Why SOG RTs Ran Without Medics

SF_CrestIn our review of Gentle Propositions by JS Economos, we mentioned in passing that one of the myriad details Economos got right was, “why not many medics ran recon.” This stirred a little discussion in the comments, with Medic 09 (a former IDF medic) asking:

[Y]ou piqued my curiosity to ask for a spoiler (as a once-recon-medic from elsewhere): why don’t (didn’t) many medics do recon? I suspect today things are different?

Vietnam SF vet Tom Schultz replied:

In response to Medico 09 can only remark on my unit at my time. (VN68) Medics in too short supply and bluntly had skills and training too valuable to be risked on a recon team. Nothing to complete a successful recon requires any medical training. We had no shortage of a medics volunteering to do so but they ere always turned down. When the shit hit the fan, though they were the first on the ‘go get ‘em’ chopper.

That was more or less what Economos had said, and we elaborated (some typos corrected):

As Tom has already noted, medics were in short supply in SF in Vietnam, including in SOG. Medics were needed in several critical missions, including in the dispensary at the FOB (generating healthy teams to launch on recon was the main mission of the FOBs), as “chase medic” on helicopters (having an SF medic on the bird saved many a life), or sometimes standing “bright light” alert (although this last was often done by Recon Teams without medics).

SF Medics were not only in short supply in SOG, but in every time period in SF history. The reason is the medic course (once 91BxS, now 18Dx) is the longest and hardest MOS course in Group, not excepting the officer course (actually one of the easier MOS phases) or the operations and intelligence course (now the 18F intel course) which has usually been reserved for soldiers who already have a base SF MOS. The medic course is ~18 months long (and always was) and is demanding in terms of intellect required, effort required, and ability to master specific skills. SF guys are all special (it says so right on their uniform shoulders now!) but the docs are really special.

Now under the Joint SOF Medic Training schema all SOF medics get trauma medicine equivalent to the SF medic’s. But the SF guy also gets communicable disease, epidemiology, and many other specialties that are required in the UW environment and not in direct ground combat. Most every medic will treat a combat wound, but the SF guy also has to diagnose and treat cholera!

Secret CommandosAgain, that’s based not so much on what Economos wrote but on what we’ve heard from scores of guys who were there running recon, and that’s why it impressed us that Economos, who as far as we know is not an SF, let alone SOG, vet, knew that.

But we happened to get even more corroboration, from someone who should know: LTC (Ret). Fred S. Lindsey. Lindset has written a remarkably thorough book, one of the life’s work variety, about CCS, called Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia. Here’s what Lindsey (whom we don’t know personally) says about medics and RTs, after introducing the CCS Medical Section and its duties to care for the roughly 1,000 men of the FOB and the indigenous men’s family members:

We are fortunate to have SGT. Don McIver’s fine memory to describe the details of the medical staff and the facilities. He notes the following upon his arrival in late July 69. “Changes in the mission and responsibilities of the medics had changed in recent months. Two medics were KIA on recon missions, at least one of which involved the medic serving on a recon team. It was SFC Jerry Shriver’s team that was wiped out in Cambodia on 24 April and medic SGT Ernest C. Jamison was KIA on that mission. Only three weeks later on 23 May, another medic, SGT Howard S. Hill, was KIA on another mission. Word came down from the Tactical Operations Center (TOC): no more medics on Recon; they are too valuable and too few. In a sense this was correct. Medical Specialist training lasted 42 weeks with tactics and techniques phase 1 and phase 2 adding another four weeks onto each end of the training cycle. Weapons, Communications, Operations and Intelligence, Engineers: each of these MOS-specific courses lasted 16 to 18 weeks plus the T&T’s tacked on. Less than a third of medics who started the course finished including those who may have been “recycled” to begin a particular course of study again and to graduate with the next class. It was estimated in 1968 that it cost $130,000 to training SF medic! In my experience, I was in the Army for 18 months before finally completing my training – Basic through the Q Course – before being assigned to the 7th Group.” ….

