After 3 Purple Hearts, man remembers fallen soldiers
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Forever 20. That’s how Gene Walters remembers his fellow U.S. Army soldiers in the Vietnam War.
Just weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Walters survived after every other medic in his battalion was killed. They were all in their 20s.
Walters once treated a soldier seriously injured by a booby trap. A nearby helicopter landed in a field of mines and exploded.
Six soldiers lay wounded. Like Walters, they were in their 20s.
Fifty years later, Walters and those soldiers are still just a few years removed from high school.
“I think of boys I knew who were killed,” said Walters. “I have that mental picture of 20-year-olds.
“Even if I look back at pictures, they’re all young people.”
On Veterans Day 2017, Walters looks back on those Vietnam years with display cases filled with military honors. A medic with the 101st Airborne from 1967-69, Walters has three Purple Hearts for combat injuries. Two Bronze Stars, one Silver Star, an Air Medal and other commendations are also a part of his decorated service.
Walters was shot in the knee while caring for a fallen soldier. Exploding grenades left shrapnel in his nose and scalp during two other rescues.
Walters downplays the injuries. But formal declarations from his superiors detail emergency medical care while the world exploded around him.
A Bronze Star announcement from September 1968 states how Walters ran through a “maze of hostile fire” to reach two wounded comrades.
“Exposing himself to the rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire, Private First Class Walters continued to move among the wounded men treating their wounds and directing them to safety. Many times during the ensuing battle, he had to use his M-16 rifle to place accurate burst of fire to cover their evacuation.”
Walter’s Bronze Star announcement from 1969 said he swam a river and “proceeded through one hundred fifty meters of booby-trapped terrain” to reach a soldier in distress. A medical evacuation helicopter landed in the area, detonated a series of mines and injured six other people.
“Disregarding his own pain, he moved among the wounded and with a great deal of professionalism and unsurpassed devotion to duty, he systematically treated all of the wounded. Only after insuring that each man had received all the attention he could give and that they were all as comfortable as possible did he concern himself with his own wounds.”
“It all happened so quick, anytime you got into any kind of skirmish,” said Walters. “Two guys would usually stay with me, as I worked on someone. Then we would move on.
“As a medic, you’re there to protect you and your patient. I’m not there doing all the shooting. Guys were with me, trying to take care of me.”
Walters said Vietnam was not all combat and rescues. He remembers long treks through hot jungles, walks that could take two weeks to reach a new location.
He fondly recalls swimming at the beach in his underwear, barbecues with SPAM steaks and friends who, years later, called him to be the best man at their weddings.
After 15 months in Vietnam, Walters returned to Lafayette to the funeral home job he left behind.
Parasites from contaminated stream water reduced his 6-foot-5 frame to 135 pounds; a local doctor helped him regain his weight.
But Walters said he encountered no Vietnam protesters, flashbacks or other disturbing events.
“I came home, changed clothes and went to work. It was no big deal.”
In 2017, Walters directs his own funeral home, which opened 2010. Phyllis, his wife of 46 years, and their children, Cecile and Ross, all work in the family business.
Life is filled with work, grandchildren and veteran causes. But every now and then, the phone rings.
It’s one of those 20-year-olds from Vietnam, looking for “Doc Walters.”
“Sometimes I get calls like, ‘Doc, I’m having problems. I have a sore throat.’ I said, ‘Dude, I’m a funeral director. I just played doctor.’”