Combat medic’s experience in Vietnam has shaped his life for over 50 years
The closest thing grunts in Vietnam had to a therapist was a 21-year-old kid with ten weeks of medical training.
Bill Strusinski was a combat medic attached to a platoon of infantry in southwest Vietnam from 1967-68. He was there to save lives, but also became a kind of cure all during his tour. If you needed marital advice, or family advice, or just plain missed home — you called for Doc.
Medics are universally loved and respected in combat units for their ability to help out in any situation, regardless of whether or not they actually know how to fix the problem. Strusinski was a doctor, a mother, a priest and a therapist all rolled into one. He didn’t know how to give marital advice, or help a terrified kid who was at his breaking point with the mental stresses of combat. But he did it anyway, all in addition to his official job of treating wounded soldiers in the middle of firefights.
It’s been 52 years since Strusinski left Vietnam. The lessons he learned there have helped propel him to a successful career in politics as an advisor and a lobbyist. But beyond that, they help him understand the world, and his place in it.
Many of the problems facing the country today can be related to what Strusinski went through in Vietnam. That’s especially true in the last few months, as a global pandemic continues to create a new normal across the world and violent protests, eerily similar to those that took place for much of the same reasons in 1968, erupt across the country. Strusinski’s perspective can help people get through the problems they’re facing today, which is in part why he recently published a memoir of his experiences in Vietnam.
“I used those experiences as a foundation for the rest of my life,” he said. “What I came away from Vietnam with was the ability to stay calm. Whether you’re fighting a war with real bullets or an invisible enemy like coronavirus or you’re a first responder trying to get to a fire and put it out, the emotions are the same.”
Pandemic healthcare workers today are struggling with helplessness, and feeling like they could have done something different or worked harder to save a COVID-19 patient’s life. Strusinski knows what that feels like.
The first major casualty Strusinski treated was on a patrol in open country near a small village not long after he arrived in Vietnam. He was still an FNG (f***ing new guy) relying on the help of the more seasoned members of his platoon. During the patrol, a combat veteran next to Strusinski spotted an enemy machine gun seconds before it opened up on the squad. He warned Strusinski, and they hit the dirt just as the bullets started hitting the ground around them. Strusinski escaped physically unscathed, but the veteran who warned him about the gun got hit. Strusinski patched him up and was able to eventually get him evacuated to a field hospital, but the man died later that night.
“The guy saved my life, and he died,” he said. “I had a tough time dealing with that. But then an old sergeant later on said ‘You did the very best you can and that’s all we expect. So just get over it or you’re not going to be worth a shit to anyone else the rest of the time you’re here.’ So that’s what I did.”
Strusinski learned to compartmentalize the trauma he experienced and stop second guessing choices that were already made. Keep calm and carry on is a mantra often repeated today, and it epitomizes Strusinski’s outlook on life.
When Strusinski was about three quarters of the way through his tour, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Almost half of Strusinski’s platoon was made up of black soldiers, but as riots and unrest broke out at home, his unit remained close. Strusinski treated black and white wounded all the same, and the bonds forged in combat struck down some racial lines that existed outside Vietnam.
“We were wondering why people back in the country couldn’t get along and we could get along in a combat zone,” he said.
When Strusinski returned from Vietnam in the summer of 1968, the Twin Cities were wracked with the same kind of rioting and protests that have recently exploded across the country in response to the death of George Floyd. The similarities are profound, and Strusinski said it’s hard to watch the country’s lack of progress.
“It’s very sad, and it’s very understandable,” he said. “I don’t think it’s rocket science to drill down and find what the root problems are and how people have to learn how to get along.”
Demonizing the protests doesn’t do any good, and Strusinski said just because someone doesn’t agree with the protesters' opinions, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to protest.
“People can burn a flag in front of me. Will I like it? No. But do I think that guy's got a right to do it? Hell yes,” he said. “Some others want (the police) to go in hit them with a big stick. I don’t look at the world that way. These people are looking for some better times.”
Trauma catches up with everyone sooner or later. And no matter what form it takes, Strusinski’s words can help people get through it. Stay calm, form a plan, do what it takes to get the job done.
Two weeks before he was set to leave Vietnam, Strusinski’s company was hit with friendly fire during an airstrike. Strusinski got called up to help deal with the casualties, but another medic who still had over six months to go on his tour took Strusinski’s place. Half way to their location, the helicopter crashed and killed everyone on board. If it weren’t for that medic volunteering to take Strusinski’s place, he would have been on that chopper.
“I think about all of those close calls,” he said. “And you learn how to deal with adversity and fear. You have to compartmentalize all of that stuff and learn how to think through every situation.”