In early 1969 I was drafted and trained as a medic, also known as a “bullet catcher” in Vietnam. Fortunately I wound up in Germany, largely because of the U.S. Army’s penchant for making personnel decisions based on the alphabet. After completing combat medic training at Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas, our company stood in formation awaiting orders for our next duty stations.

“Alvarez and Ashley, fallout and report to the office,” barked a sergeant. My heart sunk, expecting the worst. As we stood before the desk of the company commander, he handed us our duty papers and said, “You’re both going to Germany. Now get the fuck out of here because you don’t want to hang around. Everybody else is going to Vietnam.” We were the first two alphabetically listed men on the company roster.

And so, I was assigned to the 54th Army Hospital in Bad Kreuznach and then sent to work at its satellite medical dispensary at Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz, home of the 509th Airborne Infantry Brigade. Since I didn’t jump out of planes, I was considered a “leg” by the paratroopers. Lee barracks was a post where some men who saw heavy combat were sent to be resocialized before returning to the United States.

Even though I was spared the carnage of Vietnam, I saw gunshot wounds, stabbings, drug overdoses, broken bones, and various traumas — a heart attack, suicide, childbirth, sick kids.

Some stayed with me for a while, like the guy that showed up by ambulance one afternoon with serious burns all along the front of his torso, including head and face. About an hour before, he’d lit a cigarette above an open and seemingly empty gasoline drum — except for its explosive vapors.

All we could do was to give him a shot of morphine and rush him to the Air Force hospital across the river in Wiesbaden. My duty was to keep him from going into shock in the back of the armor-plated ambulance along the way. It seemed the morphine had little or no effect, as his screaming intensified.

Out of desperation, I began to tell him jokes. He would laugh, scream, then demand I tell another one. Finally, right as we reached the Wiesbaden hospital, I told my last joke to this proud paratrooper. “There are two things that fall out of the sky, bird shit and fools.” He howled in laughter, said that was pretty good coming from a “leg,” and then began again to scream in a way that haunted my sleep for days.

After serving, I put my skills to work in the early 1970s at the White Bird free clinic In Eugene, Oregon. Kitty, my yet-to- be wife, was the chair of the board of directors. White Bird is still in business today. My experiences as a medic gave me a perspective to deal with difficult and challenging times.

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