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Memorial Day has special meaning for former Army medic

A time to remember

Posted: May 30, 2011 - 11:00am
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Peters, then 26, holds a bunch of bananas in Vietnam in 1967.
Peters, then 26, holds a bunch of bananas in Vietnam in 1967.

In 1966, Art Peters found himself in the jungles of South Vietnam.

He was stationed in one of the northern most camps held by U.S. Army forces.

Living quarters were two soldiers to a bunker. Peters had three different bunkmates during the year he was stationed there -- each one left wounded or killed.

But, it was Peters' job to patch up those he served with. Vietnam, he contends, was a place where an Army medic could keep busy.

Then, Peters was 25 years old.

"I was an old man most of those kids were 18, 19 years old," he said.

Now, Peters is a 69-year-old resident of Ninilchik. But, he still vividly recalls the memories of the time he served in Vietnam -- a short stint compared to his 23-year military career as a medic.

Back in Vietnam, he and his fellow Americans were charged with observing and interdicting the Ho Chi Minh trail and also administering the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program to scores of Vietnamese fighters.

He helped train a battalion of about 500 local men to provide their own defense against the invaders -- skills in small arms, tactics, scouting, demolition, and for Peters, medicine.

"Late '66 is when business picked up, so to speak," he said.

From January to May of 1967, Peters' camp was the most attacked by Vietcong forces -- for five months they were "number one on the hit parade," Peters joked.

The Army forces would regularly take the men out on patrol from the camp to make contact with the enemy.

One particular journey into the jungle changed Peters forever.

He and another American were charged with taking 200 men out and "getting their feet wet," he said.

"We got ambushed," he recalled. "We had 15, 16 wounded, something like that. I got them all patched up and we got them back into a safe area. But, the other American was missing, so I had to go back and get him."

The other solider was pinned down by intense fire and while trying to drag another wounded soldier out of the battle area, Peters caught a bullet.

He was evacuated to a Navy hospital in Da Nang. Officials were going to send him back to the states, but Peters could still walk.

"I was the only medic they had so I had kind of a philosophical commitment to do my duty," he said.

He returned to camp where he continued to help train soldiers, medics and provide care and immunizations for local children during his remaining year in country.

"There's a camaraderie and a brotherhood of men that serve in combat and you just don't leave," he said. "That's your job -- you stay with your men."

For his wound, Peters received the Purple Heart.

Today, Peters will represent the local Kenai Peninsula chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart at several Memorial Day services at cemeteries in the area -- including Homer, Anchor Point and Ninilchik -- helping in other service organizations' color guards.

"It gives us the opportunity to thank the families for that person's service," he said. "I guess it is a time when those people are actually remembered for the service they provided to our country."

As an Army medic, who also served in South America, Peters said he saw a lot of death and destruction.

Memorial Day holds a special place in his heart -- it's a day that weighs on his mind greatly, he said.

"I can't get through taps without a tear," he said.

Peters' story began when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He felt a burden to serve and joined in 1964. He was slated to go to helicopter pilot school, but got "sweet talked" by a Green Beret recruiter to join up with the Army Special Forces.

He graduated from his required medical courses in April of 1966 and was assigned to serve in Africa and the Middle East with the Third Special Forces.

"But, there was nothing going on there, so, I volunteered for Vietnam with the Fifth Special Forces," he said.

Simply put, he stepped into one of the most dangerous professions imaginable.

"You can't be a medic and not make house calls," he said referring to treating a wounded soldier where they lay. "When you are making house calls in combat, there's lead flying. So, a lot of them didn't make it."

Even at 25, the experience was haunting, he said.

"The first few times you have to handle your own friends -- they're beat up, arms gone, legs gone, things like that -- it is pretty traumatic," he said. "But, you get, I can't say hardened to it, but you just put it out of your mind, you do your job, you do the best you can and try to get them to the hospital alive.

"If they were alive when I got to them and I could get an IV in them, most of them or all of them survived. I was happy about that."

Exactly 11 days after getting shot the first time, Peters was wounded again by shrapnel while taking a company of 400 men into roughly the same area, the said.

In total, Peters was wounded five times, only twice officially. He said the others were "minor flesh wounds."

"If you get wounded three times, they send you home automatically, so I just never reported anymore," he said. "I would have had to (report them) if they went into a vital organ or broke a bone.

"They were just shrapnel wounds -- kind of like a big zit. You can kind of pull on the metal, pull it out and it stops bleeding."

In September of 1967, Peters was released from Vietnam.

"Unfortunately, I got out in California -- not a pleasant place to be in the late '60s as a volunteer in the Army," he said.

So, he was sent to scuba school for seven weeks to learn how to be an Army scuba medic.

"You went out diving for bodies and things like that, that's what medics did when someone would drown," he said. "So, it was not a fun job to have, but nonetheless it was another qualification."

He arrived in Central America shortly after the capture and execution of Che Guevara. His work in places like Panama wasn't as intense as his experiences in Vietnam as he provided check ups and immunizations all throughout the area.

However, to get what he wanted out of the Army, Peters went back to Vietnam in 1972 for a second time so he could eventually go to physician assistant's school.

"You know, the carrot on the end of a stick," he said.

"Most of our operations were into countries that were west of Vietnam," he said. "Now I guess they would call it Black Ops where you had to go into other countries and of course you don't get any recognition for wounds or valor or anything because we weren't there."

Afterward, Peters squeezed four years of medical school into one year and headed north for Alaska in 1987, where he started proving up some ground on a homestead on the Nowitna River between Ruby and McGrath.

For the next decade, Peters worked as physician's assistant on the North Slope in remote areas providing care for construction outfits and native villages in the Southeast.

He was recalled back into the military during the Gulf War.

"I had been on the staff of Norman Schwarzkopf before I retired and my name came up and they recalled me and I went back in," he said.

But after Peters had all of his immunizations, the war ended.

Now retired from both medicine and the military, Peters spends much of his time involved in Veterans affairs and various service organizations.

"Everybody thinks the war they were in was the worst war that there ever was," he said. "And it is for that particular person."

At a recent meeting of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Peters said membership in the groups is decidedly older. However, he is not much worried about it. It took him a decade after getting out of the military to join up with any Veteran organizations.

"I think you have to have some spare time on your hands to understand that, 'Well, I'm just sitting around here drinking beer and I could be doing something,'" he said.

The Military Order of the Purple Hearts -- which helps both veterans and residents -- is a group he is particularly fond of. Mainly, he said, it is because of the group's prerequisite -- spilling blood for one's country.

"It is a special group of people," he said. "The shoe clerks and the guys who stayed in Saigon or in the rear areas, they never really served in combat and there is a camaraderie of guys who served in combat. Especially for those who have been wounded because it's terrifying the first time it happens (to you) and it's gratifying when you can meet guys who have been wounded in other wars."

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