Billy Ray Thomas served his country during the Vietnam War as a combat medic in the US Army from 1968 to 1969. He grew up in Topeka, Kansas, was drafted out of high school, sent to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam in October 1968. He was told when he arrived that a combat medic’s life expectancy was a mere 14 days. “It was seven,” he remembered.
Mr. Thomas’s first day on the job was not typical. “We were ambushed by about 100 [Viet Cong]…my captain was right next to me, telling me to keep my damn head down when he caught one in the helmet…gone…just like that…had to assume the leadership right then and there…who got treated, who got [flown] out,” he recalled. "Bullets flying everywhere…I was scared to death, but you had to make decisions…decisions that had to do with saving people’s lives.” He added, “Anybody that wasn’t afraid was either a lunatic or a goddamn liar.”
I asked him if he ever saw any entertainment, and the question seemed to upset him. “We had absolutely zero (unprintable) entertainment…we had 28 to 30 guys in our platoon…we’d go out on patrols in the morning and again at night, then back to camp…nobody moved at night…moving at night meant sudden death…believe me, no entertainer wanted to be where we were,” he said. He continued, “For chrissakes, we were in the goddamn jungle…..had to worry about more than the SOB VC….you had poisonous snakes…centipedes…(unprintable) Bengal tigers.”
He had one word to describe being away during the holidays: torture. I asked Mr. Thomas if any memories stand out. He grunted and said, “Memories…too goddamn many.” He said quietly, “Never forget a chaplain coming to visit us…we had lost some men in a firefight…they brought the bodies back to camp…chaplain went to each and blessed them…seemed to get a bit emotional with one boy…took him a few seconds to regain his composure…turns out it was his son,” he said, voice starting to crack. “Jesus…never forget that."
He shared one last haunting memory. “Can’t ever forget those shrieking cries of ‘Medic!’….‘Medic!’ … ‘Medic!’…the guys I couldn’t get to but tried desperately to…stays with you forever…nights are a struggle,” he said.
Mr. Thomas was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. “I never talked with anyone I served with about Vietnam after I got home,” he said. He lives in Mashpee with his wife and enjoys his three grandchildren immensely.
Mr. Billy Ray Thomas, thank you for your service to our great country.