Three Sisters
Phuoc Vinh - 1969

Michael Herrera
© 2004

by Michael Herrera

The last four months of my second tour of duty was spent at Phuoc Vinh starting in late April 1969. I was assigned to Headquarters and Support Company 15th Medical Battalion, First Cavalry Division. Behind me lay five months with a rifle company with the Cav serving as their medic, and before that, nearly a year with the 101st Airborne Division at LZ Sally. The rifle company I was assigned to was disbanded by Division HQ at An Khe, and all grunts were reassigned to other line units because the entire First Cav had been redeployed from First Corps Tactical Zone to Third Corps Tactical Zone, including Division HQ.

Phuoc Vinh was a much smaller base camp than An Khe but it had its share of EM Clubs, a PX, an airfield, plus the town was on-limits. My job with 15th Med was similar to when I was with the 101st Airborne at LZ Sally, which was to hold routine sick call from morning until noon, and take care of mass casualties whenever they came in from the field on medevacs. The medics and technicians at 15th Med welcomed me with open arms and we worked as a team assisting each other in minor surgery removing bullets or shrapnel, or in any way we could. We pulled routine sick call and most minor surgery in a Quonset hut and connected to it was a heavily sandbagged and fortified bunker where we took care of casualties coming in from the field.

The motto of the US Army medic is "To conserve the fighting strength." Meaning we took care of soldiers in order to send them back out into the field again as quickly as possible to fight again. But we also took care of enemy POWs and civilians who got wounded from getting caught in the cross fire. In this way we were "winning the hearts and minds" of the people. I took the role of being an "ambassador in green" very seriously and am happy to report so did the other guys I worked with.

Soon after I got into the swing of things I noticed three lovely Vietnamese girls come in one day into the Quonset hut to visit a medic that they befriended. All these girls were wearing the ao dai, which is the traditional Vietnamese woman's dress and carried parasols with them as well. These girls really stood out for some reason and the oldest one was really cultured. She had a good command of the English language and was also the most attractive one of them all. She appeared to be older than me. They looked like women of noble character and for that reason it was important I get to know them and that they like me. I was taking care of a GI when they came in and so after finishing his treatment, I went up to introduce myself. As I did I was wondering whether or not they would think I was being too forward. I don't remember what I said to them but they perceived I was not the typical GI behaving in a crude manner. In fact, they were glad I came up to talk to them, which made me glad they were glad.

One thing I do remember telling them was having been with the 101st Airborne. The third brigade of the "one oh one" was assigned to Phuoc Vinh when we first arrived in country back in December 1967 from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but in time the third brigade was redeployed to Northern First Corps Tactical Zone to join the rest of the division up there. Those girls were thrilled wondering whether the whole brigade had returned. I told them "no" it was just me an individual who was now with the Cav who happened to be assigned to Phuoc Vinh. It made me wonder, "Just what did the third brigade do that made them so popular with the girls of Phuoc Vinh? Did they marry some of them?"

The girls told me they were sisters and ran a café in town. The oldest gal was 21 like me, the next one 17, and the youngest one was 15. They also told me that Phuoc Vinh was predominantly Catholic, like them. Therefore, the people were staunchly anti-communist. In general I noticed that soldiers from the First Cav as well as soldiers from the First Infantry Division on base got along famously with the Vietnamese population as a whole. I got this impression during the times I went into town on my time off. However, I could never find their café.

These girls continued to drop by occasionally to visit the other medic that they knew before me but they also made it a point to talk to me as well, and I continued to go into Phuoc Vinh but for some reason was still unable to find the café they owned and operated.
Then one morning as we were pulling routine sick call in the Quonset hut, a GI carried in the 17-year-old girl who was crying her eyes out. We noticed that one of her feet was bandaged and bloody and so we set her down on one of our exam tables to see what kind of injury she had. She had torn a toenail from one of her big toes that appeared to take the skin off underneath it as well. We asked her how it happened and she said she was atop a ladder in the café when she lost her footing and fell but somehow her foot got caught on a step and she was dangling upside down from the ladder by her foot. We all grimaced when she said that.

A sergeant who was the assistant supervisor to the sergeant in charge of us triage medics chose me to assist him in performing a little plastic surgery on her. This man had received some serious intense medical training in the Army, which I did not possess and was involved in major surgery at times with our doctors. He had me put a rubber band on the base of her big toe and then I performed a nerve block with some lidocaine, which is a local anesthetic. After which I scrubbed the area and removed the rest of the toenail from her big toe. Then the sergeant had me scrub an area under one of her forearms real well where I once again injected the site with lidocaine. The sergeant then carefully measured the area where the skin was missing on her big toe and then performed a skin graft removing the skin from under her forearm and then began suturing it onto her big toe.

While the sergeant was grafting the skin onto her big toe, I closed the area under her forearm with sutures and then we dressed both sites, after which we gave her some antibiotics, analgesics, and a pair of crutches. We also told her when to come back for a follow-up visit. She was one happy girl when she left.

Three weeks later we noticed that not only had the skin graft taken hold, but that a new toenail was growing over it. This was remarkable since Vietnam is quite dirty and a typical cut or an abrasion takes weeks to heal over here rather than in just days back in the states. Also due to the injury being on her foot rather than on the upper part of her body the chances for infection was quite high. What's more, we were two amateur "doctors" doing the best we could with what we had to work with, working under archaic conditions. I had performed minor surgery numerous times on soldiers, civilians, and enemy POWs as well and always felt a sense of accomplishment. But this surgical procedure was the pride and joy, the crowning point of my entire time in Vietnam.

