• Frank Haight: Vietnam vet recalls year as a medic

  • As a large U.S. Air Force transport approached a South Vietnam airfield in September 1968, a Viet Cong mortar attack on the battle-scarred runways below kept the aircraft aloft until the ground assault ceased.Among those aboard was  Pvt. Carl “Duane” Burns, an Army medic, who had just completed ...
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  • As a large U.S. Air Force transport approached a South Vietnam airfield in September 1968, a Viet Cong mortar attack on the battle-scarred runways below kept the aircraft aloft until the ground assault ceased.
    Among those aboard was Pvt. Carl “Duane” Burns, an Army medic, who had just completed his Medical Corps training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and was en route to Vietnam to begin a one-year tour of duty.
    With mortars exploding below and the jumbo aircraft circling the landing area, the 1964 William Chrisman High School graduate must have wondered if he would make it back to Independence in one piece.
    “What a hell of a start. I am not even in (Vietnam) and the (Viet Cong) are already trying to blow me up,” he thought.
    “That was my greeting to Vietnam,” says Duane, who was 23 years old at the time and considered an old man by the younger troops.
    Not knowing what was in store for him as a combat medic assigned to a mechanized infantry unit, Duane feared he might not live to be a genuine old man – not after what was said to him by a sergeant, trying to find out where each of the replacements were assigned.
    “How many of you guys are going to the First and Fifth Mechanized,” the sergeant asked the troops sitting on outdoor bleachers at the main base camp.
    “Me and my buddy, John, we raised our hands – just us two,” Duane says, recalling the clipboard-carrying sergeant looked straight at them and replied, “G-- damn. Good luck boys.”
    The 66-year-old veteran says he’ll never forget those disheartening words that torpedoed his morale some 43 years ago.
    Stunned by the sergeant’s greeting, “My stomach fell to the bottom of my feet the moment he said that,” he recalls, then adds: “(The sergeant) never said that to any other guys sitting there, except those going to the First and Fifth Mechanized.”
    Duane, who quickly matured as a battlefield medic, left Vietnam with something he didn’t possess when he arrived – a piece of shrapnel.
    “I caught a chunk in my back and it is laying against my lungs (today),” he says, explaining doctors thought it better to leave the shrapnel where it was than to remove it. “It really doesn’t give me any trouble.”
    The shrapnel came from a grenade a Viet Cong fighter hurled from a spider hole, which Duane describes as a man-sized hole covered with a camouflaged lid.
    The attack occurred while he and a photographer friend were accompanying a mine sweep mission on the other side of a rural village.
    Says Duane, who always armed himself with a pistol and a shotgun: “We were ambling around and (the photographer) was taking pictures. We went through this kind of brushy, wooded area, and the next thing I know, I see this grenade come flying out of a hole. I grabbed (the photographer) and tried to get away from (the Viet Cong) as quick as we could.” But not quick enough. “He caught shrapnel from it, too,” noting his friend “didn’t even have his weapon with him.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Duane, though, made sure the Viet Cong grenade tosser never hurled another one. When he exited the hole, “I shot him and killed him with my trusty old shotgun,” he says, not knowing “whether he had a rifle or not. I was defending myself.”
    Why use a shotgun over a rifle?
    “Personal preference,” he says, noting a shotgun is a close-range weapon and one he was comfortable with as a deer and quail hunter. “We were working in areas that didn’t have a lot of distance to work with. You know, a lot of underbrush and stuff like that.”
    Guess again if you thought Duane’s encounter with the grenade-tossing VC was his closest call. It wasn’t – not by a long shot, he says. His most death-defying experience, though, left the young medic contemplating how he cheated death and why God spared his life.
    Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, Duane’s unit was assigned to provide security for a newly opened dirt road leading to a small fire-support base in the boondocks. Every day, he says, engineers with mine detectors walked the road sweeping it for claymore mines.
    On the day his life was spared, “I was tagging along with (the point team), because (the road) was an open-fire zone,” he says.
    Then BOOM! There was a deafening explosion.
    “You couldn’t see nothing. Just stuff everywhere. We thought someone in the point team had stepped on a mine.”
    But that wasn’t the case. The deadly explosion was triggered by a command-detonated claymore mine, approximated at about a 40-pound charge.
    “Claymore mines have a kill zone like this,” Duane says, putting his two hands together and spreading them to form a V. “They blow out and when there are enough personnel in the kill zone, that’s when they are detonated.”
    Says Duane: “Well, I was in (the kill zone) as well as all the guys ... but I lost five guys right next to me at the the snap of a finger ... others were wounded.”
    How powerful was the explosion?
    Strong enough to snap the strings that prevented Duane’s pant legs from flopping while walking. The percussion also left his clothing dotted with holes, he says, yet, he didn’t get a scratch.
    Known as “medic” or “Doc Burns” to the men in his company, Duane was assigned to the 3rd Platoon, Company A of the 1/5th Mechanized Regiment.
    As a combat medic, Duane was authorized to pronounce life and death in the field just like a doctor would. He was no stranger to death.
    When not performing duties as a medic on a combat mission, he functioned as a rifleman. However, when someone hollered “Doc,” he would cease firing, render assistance and move the wounded to a safe area for evacuation to a base hospital.
    Page 3 of 3 - “Something that worked real good for us were the medical evacuation helicopters. They would come into a hot fire zone, pick up casualties and transport them to the main base for treatment,” he says. “They saved countless lives with those choppers.”
    During his tour in ’Nam – September 1968 to September 1969 – Duane became more appreciative of life, he says, because “it can end quickly.”
    “(Life) is not all bad,” he says, especially if you wake up to another day.
    Since life could end quickly, Duane feared “everything” in Vietnam, he says, because danger comes in so many combinations – like stepping into a bungie pit filled with sharpened bamboo poles. Then there were trip wires, booby traps, land mines and “so many different things.”
    Through God’s grace, Duane ended his two-year military stint without further injuries. He returned home to Independence, put his war experiences behind him, lived a successful life and retired in 2000.
    When Duane looks back on his military exploits, he can see how close he came to meeting his maker.
    “You look at the holes in your pants and the stuff on it, and it makes you stop and thank the good Lord” for watching over you that day, he says, recalling what a member of his platoon said to him following the fatal claymore-mine explosion: “Doc, me and you didn’t die. It’s a nice day.”

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