In the Army-dominated city of Killeen, retired Petty Officer 2nd Class James Henry said it’s rare to meet many Navy corpsmen.
Henry joined the Navy out of high school, in 1965, and when given the option in boot camp of what route to go, he chose hospital corpsman, equivalent to an Army medic, and prepared to go overseas to be part of the war in Vietnam.
He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, from 1966 to 1968 in Vietnam.
Before he began his tour, Henry was given 30 days of leave to go home. That would be the last time, he said, for many corpsmen to see their families.
“Hospital corpsmen over there in the Marines had a very low chance of survival because we were the only ones without a very noticeable weapon. ... The prime targets in Vietnam were the officers, the radiomen and then the corpsmen. The North Vietnamese had a bounty on corpsmen. My life was worth, I think it was 700 piastres, which is about $70,” he said.
Very quickly after his arrival in-country, Henry was confronted with his first casualty, when he saw a young Marine die just a week before the Marine’s tour was complete.
The incident stuck with him, and he later wrote about the event in an essay titled “Helplessness.”
“I wrote it as a college assignment later in life. I wrote a lot about Vietnam. I think it’s part of my therapy,” Henry said.
He compares his day-to-day activities in Vietnam to the TV series “M*A*S*H” — sutures, IVs, minor cuts and wounds, even minor operations in the field, and the routine tasks of giving all the Marines their salt and malaria pills.
“If anything went wrong, it was our job to take care of them,” Henry said.
Sometimes that charge carried a greater risk than the average daily cuts, scrapes and dehydration.
On one occasion, Henry recalls operating an amphibious tracked vehicle carrying 22 Marines, when it was hit by enemy fire.
As it was sinking, Henry safely released the hatch, letting the passengers off onto shore.
“I was credited with saving lives that day, but I was just doing my job,” he said.
His tour in Vietnam earned Henry two Purple Hearts and one Bronze Star.
He retired from the Navy and used his background to teach medical assistance, then worked at a trauma hospital in California for 18 years.
About five years ago, Henry moved to Killeen to be near his son, who was previously stationed at Fort Hood.