“With only nine medics and the prohibition against medics going on Recon missions, medical supervisor SFC [Jerry L.]Prentner begin reorganizing the medical clinic, commonly called the dispensary, and medic duties…. Schedules were made to allow medics to serve in three equal capacities: (1) Dispensary duty including sick call, emergencies, and patient treatment and ward supervision; (2) ground operations with the two company-sized Hatchet Forces (one with Montagnard troops, the other with Cambodians); (three) flying Chase Medic for either the MLSN or MLSS [Mission Launch Site North/South -Ed.]. The Chase Medic rode in the first evacuation helicopter or Slick, because that helicopter usually picked up the wounded. Those assigned North typically flew out of BMT [Ban Me Thuot –Ed.]. Those assigned South would stay at the MLSS at Quan Loi for periods of the week to a month or more. That’s where we earned our “air miles” for Air Medals (if we were counting!), inserted and pulled out Recon teams on “hot” and “cold” extractions, and got our “emergency medical treatment” experience treating the wounded. No lack of excitement for the medics!”

Lindsey notes that the Chase Medics on the helicopters often deserved, but seldom received, valor awards. Here’s his explanation:

Our medics were unbelievably heroic and professionally qualified. I would not have hesitated to have them remove my appendix, if the case warranted. Their heroics in the field, especially in the Chase Medic role, were very impressive. Unfortunately and shamefully, our medics did not get nearly the valor award recognition that they deserve. CCS was very poor in this regard, including when I was the CO. We were just so damn busy fighting the war over a 200+ mile border frontage. Always a fire to put out or crash to recover. Part of that problem was that the aviators seldom knew who the SF guy was riding along with them. They wrote up all the crewmembers for tons of awards that were well deserved, but very seldom a recommendation for the Chase Medic. That was most often done by the Launch Officer who was on the forward support site (FSS) duty that day, who rode along in the C&C ship. Likewise, the medic seldom knew who the pilots and gunners were in their chopper. Everyone rotated. Though belated and insufficient, we hope that our book will help give them proper recognition.

As you might surmise, we find Lindsey’s book a treasure trove of valuable information. There is a great deal of errata to the book posted at http://www.ccs-sog.org/, also.

14 thoughts on “Why SOG RTs Ran Without Medics

  1. aGrimm


    I was a corpsman with the Marines’ 1st Recon in ’70-’71. Recon closed down in Mar ’71 but left a reinforced Company behind and we worked until the end of April. I got into Recon when, on day-one of being in-country, a bunch of us docs were asked for volunteers to Recon. Without a clue as to what Recon was, five of us said, “Sure, why not?” We only got two weeks of Recon training (it was intense), then we were put to work. For the time I was there, I have reviewed all of the 1st Recon Command summaries (link above) and it is clear that only some of the teams had docs assigned to them. We corpsmen were kept busy. For example, in the seven months (after training) that I worked the field, I did fourteen patrols and eight other operations. They would sometimes send one of us out to cover a CPP which was running patrols off of it. Bluntly, I saw little reason for a doc on patrol. I only had one minor injury in all my patrols (four involved firefights), but I definitely became a reasonably good rifleman.
    I got the Navy Achievement Medal w the combat “V”, so I find it interesting that many docs did not get a valor award. That sucks if they deserved it and did not get it.
    My nephew was also in 1st Recon during Iraq/Afghanistan. His team’s doc was imbedded and went through all the Recon training and more. I had the opportunity to meet a couple of the docs. I greeted my nephew’s Company when they came home from Iraq after a tour. Seeing the training these docs went through, I was slightly embarrassed at the way I got into Recon.

    The above link leads to 1st Recon’s Command Summaries for the entire time 1st Recon was in Nam. There is a wealth of information to be found in them. It was an “interesting” journey down memory lane for me upon delving into them. I think “bittersweet” is the closest word to the emotional roller coaster.

