Searching for my old skipper.
I found Lt. Col. DeBona's citation for the Navy Cross on the Military Times website and Brothers in Arms website. I was at his feet as a gunner in 60 mortars when I was wounded twice on September 10, 1967. My squad leader Frank Antaya pulled a chunk of shrapnel out of my right forearm while the skipper laid back on his pack calling in arty. I was hit again in the left upper back through my flack jacket with a piece that stuck in my back 3/4 of an inch. I was also hit three times the day before during our first contact with minor wounds to my left hand and both legs. When the skipper commanded us to regroup back at our LZ, I stopped to pick up Gunny Pineapple, that's the name I new him buy. When I went to pull him out of the brush his arms and legs were barely attached to his torso. He yelled telling me to stop. I waited with him until he was gone. When I moved out, I saw Pvt Baker from Ohio laying on the ground with his leg and arm barely attached to his body. I picked up his leg and put it into a poncho and another marine put in his arm. It was at that time a Second Lieutenant from M co. came up to us and said he would lead us back to the LZ. He looked me right in the eyes and said he was putting me and the other guys up for Bronze Stars. At the time, medals were the last thing on our minds. On the way back we were burned by a napalm drop when the enemy over ran our position. I was wounded 5 times in two days and burned by napalm on the left side of my face and left arm as I carried Baker heading for the LZ.
Here's where my story gets interesting, I kept complaining of back pain before Vietnam and while in country but after numerous x-rays and sick call visits nothing was found. When I went to the hospital in Phu Bai after being wounded I was told the doctors in Cam Ranh Bay would treat me. When I got there I was told that I had phantom pains from the trauma of being wounded.
I was sent back to my unit a month later and became squad leader in 60 mortars. At that point, I was all but paralyzed in pain unable to take baby steps so, I wrote home and pleaded for my parents to get me help. It took a couple of weeks of fighting the doctors in Phu Bai A-Med who said it was all in my head before they sent me to Guam. There I had a myelogram done where they found two-ruptured disc in my lower back. I was sent stateside to St. Alban’s Hospital where they removed one disc. I was 19 years old. The doctors stated to my parents and myself that I was to young for a fusion so, the other disc was left alone. While there I received a Purple Heart when I told the liaison officer that I hadn't gotten my medals yet. He threw the box across his desk and said, "how’s that"?
After a long battle trying to get out of the military because I couldn't walk without pain, I was given a 10% disability and told to fight the VA, along with that, a boot lieutenant tore up my sergeant promotion in front of me calling me a lousy civilian piece of crap (putting it politely) adding more insult to injury.
To shorten the story, I ended up unable to work in my law enforcement career due to back pain and was told by them to go after the VA. When I went after the VA they said they had no record of all of my hospital treatment in country or medical files of treatment before I went there. I was denied my honors and all of my medals because my files were removed. There was one page that was overlooked where I went to sick call complaining of back pain before we went up to the DMZ where I was wounded.
With the help of the VFW, I spent five long years trying to convince the VA that they were responsible and got my 100% rating back in 1983. I never got my Bronze Star nor the Purple Hearts I was due. I contacted the awards branch of the corps and was told there was no record but on my two different attempts I was sent a Purple Heart, however, they refused to put them on my DD214. I also tried through the Records Branch to have my records corrected but they blew me off. I have copies of my parents Western Union telegram sent after I was wounded, my log sheets stating where I was hit in country and physically and pictures of myself in the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay but, I was told that I would need someone to corroborate my story. I would like you to send this letter to my skipper. Maybe he can help me find that second lieutenant and give me the honors I am owed. Semper Fi.
Cpl. USMC 66-69
Gregory J. Topliff
Ph. 803 232-1171
Dear Lt. Colonel DeBona,
This is a follow-up letter to the first one I wrote telling you about what happened to me after I was wounded at your feet in my right forearm and back when we first contacted the enemy on September 10, 1967.
I was sent up to the front lines as part of a reactionary squad to fill in where others were wounded or killed the day before on the 9th.
