Jim Hillibish: We sent our children to fight our war

Jim Hillibish

Kenny and I were the oldest guys in our Fort Knox training platoon. All the rest were hovering around age 18. I was 22, and Ken was 21. We felt like scoutmasters.

Our maturity and the very hot summer earned us a job: ambulance driver. The kids sweated 30-mile hikes in 90-degree temperatures, and we followed in the truck with the big red cross, picking up those who dropped over.

We thought it would be easy, but we soon learned nothing’s easy in the Army. Our worst job was not heat prostration. It was the kids hit by tanks. Our guys marched on both sides of the road, and the tankers blasted past in the center, a few feet from us. One false step, not good.

We were transporters, not treaters. We weren’t supposed to do any medical work. But Ken would not let some guy bleed to death in the back of our ambulance. We asked our drill sergeant, gently, about this obvious problem. He said it was part of the training, but he did steal a medical kit for us.

Ireland Army Hospital was busy. Choppers were landing with severely wounded transferred from Vietnam. Ken volunteered our weekends for stretcher bearing. We soon realized ours were the last faces some of them saw.

We’d go back to our company and look at the faces of our kids. Almost all were forced into service, draftees who could barely tie their boots. I spent time with guys showing them how to spit-shine shoes. So young. And like in all wars, soon to be so brave.

Nobody mentioned Vietnam. We passed around comic books, not Time magazine. That was a good thing. Time was going nuts over our 50,000th killed in action in Vietnam. There were 8,000 more to go in 1971. In our medical kit, we found tags with copper wires for identifying the dead.

Ken later volunteered to be a combat medic, the most dangerous job in the military, and went on to Vietnam. I wrote stories about combat heroes for Stars and Stripes and hometown newspapers, a safe job with plenty of material.

Ken recently sent me an email, our first contact in 40 years. He’s a retired hospital exec and a weekend paramedic, still riding ambulances, still the last face some victims see. He still has nightmares about the copper-wire tags.

I’d checked the Vietnam Wall in Washington for his name. I found other names, four teenagers from our platoon, but not him.

As I searched for names, my eyes refocused. My face was reflecting in the black stone amid the 58,000 names, a generation of young people.

Then I realized we’re all on that wall, every one of us. Go to it, and you will see what I mean.