    1. Hognose Post author

      1971 was when Group moved the colors back to the USA. The C&Cs took off their green berets and operated as “Task Force 1 Advisory Element” in I Corps, TF2AE in II Corps. There was an effort to hand the whole thing over to the ARVNs but since the RTs indigenous members had been mostly either ex-NVA or ethnic minorities (Yards and a few Nung teams), they didn’t mesh well with the ARVNs, and the Saigon cowboys that they brought in were not natural born recon runners (unlike say Montagnards).

      Vietnamese could be plenty brave. The 219 Sqn. King Bees that supported SOG with obsolete H-34 helicopters proved that over and over again. But they didn’t seem to connect with the minorities, from what guys tell me.

      I’ll make a point of looking at the Marine Recon reports. As I understand it, Marines ran with all-US teams (like the in-country Army LRRPs and Rangers) and unlike anybody else, the Marines ran some pretty heavy teams (14 guys sometimes?) and walked in and out more frequently, rather than always riding helicopters (probably because they didn’t have the thousands of helicopters the Army did).

      There were a dozen or so SOG operations that went in by parachute. The good news is they didn’t have helicopters signal their arrival. The bad news is they didn’t have helicopters to pull them out if they landed on the 999th Ho Chi Minh Trail Battalion bivouac area.

      1. aGrimm

        Medic09 – were there sterile fallopian tubes in the women’s health boxes? : ) An old medic joke for the rest of you.

        I’ve never thought about whether or not docs should be with a Recon team, so this has been an interesting discussion and makes me wonder more about how I got into Recon via the volunteer route the day I got to Nam. It makes me curious as to some of the command and personnel decisions that were taking place. Anyone have any links to records of those kinds things? On CPP ops I did many of the health maintenance chores including burning shitters – that was always a lovely task. However and as I noted, my medical training and skills were highly underutilized. I was able to contribute a skill I learned outside of the Navy/Marines – map reading. I grew up in a boating family and the whole family learned to read charts/maps by the time we were ten. I got us back on track after being inserted in the wrong location more than once.

      2. aGrimm

        Hognose – I suspect that, because I was with 1st Recon at the very tail end of its operations, my experience may not be typical. That said, none of the teams I went out with ever exceeded eight guys. Force teams were usually much smaller as you will see in the Command Summaries. We always went by helicopter unless we were running ops off of a CPP. In the latter case, we would walk off the hill and walk back on unless the s**t hit the fan and extraction was needed. Typical CPP patrols lasted only a day or two, where regular patrols lasted 3-5 days (barring a problem). We got stuck in the field for eight days one time because the weather was awful. I was one hungry, tired SOB after that patrol.
        PS: If you review the Command Summaries, look for Op #0174-71, 3/30-4/1/71. Worst patrol I was on due to having a bunch of untrained (in Recon) grunts on the team who had been brought in to reinforce the Company. Additionally the team leader was sicker than a dog with bronchitis (cough, cough, hey NVA here we are!). If you would like to see it, I wrote up a complete description of this patrol for a family history. The CS report does not do justice to what a fubar this patrol was. This was also the only patrol where a team I was on suffered an injury, but it was so minor that I got pissed at the Marine for taking me off-line in a fire fight and I let him know it in no uncertain terms.

    1. Hognose Post author

      It’s interesting the way medics would talk themselves onto RTs, then either get pulled off for the other duties, or worse, when a medic got whacked and command got nervous.

