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This Legendary Vietnam Medic Helped Save Lives of New Generation

Master Chief Thomas ‘Doc’ Eagles went from being Catholic monk to Navy corpsman

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AVR Staff

“Let me cut right to the chase,” a former Navy helicopter pilot once told me. “Doc Eagles was simply the bravest and most humble person I have ever met.” 

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This veteran had flown with Eagles in Vietnam. “When I first met him,” the pilot said, “Tommy couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds, but on the first flight I took with him, he carried a wounded soldier out of fire and got him safely off the battlefield.”

​I learned about Eagles while researching my book about the invention of the revolutionary blood-clotting product QuikClot, now standard issue in the first aid kits of all military personnel and many first responders around the world.  

Eagles had been instrumental in getting the product to combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

After Vietnam, Eagles worked at the Marines Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, and presided over the first redesign of the Marines’ Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) in decades. He advocated relentlessly for the inclusion of QuikClot, a disruptive and entirely unknown product that had been discovered by complete military outsiders with no medical training.  

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Largely because of Eagles, QuikClot got to Iraq in 2002 and was credited by the Department of Defense with saving dozens of lives soon after its arrival.

Those who worked with the beloved Eagles — who died at age 71 in 2016, partially from complications of Agent Orange — always recall first his gruff sense of humor. Eagles was constantly laughing and joking. “My ass has been chewed out by generals so many times I can’t sit down,” he often said.

“I bet you’ve never met a man with five assholes,” was another. Eagles was referring to the fact that he had been shot on three occasions in Vietnam. One time, he had run into an open field to save a wounded Vietnamese child. Another bullet had passed through his buttocks, leaving entry and exit wounds. 

But his favorite phrase was “the kid in the ditch,” by which he meant the bleeding common soldier or Marine left to die in a hole in some dark corner of a distant battlefield.

After all, Eagles had been such an ordinary kid himself, hailing from a poor family in upstate New York, who took an unusual route to Vietnam, first arriving there in 1963 as a Catholic monk.

Deciding that the religious life was not for him, he joined the Navy and soon returned to Vietnam in 1966 as a corpsman — a medic who often serves alongside Marines. He was one of the last Americans to leave the country, airlifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon the last day of the war in 1975.

During his years in combat, including at Khe Sanh and during the Tet offensive, he became obsessed with doing everything in his power to save the kids in the ditch. “I don’t really know how many Marines and sailors I helped save,” Eagles once reflected. “I do remember everyone I lost.”

When it was all over, Eagles was among the most decorated Navy corpsmen in American history. He flew on 221 combat missions in Vietnam and was awarded multiple Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.

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He even received a Distinguished Flying Cross — surely the only corpsman to ever win such a medal. I was told that was for helping land a helicopter after the pilot had been killed. With characteristic self-deprecation, Eagles would joke that “it was the worst helicopter landing in history.”

But Eagles, who had two children and helped get the extended family of his Vietnamese-born Karin to the United States, never talked about his medals or his exploits — unless someone asked about them. 

He spent the latter part of his career, before retiring in 1993, at the Marines Warfighting Laboratory single-mindedly trying to ensure that the best medical equipment got to the kids on the battlefield. 

Eagles and colleagues spearheaded the design and deployment of a Forward Resuscitative Surgical Center — a highly mobile, rapidly deployable trauma surgical center — that could be brought directly to the wounded on the battlefield.  

Perhaps his proudest achievement, however, was his critical role in the adoption of QuikClot, a dirt-cheap product made from a simple mineral that despite its early embrace by other service branches was resisted for years by the Army.  

Eagles didn’t care that QuikClot’s inventors were, at the time, down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs working out of an obscure industrial park in Connecticut. All he cared about was that when the Navy tested QuikClot in 2002, the product worked better than all others.  

He told his commanding general that the product was mission critical to the war on terror. Anything to save the kid in the ditch.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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