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Veterans, Military and Their Families


Private Galen Grethen

A young medic dies a hero

Vietnam troops of the 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Brigade

PFC. Robert C. Lafoon/Courtesy Department of Defense Still Media Records Center

The 101st Airborne in 1966.

Vietnam War, 1966
Private Galen Grethen
by Specialist 4 José Andrés Girón

En español | José Andrés Girón was one of the first combat airborne troops of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division to arrive in Vietnam, in July 1965.

It was miserable. Every day we would go out on patrol or on a mission. We’d be wearing the same clothes day after day, going in and out of rivers, pulling leeches off our bodies and burning them with a cigarette. We were lost one time and had no cigarettes, food or water for about three days. I’d dream I was back in Phoenix enjoying a summer night, then wake up in that hellhole. When they finally found us, they dropped some water and food. Those cans of lima beans that we hated, they tasted so good!

And every day we knew we may get killed today; we may get killed tomorrow. But if we could just make it this one year, we could be home, enjoying a hamburger and — oh, my God — 7 Up! We wanted to make it. But some of us didn’t.

I got shot nine months into my tour, when we were hit in an ambush on a search-and-destroy mission in Tuy Hòa. It was deafening, the sound of fire. Bullets everywhere. Everybody was firing like crazy. I got hit in the leg. I yelled for help.

As I lay there bleeding, here comes Doc — Galen Grethen — the medic. He seemed very young. He always wore black glasses on his little face, with a flattop, and was kind of uncoordinated. We played cards with him on our breaks — and he came alive when we played — winning a couple of big pots.

So he heard me and, thankfully, here he comes. I’m looking at him and expecting him to low crawl; we’re trained to low crawl. But then he stood up! And was moving toward me, maybe 10 paces away down trail. I was wondering what he was doing and his eyes met mine, then — boom! — and he went down. He was dead. Just dead. And as soon as I realized that, I thought, My God, I’ve killed him, by yelling out to him. But then, that’s his duty to come.

I didn’t have long to grieve. Suddenly here’s another medic! He came up like Audie Murphy, man. He had an M16 and was firing away and low crawling. He got to me, pulled me behind a tree and gave me a shot of morphine. That was the worst and happiest day of my life, because I knew I was getting the hell out of there. The firing stopped, and they put me on a stretcher, carried me to the drop zone. I was going on that chopper. We got on, and the other wounded got on.

Then they pulled in the body bag with my buddy the medic. I could still picture that little face in that body bag. And I still see it every once in a while. I’ll have a dream, and I’ll see that face staring up at me with his little glasses. And it haunts me.

Girón, 72, who received the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism with the “V” device for valor during his tour, is an award-winning artist and graphic designer based in Phoenix, Arizona. Grethen, who had already helped save one life on the day he was killed, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with the “V” device for valor.

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