      I spent some time in 10th Group on what was then called a SOTA team, an intel collection team that ran with 6 guys and no medic. We were keenly aware of our vulnerability. In 1984, one of our guys deployed on Flintlock (big UW exercise) as an evaluator for an 11th Group reserve ODA, and they were dropped from 200-250′ into 150′ pine trees due to a navigational error. All members of the team were injured, and two of them critically, including Kris and one of the USAR soldiers named John. (A month later, they were both still in the hospital in Stuttgart). The two injured guys only lived because there was an experienced SF trauma medic on the Reserve ODA, who not only had run with SOG, but was some kind of civilian EMT-P or something. He had made every guy on the team carry a liter of blood expander, and he used it all before they could raise Exercise Director HQ and get a medevac (by vehicle as there was no HLZ).

      That explosive tree landing was SF-career-ending for both Kris (who suffered a badly fracture pelvis) and John (whose injuries were mostly facial and cranial).

      As I understand it, the SOT-As that succeeded our old SOTA do not run independently any more, but attach men to ODAs. One reason is to have medical support. (Another is that they are no longer allowed to go to SFQC, except to transfer to 18 something and an ODA. And a third is probably that times change, and that was 30 years ago — Flintlock 84).

      1. medic09

        That’s an excellent, if somewhat rare, example of why a good medic on team/patrol/etc. is invaluable. Mind you, that role could be covered by a very good trauma medic who has a lot less training than a SF medic. A lot of time and money is spent teaching SF medics community medicine and veterinary stuff and educational techniques for the nation building role. That stuff isn’t needed for a strictly combat role. Even the public health and health maintenance aspects (important when living in the field) are a lot simpler if you only concentrate on an athletic, otherwise healthy, young to middle aged male population. SF is truly Special that way. Other medics can be trained up to cover all the needs of a light combat team in a lot less time, even while providing very high level care. That also potentially allows more medics in a unit. Of course, we still had a pretty good fail or drop out rate and were always a bit shorthanded. Then of course there was the time we arrived for a month of static work (out of a fixed spot) in south Lebanon. When I got there and saw the boxes marked for women’s health and pediatrics, I immediately asked ‘who know’s how to use this stuff?’ Fortunately, we had a couple of good MDs with us for that assignment.

  2. medic09

    Thanks for that follow up. That’s really good information, and interesting history.

  3. Bill K

    The conversation above parallels a conversation we had decades ago about whether surgeons should ride ambulances to disaster sites. UA flight 232 crashing in Sioux City was in view at the time. After some debate, the consensus amongst the American College of Surgeons participants was that although there was a very slight benefit of surgeons over paramedics in terms of triage & field care, the greatest saving of life related to rapid transport since so many injuries were not field-treatable. Furthermore, keeping surgeons where they had all the equipment and support personnel was a better use of resources.

    I don’t know if the Army ever had this conversation regarding recon medics, but I do believe that if my buddies were seriously injured, my #1 priority would be to get them to a full-care facility ASAP, and except for a few procedures (the ABCs – airway, breathing circulation, as in plugging sucking chest wounds & pressure hemostasis) everything else I could offer in the field would be a distant #2. So my first question in picking a recon medic would be, “How fast can you phone home and then track-star it to an LZ?”

    1. Hognose Post author

      We have several levels of field medics. First is simple buddy-care first aid. At the start of the war, everybody knew how to treat for shock and apply direct pressure to a wound. Now most members of combat units do a “combat lifesaver” course that is more intensive. It includes tourniquets, packing a wound with kerlix, treating a sucking chest wound.

      SF and other SOF have long had much more medical cross training. Everyone can do all the above plus start an IV, treat cranial wounds and tension pneumothorax, intubate a patient, and most everyone has had live tissue training (at least in my last Group, where it was part of SFAUC and the usual training cycle). The medics are trained to yet a higher level and can conduct some surgeries (including amputations). It’s not exactly routine but they are trained to cut down to a bleeder than can’t be otherwise stopped. In addition, SF medics have a lot more general medicine, internal medicine, sanitation, lab work, epidemiology. A lot of SF medics go on to medical school or PA school. A few become nurse practitioners.

