there was a Doc who knew his stuff, cared about him, and would do their damndest to get them to safety and, ultimately, home.

We Were Also Riflemen
Recon Ready

Unlike the medics in previous wars, we were all trained riflemen. How those medics ran around with arm bands and that stupid red cross target on their helmets, unarmed, is beyond me. When I was in Vietnam I was armed to the teeth and I felt naked without my M-16. My hat’s off to those guys. One of them was my Uncle George who was a Naval Corpsman with the Marines on Guadacanal.

We had to be willing and able to protect ourselves and the wounded should it come down to that.

Happy To Be Home

IT WAS AN HONOR
Being a combat medic is an awesome responsibility for a teenager. But is was also an honor. To earn that kind of respect and to be relied upon in the heat of battle is humbling.

If it weren’t for the additional training we were so fortunate to receive from such a dedicated professional, I don’t know if we could have done the kind of job that the medics of the 3rd of the 506th did. A lot of boys, seriously wounded kids, came home, and for that I am very thankful and proud that us Docs did our job.

Dedicated to Captain Andrew Lovy who was wounded during a rescue mission to downed paratroopers.

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