Gary Maples served as an Army medic in Vietnam from 1968-1969.
“I got a draft notice. I was not about to volunteer,” he said.
He graduated from high school in his hometown of Emily City, Michigan, where he had played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track. He got married two months later. The 1960s were a turbulent time of anti-war demonstrations and anti-establishment.
“It was tough. But I decided if I’m drafted, I’ll go,” he said. “One day I got my letter from Uncle Sam saying, ‘congratulations, you’ve been drafted.’”
Six weeks later he was at Basic Training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Either the day of, or the following day of finishing Basic, he was sent to Ft. Bliss, Texas, for his AIT training. He was assigned to be an automatic weapons crewman. He had 30 days of leave and then it was off to Vietnam.
When his superiors saw his records they said, “In civilian life, you were an attendant nurse. We will have you work with the doctor for 90 days and then you will become a medic.”
So he become the medic for his artillery group. He rotated between the home base at Dong Ha and two outposts in the demiliterized zone.
The outposts were very primitive. They lived in a bunker. He would take a turn as perimeter guard. They watched with binoculars.
“If we saw a good target we would call it into the artillery,” he said.
Maples paused, reliving the horrific events once again.
“I don’t think you can ever forget,” he said. “It’s always a part of you. And there’s survivor’s guilt. I look at the whole thing and the time spent there and lives lost. What was really accomplished? I look at my 14 months there and I ask why. We need more time to transition. I see a lot of vets who were not able to transition. They have one foot in war and one foot in society and they struggle. And then there’s the things we are willing to talk about and some are between me and God and we don’t talk about it with anyone else.”
Shortly after he went home he lived in an upstairs apartment with his current wife. It was two blocks from the fire station. In Dong Ha, whenever there were incoming rockets and mortars, a siren would blare, signaling the troops to take cover. The fire station siren sounded just like it. When it went off in the middle of the night, Maples would scramble to take cover. It was like he was back in Vietnam again.
One time, when it was Maples turn to relieve a medic at the outpost, he got on a little chopper that was to fly supplies to the home base. They were zipping along in the highlands up in the mountainous region with rolling hills. The pilot never flew in a straight line, but was always zigzagging, flying low to the ground. Then, even over the noise of the chopper, Maples could hear the rounds hitting and saw the small holes. The pilot immediately took evasive action.
“We flew so low to the ground it was crazy. I thought I would barf everything up,” Maples said.
The other medic was supposed to get on and fly to the home base, but the chopper was hit and needed to be checked out. He stayed the night. They sat together on top of the bunker, chatting away, smoking cigarettes. Carl, the other medic, got up to relieve himself, his cigarette still dangling from his lips.
“He took a sniper shot and he was down. I did CPR. I tried to bring him back,” he said.
Later, Maples kept thinking he could have been the one to get up. He could have been the one killed.
“That’s the survivor’s guilt,” he said.
But it was the soldiers that went out on patrol who really had it tough.
“I used to watch some of the infantry guys come to the outpost. They’d be out a week or two weeks. I took one look into their eyes and stepped back and got out of their way. They had an animalistic look. They were just haunted.”
As a medic, he saw lots of wounds, lots of blood, lots of death.
“When you have someone die in your arms, and they say, don’t let me die, don’t let me die, doc, but I worked on them and tried to save them,” he said. “I realized that wasn’t my decision to make.”
“Hopefully, they made it to a field hospital where others could save them and take care of them. I know I was able to help some. It’s just had an affect on me. I’ve struggled,’ he said.
He worked to serve in the VFW, but struggled and quit going.
“I’ve never felt worthy of that,” he said.
But he feels he may start going again. He acknowledges all veterans as his brothers and sisters. And most veterans find ways to volunteer, and to help families and their community, he said.
Maples was going to be assigned to Ft. Benning, Ga., to help in the field hospital after his time in Vietnam, but he decided to extend his time in Vietnam instead.
“When I’m done, I just want to be done,” he said.
He had been married for seven months when he began his military career. When he got back from service his wife said they needed time apart. Instead of sending a ‘Dear John letter’ she had waited until he got back. They were quickly divorced.
“I met my wife three months after that. We’ve been married 52 years,” he said.
Maples got into copper mining and they moved to Arizona, and later to Ely, Nevada. He took early retirement from his job in copper mining, and went to school, receiving a degree in education. Teaching school became a rewarding second career. He taught seventh grade math in Rigby for seven years and was an instructional coach for new teachers for an additional four years. In 2018, he fully retired.
“That was just a passion for me to teach—especially middle school kids. They’re an interesting bunch, trying to figure out who they are,” he said. “I gave them 100 percent.”