Medal of Honor winner reflects on service to country, fellow veterans
Navy veteran and medical corpsman Donald “Doc” Ballard didn’t think twice when he rolled over a grenade to save the lives of Marines under his care.
As a young sailor assigned to the M Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division in the North Central Coast region of Quang Tri province, he snaked his way through the thick forest of South Vietnam in the late 1960s to provide medical assistance in case an enemy’s bullet found its moving target. Almost 50 years ago on May 16, 1968, Ballard began treating two marines who suffered from heat exhaustion. North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers patrolling in the area began firing on the rifle company, and while under fire, the Navy corpsman attended to a wounded Marine when an enemy grenade landed near Ballard, the wounded Marine and four of his buddies. According to numerous accounts, Ballard threw himself on the grenade to shield the five Marines from the blast.
To Ballard’s amazement, the grenade didn’t explode, but once he realized what had occurred, he hurriedly threw the grenade away from the Marines where it then exploded, saving all of them from severe injury or death.
The 72-year-old Ballard, who traveled to Sparks last weekend for the state Veterans of Foreign Wars mid-winter conference and visited the Veterans Administration Hospital and other venues, said that was only part of the story detailing his heroism. The grenade that dropped near Ballard and the Marines was the third one flung by an NVA soldier. The first one thrown by the enemy soldier exploded, and a second one hit Ballard in the helmet, who grabbed the grenade and threw it back, before tending to the injured Marines.
His actions were reflexive. He faced death, but that was secondary as he was more worried about ensuring the Marines were evacuated alive.
“What motivated me that day was the love and love sharing with my fellow servicemen,” said Ballard, who left the Navy in 1969.
The following year President Richard Nixon and Gen. William Westmoreland awarded Ballard the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest personal military decoration for valor.
“I was the first recipient to receive a Medal of Honor without an injury. Life is funny looking back. I have the same convictions I hold today — taking care of my buddies,” he said, adding he grew up in a military family that held the attitude the military is where generations of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters have served their country.
“I never met a Medal of Honor (recipient) until I became one. I set out to go there to do my job and do the best of my ability,” he said of his tour to Southeast Asia.
Ballard said less than 1 percent of Americans have worn the military uniform, and they’re the ones who understand what it means to protect or save a buddy. As with many veterans who served in Vietnam, Ballard said he lost many friends and that affected him even after he left the Navy. Of the veterans serving during the Vietnam era, he said only about 10 percent saw combat.
DESIRED TO BE A DENTIST
Originally, Ballard enlisted in the Navy to become a dentist, but because of an overabundance of sailors enrolled in the service’s dental school, the Navy “persuaded” him to attend the Hospital Corps School. Afterward, he decided he wanted to become a hospital corpsman with the Marine Corps, and the Navy then sent the 20-year-old sailor to the Field Medical Service School.
Ballard, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and still lives in the area, also spent 30 years in the Kansas Army National Guard where he attained the rank of colonel, having retired in 2000. Westmoreland had offered him a direct commission in the U.S. Army, but Ballard declined. During his National Guard career as a drilling reservist, he served as an ambulance platoon leader and company commander and created a new medical detachment that performed medicals on Guard members to save the cost of contracting outside medical help. He was the detachment’s first member and commander.
In civilian life, he was a paramedic with the fire department. Today, Ballard is finding ways to help veterans in one role or another. He returned to school at the age of 60 to become a licensed funeral home director so he could help veterans’ families and veterans who couldn’t pay for funerals
Before he spoke at last week’s VFW dinner held in his honor, Ballard sat down with the Nevada Appeal/Lahontan Valley News and discussed a variety of military-related topics. The Veteran of Foreign Wars Silver State Post 3396 and its Auxiliary hosted this year’s state mid-winter VFW conference.
Sitting in an oversized arm chair on the top floor of the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks and wearing the Medal of Honor attached to a blue ribbon around his neck, Ballard discussed how his focus has been to support veterans’ initiatives and activities. He said it’s important to back veterans who step up to defend the county, something that wasn’t afforded to the servicemen and women when they returned from Vietnam and received less-than-a hero welcome. Many veterans were greeted by people either hurling profanity, calling them names or spitting on them.
“If we hadn’t taken action to correct that, we couldn’t have been able to recruit anybody,” he said. “We have to get over the stigma of being part of the problem, and I believe we got over it. We still have challenges to work through.”
Ballard, though, said he was appalled how communities and family mistreated the returning veterans in the 1960s and 70s.
Ballard said his visit to Northern Nevada was fruitful. He visited the VA Hospital in Reno to see if promises made by the federal government are being kept and how well the health care professionals are doing their jobs. He was also involved with local VFW initiatives such as supporting the Honor Flight Nevada program that flies veterans to the nation’s capital to see the memorials and monuments built in their honor and bringing veterans together and discussing ways to help veterans with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It makes you feel good when you’re around others,” Ballard said, explaining service men and women share common bonds.
As an MOH recipient, Ballard said he enjoys talking to various groups about the award and how to foster better communities such as through the scouting program. In his various visits around the country, Ballard has a pretty good grasp on people and communities and feels people are more patriotic today than they were during the Vietnam War, which at the time, was known as a conflict.
