Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Veteran's Tale

11/11/09 -- Today is Veteran's Day. There is one story I always think of on this day. Not to be misunderstood, I think of other stories as well. But this one . . . always.

It is a story about a veteran who I knew many, many years ago, by the name of Dennis Johnson, a medic who hailed from, as he liked to put it, "Ala-by God-bama." And then he's smile.

Without a doubt, Dennis was the bravest person I ever met.

"D" or "Doc," as he was sometimes called -- a lot of medics get that nickname -- served in Viet Nam with the 62d Engineer Battalion, Land Clearing (LC) during much of 1970, and into '71. The 62d had three companies that utilized mostly D-7 bulldozers, with large "stinger" Rome Plow blades, and with semi-protective cages. They were used to clear back growth from the roadsides in order to reduce ambushes, and to cut swaths in the jungle to break up the V.C. or N.V.A supply routes.

Dennis Johnson was a fun loving guy, probably 19 or maybe 20 years old, always with that quick smile and a deep drawl. But when things got hot, Dennis was the guy you wanted nearby, along with his (medical) aide bag.

In mid-June of 1970, Dennis was one of three medics attached to the 984th Company, (LC), which was at the time camped out in a night defensive position (NDP) deep in the Fish Hook region of Cambodia, north of Thien Ngon, all part of the overall attempt to locate and rout COSVN HQ. The Company had located on a slight hill, in the midst of what had obviously been an N.V.A. encampment, as it was laced throughout with an underground tunnel system.

On the evening of the 19th, a Friday, the 984th was attacked with ash can rounds (modified 107 mm mortars), 82 mm mortars, and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire. The day before the 984th had dug up a whole bunker complex while out in the cut, exposing and capturing a whole raft of supplies, including medical supplies, N.V.A. supplies, including obviously officer-related materials (NVA flags, pictures of Ho Chi Minh), that indicated our troops were perhaps close to the sought-after COSVN Headquarters complex. Both the 984th and the security element had been sporadically attacked out in the cut during the day. The N.V.A. were obviously not happy at all with our troops' presence.

When they attacked the 984th on the evening of the 19th, Dennis Johnson did what he always did. He'd immediately grab his aide bag, and head right in the direction of the attack, looking for wounded troops. He acted so quickly that night that it may have saved his own life. I was later told that within seconds, a second mortar landed right next to the tent he had been in, injuring both of the other medics who were located in that tent. So Dennis had to patch up and participate in the dust off those two, along with about twenty other injured troops, during the ensuing attack. Three of the 984th Engineer Plow Operators were killed in that intense attack.

For his actions that night, Dennis was awarded a Bronze Star. But everyone I ever talked to about it, including several men who were right there that evening, felt that Dennis had fully earned a Silver Star for his singular gallantry and intrepidity under such intense hostile fire. Acting virtually alone on the ground, Dennis saved the lives of many, many men that night. The story that circulated thereafter -- of why he was only put in for a Bronze Star -- was that the officer who made the recommendation simply refused to put "D" in for an award higher than he himself was being put in to receive. I hate to say it, but having known that officer, I tended to believe it. The officer was later relieved of command over the 984th.

I don't know where Dennis Johnson is today. I wish I did. A few veteran friends and I have tried a few times to reach him, once back in the late 1980s when a few of us gathered in Washington to visit the Wall. But, I have kept in touch with one of the other two medics who Dennis patched up that night, a young kid from San Francisco, who at the time was about 18 and had dropped out of high school before being "persuaded" to go in the service. But by the time Mike eventually returned to the United States, he had earned a G.E.D., and then secured himself a college degree. Mike then went on to medical school, and has spent the past thirty some years as a medical doctor, and raising a wonderful family.

Imagine tracking back now, not just to Mike, but to all those whose lives were, and to this day are by extension being touched for the better because "D" Johnson stopped the bleeding, or started an IV, or secured or stabilized a broken limb . . . and not just that night, but the many times, and with uncommon courage, he stepped up and did his job under enemy fire.

Imagine. His story is truly one of the reasons we so honor our veterans.


At 10:27 PM, November 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

May God bless D Johnson and all our veterans. Thanks for your service.

At 10:34 PM, November 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like so many veterans, service beyond self. Thanks for sharing.

At 2:10 PM, March 13, 2010, Blogger Unknown said...

I was Looking also for a Dennis Johnson,Silver Star Vietnam,he was from Massachusetts.
Close family friend,If you see this "Denny" Steve says hello(Beverly's Brother).
Thanks to all who served,(especially my Brother Ed).

At 2:51 PM, August 21, 2010, Anonymous John Mccuiston said...

Hello, My Name is John McCuiston. 40 years does a lot to your memory but I have never forgotten any of the guys I served with in the 984th. Every one of the men there that night will forever remember this incident. And will forever be changed because of it.


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