“Truth cuts to the bone,” according to Jim “Doc” Purtell.
He uses a truth-above-all writing formula in Vietnam: There & Back: A Combat Medic’s Chronicle (Hellgate Press, 182 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle) to examine his year with Charlie Company of the 1/6th in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade operating out of Chu Lai in 1968-69.
After growing up in rural Wisconsin with eleven brothers and sisters, Purtell enlisted in the Army to escape a domineering father. He was nineteen years old when he arrived in the war zone. Before entering the Army, he knew nothing about Vietnam and had never traveled more than ninety miles from home.
Purtell readily recalls the trauma he felt throughout eight months in combat. He frequently uses the word “scary” to describe life-threatening situations—and those come before the shooting begins.
As a medic, he experienced the downside of humping with the infantry: Back-to-back-to-back ambushes on the same day; a mortar salvo that instantly killed four men; needlessly taking one hill and then another; and being constantly undermanned and overworked.
In his unit, medics normally served six months in the field and then moved to duty at the LZ Bayonet Medical Clinic. A shortage of medics, however, kept Purtell in the field for two additional months, a time when the intensity of his company’s combat encounters increased disproportionately.
Short-timers often insisted on walking close to him in case they were injured. Using this tactic, three men suffered wounds beyond Purtell’s ability to save them. He describes such horrendous events bluntly and succinctly: For example, “Busse had been hit in the heart, and blood was gushing out of his chest with tremendous force.”
Medic school had emphasized how to treat people in a hospital and not on the battlefield, he says. He believes that the trainees were not shown what battle wounds really looked like because the instructors feared the wash-out rate would soar. As a result, Purtell felt guilty that the inadequate training forced him to learn doctoring under fire.
At times, he records his emotions in a voice brimming with puzzlement, plus a touch of naivety. He repeatedly questions why he joined the Army, his role in life, and the meaning of his existence. Occasionally, he appears to be a stranger to himself.
Purtell tells of one incident that still haunts him. At the same time, he describes his heroics in a matter-of-fact tone that strongly relies on what others have said about his actions. He gave me the impression that he unselfishly risked his life out of respect for the men with whom he served. Their needs were the impetus for his devotion to duty.
People, he writes, “have a better understanding of what we went through over there,” he says. Furthermore, reliving the war gave him a clearer understanding of his life’s course. Doc Purtell worked strictly from memory and says that once he started writing the book, he found himself “typing as quickly as my fingers would hit the keys.”
The final product contains seven photographs that include him, but he forgoes notes, bibliography, or an index.
Following the war, Purtell earned BA and MA degrees that led to a career in veteran counseling.
His website is jimpurtell.com