EVOLVING MILITARY DUTY
“I think we have a better quality of kids serving,” he said. “Our military is a family-owned business because we have a tendency to hand it down from generation to generation. Occasionally, we’ll jump a generation.”
While the current group of service men and women perform their jobs well, Ballard said, as a whole, society has become weaker. He said parents give more to their children than what previous generations did. Ballard said today’s society has experienced less hardship and less earning of privileges.
“We’re not as strong a county as we were during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam because of kids’ attitudes,” he added. “But we have had kids step up to meet the challenge.”
The art of war has evolved over the years to include a different type of enemy, different situations and changing requirements to be a world power. In Vietnam, Ballard said he never saw a suicide bomber whereas in Iraq and Afghanistan, that type of guerrilla warfare prevailed. He said the young men and women fighting today’s wars are facing a different enemy and ideology. Ballard said he personally felt the politicians were completely in charge of the Vietnam War, and veterans didn’t see any benefits from the war.
TAKING CARE OF VETS
Ballard’s thoughts turned to taking care of the veterans, many of whom suffered from depression or suicidal tendencies.
“All of us have different ways of dealing with our stress or when you lose a buddy or get shot at. You want to eliminate the stress,” he said. “We couldn’t tell a North Vietnamese from a South Vietnamese. It’s like how do you tell the difference between a Republican and Democrat.”
When Ballard left the Navy and eventually joined the National Guard, he used the new venture as a treatment because he enjoyed being around veterans and fostering a new challenge. Ballard also experienced a dark side to his moods and thoughts in the early 1970s. He felt suicidal, and the only way to escape those thoughts was to have a focus in life. Ballard said he has PTS but no disorder.
“A disorder is where you can’t function properly, and it consumes you to 100 percent of your normal character. Then you have a disorder,” he said.” I replaced functionality with a sense of purpose to serve other people. I was helping myself.”
Ballard is also strong advocate for suicide awareness and prevention and how veterans can help each other.
Ballard said the medical lessons learned from Vietnam have improved people’s lives today. As both a combat medic and civilian paramedic, he said the approach of taking care of injured Marines and soldiers improved. Medics in Vietnam worked feverishly to save lives and transport injured warriors on a helicopter to the nearest medical facility. Before putting the injured on helicopters, medics had to stabilize the wounded.
Ballard said the mountainous land or heavily forested mountains didn’t lend themselves to ground ambulances; instead, medics had to wait for helicopters to whirl their way into a landing zone, sometimes under moderate to heavy enemy fire. Sometimes, weather prevented a helicopter from landing until the clouds lifted.
“I always find a way that what we did matter, and we benefited,” Ballard explained. “The public is better off of what we learned in Vietnam.”
Instead of civilian medics arriving at a scene and placing an injured person in the ambulance, for example, Ballard said the trend changed to where medical attendants ensured injured people were stable before going to the hospital.
Ballard said soldiers in the National Guard have a different mentality than their counterparts from the 1960s and 70s. During Vietnam, Ballard said citizens enlisted in the Guard to avoid Vietnam. Today, the National Guard had a heavy presence during Desert Storm and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Training has even changed.
“We went to training at Ft. Riley (Kansas) and had only two weeks to get our training done and get ready to go home,” he pointed out. “We accomplished in two weeks what took the active Army longer to do. It’s been a good investment for our government to fund the National Guard because not only is it a ready reserve but also a highly trained asset.”
Vietnam also taught a lesson to military leaders going from a draft to all-volunteer. Ballard said he doubted an all-volunteer force would be effective, but his doubts have dissolved into praise. Furthermore, Ballard said using the National Guard during the past 28 years since Desert Shield/Desert Storm has resulted in communities supporting units and military personnel.
Ballard said it’s not the Army going to war now. It’s a neighbor, the grocer, the postal worker.
“It brought the communities together and gave us the support we never had since the second World War,” he said. “In the second World War, we all united behind the cause. Every able-bodied man went into the service, and every able-bodied female did her part. That was a different era.”
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life and beyond the call of duty while serving as a HM2 with Company M, in connection with operations against enemy aggressor forces. During the afternoon hours, Company M was moving to join the remainder of the 3d Battalion in Quang Tri Province. After treating and evacuating 2 heat casualties, HM2 Ballard was returning to his platoon from the evacuation landing zone when the company was ambushed by a North Vietnamese Army unit employing automatic weapons and mortars, and sustained numerous casualties. Observing a wounded Marine, HM2 Ballard unhesitatingly moved across the fire swept terrain to the injured man and swiftly rendered medical assistance to his comrade. HM2 Ballard then directed 4 Marines to carry the casualty to a position of relative safety. As the 4 men prepared to move the wounded Marine, an enemy soldier suddenly left his concealed position and, after hurling a hand grenade which landed near the casualty, commenced firing upon the small group of men.
Instantly shouting a warning to the Marines, HM2 Ballard fearlessly threw himself upon the lethal explosive device to protect his comrades from the deadly blast. When the grenade failed to detonate, he calmly arose from his dangerous position and resolutely continued his determined efforts in treating other Marine casualties. HM2 Ballard’s heroic actions and selfless concern for the welfare of his companions served to inspire all who observed him and prevented possible injury or death to his fellow Marines. His courage, daring initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of extreme personal danger, sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the US Naval Service.