      I probably should have posted more about CCS’s dispensary. They had a staff of Montagnard nurses and lab techs that were trained by the SF medics. There was an artillery unit on the base that had a staff physician and they would occasionally call him in for a consult. He would go away envious — he was dealing with sniffles and flag football injuries, “and you guys are doing real medicine over here!” In those days the Army drafted doctors, as well as riflemen.

      We ran a UW clinic in the Madr valley that was popular with the Afghans for many miles around, but when we got two vets in for a VetCAP that was a much bigger deal. One Afghan farmer explained, “If my son croaks, I have others, but my donkey cost me real money!”

      1. aGrimm

        Hognose: I am amazed and proud of our US forces when I learn about all the outreach stuff some of you were (and some still are) doing. I had only a vague idea of this until a few years ago. This blog and others have really opened my eyes. Thanks. It seems that the idea of “winning the hearts” has been practiced routinely by our armed forces for a long time. The concept works, yet time and time again since the Vietnam war our politicians seem to pull the rug out from under this worthy goal and abandon those whose hearts we have been winning. I can only ask, “Why? What has become of this country’s ideals? Our military supports the ideal/idea, why can’t our politicians? Why can’t our people?” I would have loved to be working in one of the clinics you have talked about.

        1. Hognose Post author

          It was great. All of us who were interested in it got to treat wounds and illnesses, under the guidance of our medics and the battalion surgeon (who flew out to “visit” and decided to stay, ignoring recall messages, because our clinic was more fun than that clinic).

          On the other hand, there was so much suffering we just could not help. What can you do with a barefoot kid goatherd with worms? You can’t give him worm meds… he’s going right back to the goat pen. You’ll just wind up with a kid infected with the fittest of the damn things.

          There was a beautiful little girl, about 7 or 8 years old, who lost her right hand to a Soviet butterfly mine trying to gather honey. (Those things were twenty years old — now they’re thirty — and still deadly). Like most Afghan 8 year old girls, she was the size of a 5 year old. Malnutrition. And she explained that losing the hand was bad enough, but it meant that no man would want her and she’d never have a husband, so her family would never get a bride-price, and so they really resented her now.

          There was a guy who got into a dispute between two families over a marriage contract that was bought and paid for when the prospective bride and groom were small kids. It was now time but the relative status of the families had changed. In the resulting dispute he was knifed from groin to sternum, and a minivan showed up after an 8 hour drive with him holding most of his intestines in. We couldn’t get a medevac for him and sent him about 8 more hours of bumpy roads to Doctors Without Borders in Bamiyan. He survived the wound, our intermediate aid (not really first aid after 8 hours) and the total of 16 hours drive and the French doc saved him.

          The guys who knifed him took off for Peshawar, where they probably joined the Taliban or Haqqani network. So his injury did succeed in cancelling the wedding, at least.

          1. Bill K

            So you’ve also experienced the heartache of seeing your best efforts undone by some perverse or foolish twit, a member of the legion that always finds it easier and more fun to destroy than to build. This is another of the reasons that men above a certain age stop believing that utopia can ever be achieved in this life. Pandora has let too many critters loose.

          2. Hognose Post author

            I think even as a boy I had more faith in the destructive powers identified by Murphy than the constructive ones of Man.

            We had a helicopter coming to us to pick up an Afghan boy we could not treat. He had an abscess through his jaw and cheek, and we were hoping they’d do surgery on him at Bagram. The helicopter diverted to another mountain camp for a more critical local national, and it crashed enroute home, killing the crew and patient. That was a bad day.

            But what can you do? You try again (as it happened, when we finally got the kid out, no one in country could do anything for him).

            Then there was a terrified little sick kid I put on a medevac Black Hawk with his wide-eyed uncle (minors always had a parent or guardian medevaced with them). He was so upset, I hugged him and kissed him on the top of his head.

            Later I asked the docs, “What did the kid have?”

            “Bacterial meningitis. You didn’t touch him did you?” D’oh!

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