The Vietnam War — Jim Keul — of MEDCAPS, colonels and carwashes

We’ve been learning about Jim Keul and his Vietnam service after graduating from Tracy High School and St. John’s University with an Army ROTC commission.

Jim trained as a Medical Service Corps officer and served at the Fort Monmouth, New Jersey hospital before receiving reassignment orders to Vietnam, arriving in early January 1968. The Army assigned him as Medical Platoon leader for the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment at Cu Chi, Vietnam.

Jim led over 40 medics, one with each platoon in the cavalry’s company-level units called Troops; while others worked in the Squadron’s medical dispensary; with the medevac helicopters; and with Jim and his tracks (Armored Personnel Carriers or APCs). He had a steep learning curve, but quickly became effective, leading and learning from his medics with casualty collection, combat triage, life-saving field treatment, and evacuation services.

He explained that some of their medical missions were unrelated to the cavalry squadron’s typical operations.

“There were missions that were supposed to help the Vietnamese. They called them MEDCAPS — Medical Civic Action Programs. When we were in base camp they would pick a village and we’d show up with our medics and doctor. We would go to a prescribed building and people would come in with TB, wounds, or whatever. The intent was good, but if you don’t have continuing medical care and follow-up, you can treat only a few things. Maybe they have severe infections, so we’d prescribe broad-spectrum anti-biotics.”

But even MEDCAPS involved risk.

“Those weren’t all that secure. Usually, we’d have one or two tracks go along as security; heavy infantry on .50 cals and some M-60’s. [Viet Cong insurgents] didn’t like us because we were trying to win the hearts and minds of these people. One time we pulled in and the mayor of the town [had been] beheaded. The VC were telling the people in the community, ‘You better not align too closely with Americans.’ We were always concerned that if they knew which building we were using, they might detonate it.”

But whether they were supporting dry season field operations or convoy security during the monsoon, Jim and his medics always felt an underlying concern.

“I think that [hurt] morale because we could go out; lose two guys; come back and have nothing to show for it. A sniper would pick somebody off or we’d hit a mine and kill a couple guys in the APC. ‘What did you accomplish today?’ ‘Nothing, we lost Joe and Bob.'”

Jim credited the leadership of their squadron commander, Lt. Col. Otis, for knitting the squadron into an effective unit.

“Everyone would perform for him because he was brave and a helluva leader. As an example, when I got there, he interviewed all of us. He asked me, ‘What do you know about being a medic?’ I said, ‘You could probably put it in a thimble.’ He said, ‘Lieutenant, you’re going to be okay.’ When we were in the field, he was in the field.”

Jim recalled the day the squadron lost him.

“We got in a helluva firefight that day. [Lt. Col. Otis] took an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade that hit his APC); it punctured his lung. I was there to get him on a litter and call in a dust-off. When the colonel is hit, that’s a big deal. A couple high-ranking people come and the chopper gets there. I’ve got the colonel on the stretcher. They grab the stretcher from my guys and drop him in the rice paddy. He’s in agony. He said to me, ‘Hey, doc, tell those sons of bitches you can handle it.’ That was the last day I saw the colonel in Vietnam.”

Losing his commander and gaining a new commander taught Jim about the impact of losing a good leader.

“When we got this new colonel, he never spent the night in the field with us. He flew around at 4,000 feet. He wasn’t like Otis. I wouldn’t say [we] fell apart, but guys wouldn’t walk that extra mile and put their life on the line as much as they did for Otis.”

Life in the field was rugged, but it had reassuring elements as well.

“When we were in the field, they’d fly a Chaplain in and we’d have absolution. There was no confession. (Jim chuckled) We’d call that, ‘The Chaplain’s instant car wash.'”

Another reassuring element was chopper resupply.

“When we were in the field, mail call was everything. A chopper would come in with food, mail, fuel, and ammo. Probably ammo was #1 and then food.”

Jim shared a story about the importance of hot rations in the field.

“We’d been through a heavy day of fighting in Chu Lai. We’d been eating C-rations about three weeks. So, in the morning we were going to have a hot meal. The choppers dropped off about four Mermite cans with scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. They put it out and the minute guys started going, mortars are coming in, but guys are still going after that food. (Jim laughed) Some of them are crawling over to the Mermites. They’d rather eat those eggs than get on a .50 caliber.”

Another reassuring element of daily operations was that each day brought Jim closer to his DEROS (Date of Estimated Return from Overseas Service).

The Lyon County Museum is organizing an exhibit about the Vietnam War’s impact on Lyon County. If you would like to share Vietnam experiences or help with the exhibit, please contact me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com or call the museum at 537-6580.


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