More than a half-century after he was wounded in combat in Vietnam, a retired soldier in Deltona has received his long-delayed Purple Heart.
“During that time I was over there, I was a medic, and I was the top medic,” Leroy Bradbury said.
The incident in which medic Bradbury earned the Purple Heart played out in the fall of 1968 in the central part of South Vietnam. It was the height of his more than 18 months in the war zone, and at the height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Bradbury’s story, however, began after his graduation from DeLand High School, Class of 1966. He enlisted in the Army a few weeks later, entering the service Aug. 3.
Bradbury made the Army his career, and the first stop in that career was Fort Benning, Georgia, where he underwent basic training and advanced infantry training.
“I did first aid in advanced infantry training,” Bradbury said.
He later went to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, for more training as an emergency medical technician.
When the time came for him and others to go to Vietnam, Bradbury recalled, he was assigned to the 37th Medical Battalion, then part of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. They departed in November 1967 on the long voyage from San Francisco to Vietnam.
“I went over there with combat engineers,” he said.
Their send-off was quite memorable, as Bradbury and fellow GIs were treated to an impromptu performance by Otis Redding. The soul singer delighted his audience with perhaps his best-known song, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”
Redding was killed in a plane crash a short time later.
Once in South Vietnam, Bradbury worked as a combat medic near Xuân Lôc, north of Saigon. He went on long-range patrols, in which U.S. soldiers marched out of their camps in search of the enemy.
“We went out 10 or 20 miles. We set up ambushes and killed a lot of people,” he said.
Enduring the frequent marches and patrols, with high temperatures in dense jungles, was an effective way to lose weight.
“When I got to Vietnam, I weighed 148 pounds. After three months, I weighed 99 pounds,” Bradbury remembered.
Life during wartime
On one occasion before he was wounded, Bradbury said, he and fellow soldiers were sent to an area where an Army engineering company had been all but annihilated in an enemy attack.
“Three out of 250 survived,” Bradbury recalled. “It was a shocking day. Charlie Company got wiped out.”
Bradbury and others picked up the several survivors and placed them on litters, and then put the litters aboard a jeep.
“We carried them to the 7th Surgical Hospital. There were doctors and nurses there,” he said.
At the hospital, Bradbury, then a sergeant, had the opportunity — and the vital duty — to share his lifesaving experience with higher-educated and higher-ranking medical professionals who lacked the practical skills.
“The doctor just got in-country. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to stop the bleeding,” he recalled.
Bradbury taught them how to stop the loss of blood by manipulating a damaged artery, something they may not have learned in the classroom.
Another day at work
Yet another episode Bradbury especially remembers is rescuing a soldier severely injured in a minefield.
American engineers were seeking out and removing old mines that had been planted during the French Indochina War more than a decade earlier. The victim had stepped on an aging but still deadly mine.
“Both of his legs were severed from the knees down,” Bradbury said.
Bradbury’s fellow medic, a GI named James Arndt, was with him when the explosion occurred. Both Bradbury and Arndt risked their own lives and limbs to get to the victim.
“I ran through the minefield. It was not cleared,” Bradbury said, noting he could “see the prongs sticking up.”
The prongs refer to sensors that, if pressed down or touched, would detonate a mine.
Bradbury was able to reach the victim and begin treating him, applying tourniquets and giving him extra doses of morphine to kill the pain.
“I told Arndt to go and get his legs,” he said.
Both medics and their patient then had to make their way off the deadly ground.
“We made it through there with Jesus’ hand,” Bradbury said.
A medevac helicopter arrived and took the soldier and his damaged legs away to a field hospital.
That was not the end of that story, however, as doctors were later able to reattach the victim’s legs and fly him to an Army hospital in Japan for more extensive and intensive care.
“Three weeks later, we got a letter from him thanking us for getting his legs back on,” Bradbury said.
For Bradbury, it was a rewarding feeling, knowing he had saved a soldier and his ability to walk.
“You see so much blood over there you just get numb to it,” he said.
Hostile work environment
Oct. 14, 1968, was no ordinary day.