My squad leader Frank Antaya and I were in a bomb crater when he got his watch blown off his wrist. We had just finished firing off all of our mortar rounds when the word came that we needed men to fill in the lines. I don’t know if you remember the barrage of gunfire but I had to leave the safety of the crater and run through thousands of rounds out in the open that turned the trees into kindling wood. I was lucky to say the least that I didn’t get shot; however upon my run to the front, I got hit in both legs and my left hand by shrapnel. The wounds were superficial and didn’t impede my attempt so I kept running. When I got up to a small hill, one of the squad leaders we called, “ Tiny” was there. I am not sure if you remember him but he was the one standing on a quad-fifty when he was almost killed by a sniper when we were on the Laotian boarder on a convoy run one day.
He was running low on ammo so, he told me to go back to a bomb crater where we had a small cache of ammo. I just ran all the way up there and had to run back through a hell of a lot of gunfire. I am sure you remember there was lead flying all over the place.
When I got to the crater where the ammo was supposed to be, it was empty so, I crater hopped until I found the right one and ran back up to the front.
After the firing stopped, I helped Tom our corpsman give first aide to the wounded in another crater. For reference, Tom was from Massachusetts, he got the Navy Cross for heroism. I was at the ceremony when he got it, while some of the other guys got Purple Hearts. I’m not sure if you gave out the medals.
At any rate, I remember the first guy dying; I was holding the back of his head up while Tom was doing mouth to mouth, it was dark by then so, I held my lighter up as he tried to save the guy. I felt a sticky wetness in my hand thinking the guy was soaked from sweat but when we caught a glimpse of his forehead from my lighter, we saw that he was shot in the head at the hairline. When I removed my hand from the back of his head, I saw that it was covered in blood and brain matter.
Tom gave orders to remove the dead to another spot behind some bushes. This was the first body I moved. During the night there were more than a dozen bodies that I carried there.
I don’t know if you remember this but when daylight broke, we did a body count and found a dead Russian advisor in a dark green uniform. I’m sure he had something to do with those SAM rockets we captured the day before with USSR painted on the sides when we first entered the defoliated abandoned NVA encampment outside of Outpost C-2. We also captured a wounded 15-year-old NVA soldier shot in the foot. He was given first aide and choppered out. I saw him in the hospital ward where they kept POW’s when I got to Phu Bai after leaving the battlefield.
The next day I mentioned in my first letter so, I’ll let you know what transpired after I came back from Cam Ranh Bay and became squad leader.
When I get back to our unit, we were sent up to Camp Evens where we were given orders by our new company commander to set up night ambushes outside a village where the VC had ties. I just came back from the hospital so, the squad leader used me as an extra man not making me hump anything because I still had the stitches in my arm and pain in my lower back.
While setting up the 60 mortar we had a misfire, which blew off the squad leaders thumbs when he dropped an illumination round down the tube for lever fire. It reared up and broke both the gunners arms. The round went off in the distance hitting a tree and hanging there; the enemy didn’t see it. Our new skipper later on that night dropped three hundred arty rounds on the village when the VC walked into the village to collect their supplies.
I was made the new squad leader the next day. There was an investigation but nothing came of it. The gun was on lever fire even though it fired anyway so; it was deemed a faulty round.
My back pain continued to grow worse with pain running down my right leg to my ankle. It was at that time that I was sent to Hill 674 with my new squad to support a radio relay station run by a Recon squad. My friend Larry Turner and laws rocket man was assigned to me so we set up our bunker together on the hill. It was the only thing that saved me because I was unable to walk. After 19 days on the hill I wrote home pleading for help.
As much as I didn’t want to leave my squad, I was no good to them crippled, so I got on a chopper when word came down to report to the hospital in Phu Bai.
Upon my arrival, I was blindsided by a Chaplain who confronted me in a manner that caught me off guard, he snidely remarked, “ Did you write home to your mommy and daddy to get you out of Vietnam”? I didn’t expect that response so, I told him that I was in pain and could only take baby steps. His response to me was, “ I think you are a yellow-goldbricking- son-of-a-bitch”. He added, “ If I ever see you again, I’m going to lock you in a rubber room and throw away the key”. FYI, I’ve written about this response many times over the years. It was not made up or exaggerated, being 19 years old and naive I thought that the men of the cloth were holy and sympathetic and not supposed to cuss.