After this particular visit I was in town when I accidentally stumbled upon their café. They were exceedingly glad to see me and insisted I have a delicious Vietnamese dish plus all the beer and sodas I could drink-on the house! That is how grateful they were. The other GIs in there wondered how I rated such treatment and I spent most of the time talking to the beautiful 21-uear-old. I also talked to my patient the 17-year-old while the 15-year-old stood there gawking at me waiting until her two sisters were through talking to me so she could say something to me too.

"I sick too!"
"What's your problem?"

I knew these people were educated and perhaps more affluent than other people in the village but didn't realize how affluent they actually were until one day. I happened to be walking down the main street in Phuoc Vinh village when "numbah one girl" pulled up from behind me driving a 1969 Buick Opal Kadett. I blanched seeing her driving a brand new car and she asked me how I was doing. "Fine!" I then asked her where she was headed and she said she was going to Saigon for the day. Then she asked me whether I wanted to accompany her. My mouth dropped to the ground, as I was so flattered she wanted me to accompany her. It made me feel like the luckiest guy in all of Vietnam, Republic of! It was good to know she trusted me enough to behave like a gentleman. I told her that as much as I would have enjoyed going with her I had time constraints and she understood. We talked a little more and then she drove off.

I continued to visit their café where they continued to give me preferential treatment and I continued to spend more time with numbah one sister and my patient. Of course the 15-year-old continued to tell me about her "illness." Meanwhile the other GIs who happened to be in there eating continued to scratch their heads.

"How does he rate all this treatment?" One soldier whispered to another.
"Eat your hearts out guys!"

I made friends with other people and girls in the village and so when the time of my departure was at hand, I said good-bye to everyone, including the three sisters. I received pictures of the younger two but no picture of the oldest one for some reason. Many girls signed my photo album the night before I left as if it were a high school yearbook. Now that I was leaving I kind of felt that I didn't want to go, which was ironic, because given a choice I would rather not have gone to Vietnam. But during the last 20 months in country I found a meaning and a purpose in saving as many lives as I could, as well as in making a difference in the quality of lives of the people we were sent over to help. I decided before I left for Vietnam I was going to make the best of the situation knowing full well that death or dismemberment was a real possibility. I succeeded only too well because in going over to Vietnam I traveled half way around the world not realizing I would discover who I am. I left Vietnam in the wee hours of Sunday 24 August 1969.

Vietnam Moratorium Day

I had been attending Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California for a few weeks and during the entire time was getting into shouting matches with other students over Vietnam. But things reached critical mass on Vietnam Moratorium Day when the anti-war whackos were really out in force on campus. There was some serious shouting going on and during the ruckus I saw two vets wearing camouflage fatigue shirts and boonie hats running down the mall.
"What's up guys? Where you headed?"
"To the flagpole. The anti-war protestors are going to tear down the American flag!"
"Like hell, over their dead bodies they are!"
I also took off with them in hot pursuit to the flagpole and when we got there at least 100 guys mostly Vietnam veterans, along with a few patriotic students had already surrounded the flagpole, and so we joined them. A few minutes later the pansy anti-war bunch showed up chanting, "Peace now! Peace now!" Seeing that so many of us had gotten to the flagpole ahead of them, they would have had a terrific fight on their hands if they tried to break through to get to the flag even though we were vastly outnumbered. In addition, they also recognized the sense of purpose and the pride that we Vietnam veterans truly have and wisely decided to take their march in another direction.

"I have no appreciation for what you did in Vietnam."

I was at a Bible study later that evening and complained to a World War 2 veteran afterward about everything that had befallen me since getting out of the Army and Vietnam leading up to that day's activities. He empathized with me by stating that too many Americans were blind, stupid, ignorant, thoughtless, and insensitive. He no sooner said that when another man who was at that Bible study overheard us talking about Vietnam and then blurted out self-righteously that he had no appreciation for what I did in Vietnam, thus making his point. His sanctimonious attitude enraged me by insinuating that those of us who served in that war were engaging in a sadistic field day. He knew absolutely nothing of the good that we servicemen performed while we were over there. Besides that, he had no damn business butting in! But even as he was flapping his yap the memory of the girl of whom we performed plastic surgery on a short time ago flashed into my mind. I remembered how she glowed when we sent her on her way. Therefore, if I was not a hero to him I was to her and to the people we were sent over to help.
After that evening whenever anyone ridiculed my service in Vietnam, which was quite often, a good, positive, memory of the good we servicemen performed over there would pop into my mind. Those memories were like an oasis in the desert of my private despair. I dropped out of Pierce College soon after and have never gotten a college education.

The author of this story served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and with the First Cavalry Division as a US Army field medic. His tours of duty began in December 1967 and ended in August 1969.
In June 1972 he re-enlisted in the Army where in time he also received the same kind of intense medical training as the sergeant he assisted with in the plastic surgery. He went on to work in military and civilian hospitals, as well as labs and clinics, and continues to work in allied health care.
One final note, in writing this story the author asked for feedback from others that were born years after the Vietnam War ended. One young woman brought to the author's attention the fact that not one female student at Pierce College stood in solidarity with the veterans, stating she would have gladly stood with us had she been born back then. That alone speaks volumes about his generation.

My name is Michael Herrera and served with the 101st Airborne and the First Cav as a field medic. My tours of duty started on 18 December 1967 and ended on 24 August 1969. I was assigned to a medical company, a rifle company, and then another medical company respectively. Logo

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