As the American camp, located in an area north of Saigon, was being captured by North Vietnamese Army regulars, Bradbury was taking care of a wounded American soldier when five of the enemy rushed toward him.
“I needed medical supplies, so I stepped into the compound. The compound was fixin’ to get overrun,” he recalled.
In the midst of the battle for the camp, Bradbury used his .45-caliber pistol to defend his wounded patient and himself, but he could not fend off the attack from that fifth enemy soldier before the enemy stabbed him in the right arm with a bayonet.
“I shot four. I knocked one out,” he continued. “I’m a medic. I was not going to let anybody take away my patient.”
Bradbury removed the bayonet from his arm and moved his patient to a medical bunker as the battle around him intensified.
“I dragged him to the bunker. The doc said, ‘Put him in the chair.’ The patient was wounded in the left thigh. I gave him morphine,” Bradbury said.
The doctor in the bunker quickly bandaged Bradbury’s wounded arm.
The battle for the camp raged on. Help for Bradbury and the other Americans was arriving.
“Four Huey helicopters were waiting on us,” he added. “The Viet Cong were coming over the wire.”
Not all of the GIs made it out. The communist enemy gained control of the camp, but it would not be for long.
As Bradbury and his fellow evacuees were flying toward Saigon, he recalled, a call went out to the Air Force for retaliation.
A C-130 gunship nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon” — a reference to a song by the folk-rock trio Peter, Paul and Mary — flew over the now-enemy-held camp and unleashed its firepower, including its Gatling-type miniguns.
Bradbury said he and the others waited a few hours and then returned to the camp.
“When I came back, there were about 1,000 North Vietnamese on the ground,” he recalled. “The patient was dead in the bunker, and the doctor was dead.”
To clean up the camp, U.S. Army engineers arrived and dug a huge trench that became a mass grave for the fallen enemy combatants.
Surprisingly, Bradbury related, a few Americans had escaped death by taking refuge in armored personnel carriers and locking themselves tightly inside.
“The soldiers inside the armored vehicles survived,” he said.
Bradbury was eligible to receive a Purple Heart for his combat injury.
A few days after his bayonet wound, Bradbury and other soldiers stood in formation in an awards ceremony — only for him to go away disappointed.
When a colonel handing out the medals came to Bradbury, he had suddenly run out of Purple Hearts. Aware of the awkward and embarrassing situation, the senior officer tried to save face by giving Bradbury his cigarette lighter, in lieu of the Purple Heart, and promising him he would receive the medal later.
Bradbury, who was not a smoker, was quite miffed, adding he felt tempted to throw the lighter back at the colonel.
“When do you get wounded and get a cigarette lighter?” he recalled thinking at the time.
Now Bradbury has finally received his Purple Heart later — more than 50 years later. A service officer of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8093 in DeBary wrote letters to the Army and the Department of Defense, recounting Bradbury’s eligibility. Bradbury received his long-awaited medal in a ceremony at the post on June 10.
Thanks, but no thanks
Back in Vietnam, Bradbury’s combat record came to the attention of his superiors. He was in line for a major promotion in rank.
“I was going to get a battlefield commission,” he said.
A brief ceremony for his advancement from sergeant to second lieutenant was arranged in the spring of 1969, as he was preparing to leave Vietnam. The proceedings were quickly disrupted by an enemy attack.
“Rockets came in and hit the table,” Bradbury said.
The papers awaiting his signature were scattered.
Bradbury was about to board a helicopter and begin the homeward journey when an officer called out for him to come back and sign the promotion papers. He declined to go back to where the warheads had landed.
“It was the wrong day, wrong timing,” Bradbury recalled telling the superior officer.
Bradbury retired from the Army in 1986, after 20 years of active duty, and after attaining the rank of sergeant first class. Vietnam was the high point of his career, but he also served in Panama and South Korea.
Although the Vietnam War is receding into history, Bradbury cannot forget his time in the war-torn country.
“You can wipe off the dirt. You can wipe off the blood. You can’t wipe off the memories,” he concluded.