I ended up at A-Med Hospital in Phu Bai where I was treated when I first got wounded before going to Cam Ranh Bay. I spent a couple of weeks there, fighting with doctors who kept telling me it was all in my head. It was also at this time that I would be subjected to more insults that dishonored my good deeds.
It was the Marine Corps Birthday, November 10,1967 a date that marines do not forget. There was a medals ceremony with a Vietnamese girls school handing out gifts and a Vietnamese General and a bunch of our officers presenting medals. With the exception of myself, everyone in the hospital ward got their Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts with the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. When they walked up to my rack, one of the officers asked the doctors who I was and the doctor disdainfully stated that I was there complaining of back pain. I spoke up and said that I was wounded previously and didn’t get my medals. I was told that no one was there from my company to give me anything but I would get them when I returned to my unit.
After two weeks of not caving in because I couldn’t walk, I was sent to Guam where I was finally exonerated when they found the ruptured discs; I was then sent stateside to the Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital for my operation.
Still adding insult in injury, we made a stop in Hawaii where I was told to get off the plane to get my medals. I hobbled down to the tarmac and stood last in line of a dozen or so wounded. When the General passing out the medals walked up to me found that my name wasn’t on the list to receive medals, he said, “ who are you and what the hell are you doing standing with the wounded marines”? I spoke up stating that I was one of the wounded. His face turned deep red as he apologized and turned to one of the officers giving him a look of disbelief because of the screw up. I was told that I would get my medals at my next duty station, which of course with the exception of the one Purple Heart I previously mentioned, didn’t happen.
When I got out of the service with a 10% disability rating as stated previously, I was told to go to the VA to collect. When I first went there a friend of mine working for the VA told me that my records were incomplete from 1968. I never put two and two together until 1996 when I tried to get the Purple Hearts and Bronze Star. The records would have shown that I was unfit for combat and had a paper trail of over ten months of complaining about back pain before and during my duty in Vietnam and that I was sent back into combat from the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay.
One of the last insults came when I tried to get my records corrected in the late 1990’s. The VA said that they had no record of me being wounded in combat. I made the request again and got back another letter stating that there was no record of me being wounded in Vietnam. When I checked my records, reference was made to my back injury but there was no reference made as to how I ended up with two ruptured discs. According to them it happened somewhere else. I also learned that doctors in one of the hospitals that I stayed at when I was trying to get out of the service wrote up a scenario stating that I said the I had back problems before I entered the service. Considering that I joined the military in top physical condition and went through the most vigorous training programs on earth a year before going to Vietnam, there would have been no way that I could have put up with the pain I was suffering after I was wounded. At least I have my DD214, which states that I was in Vietnam and that I earned several medals with the exception of the medals mentioned.
To put it into perspective, I was able to run under gunfire on the 9th before I was hit and knocked down on September 10,1967. It wasn’t until after that, that I progressively got worse. My back was problematic for months before and during my duty in Vietnam because the discs kept sliding in and out of position. If by chance anyone had any common sense they would have figured out that I only wrote home after I was all but paralyzed. Another fact of the matter was, I like being a squad leader and had no desire to leave Vietnam.
If it’s not apparent to you by now, the military covered their ass trying hide the truth that they were negligent in their duties. I spent five long years fighting the VA because someone removed the documentation that showed I consistently reported to sick call. It also cost me monetarily. I lost four years of compensation because of the missing records. I also came to the conclusion that the boot lieutenant who tore up my sergeant promotion had no idea of my good deeds ergo his nasty response to me.
Skipper, I acted with honor, and received a beating for many years due to no fault of my own fighting people who had no honor. I earned my medals the hard way and deserve the medals I was told I would get. I hope that you can see that it is long over due.
I still have my documentation and letters I sent to my parents that my mother kept. I also have a kind response letter to my parents from the Chaplain, which was totally unexpected after the tongue-lashing he gave me. He too was another person trying to cover up his maltreatment of me. I wish I carried around a tape recorder back then so I could prove my case. All I have now is my word that what I stated is the truth. I hope you will take an interest in my request. Please respond.
Gregory J Topliff
Ph. 803 232-1171