In 1962 I was a Navy Corpsman attached to a Marine Corps rifle company. My wife, six month old baby and I were living in government housing near Camp Pendleton, California.
One morning our company was given notice to saddle up with full field gear. We were given twenty minutes to call our wives, girlfriends or family to say goodbye.
There were a lot of guys and only a few phones but some of us were lucky enough to reach our love ones on the phone before we were loaded on to several trucks.
I quickly said goodbye to my young wife and baby. I told her to call my mother or brother if she needed help.
We had no idea where we were going or when we would return. This was a classified expedition. Little did we know that the whole world was watching it on television.
We were driven to San Diego Port Harbor where we met up with five other companies and the fifteen hundred of us were loaded on aboard an attack troop transport ship meant to hold a thousand men.
We were not told where we were going as we started sailing south down the coast of the Americas and through the Panama Canal.
They were all kinds of rumors aboard ship. The most popular one was we were going to New Orleans to back up the National Guard who was dealing with a riot.
What was actually happening was, we were headed to meet the Russian ships at the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Due to the heat and cramped quarters, tempers flared and fights were common.
You can't crowd that many men together in a small space and not have some trouble.
Later we developed a dysentery epidemic aboard ship that lasted two weeks.
We were taken to a Puerto Rican Island called Vegas. After being cramped together for three weeks, with practically no exercise, we were then, in full combat gear, given a forced ten mile march through a hundred and ten degree extremely humid jungle.
Eight men died of heatstroke that day. We lost another six in a helicopter crash.
Besides these deaths, Corpsmen were treating heat exhaustion, jungle rot, infected sores and cuts and every kind of rash and fungus imaginable.
The one time we were allowed to take a quick swim in the ocean, some of the guys ran across an unseen sea urchins bed and it took four hours and eight Corpsman to get the one to two inch spines out of our men's feet.
When we weren't treating actual injuries serious enough to need evacuation to a hospital, we as corpsman were requested to periodically simulate an injury to test the chain of evacuation.
We would give simulated first aid, fill out a battle tag and the injured victim would be evacuated to the nearest hospital. They would then be treated and returned back to their outfit.
During our training, one of my marines brought me a baby bunny, which he had accidentally kicked while crawling through some bushes, fracturing its left leg.
After I splinted the bunny's leg and tagged him he was transported by stretcher-bearers to a jeep, driven to a helicopter, and flown to the nearest hospital ship.
The bunny's leg was then shaved, x-rayed, and a closed reduction of his fracture was preformed. His leg was cast; he was given antibiotics and pain medications, admitted for observation for 24 hours and then returned to us.
He became our mascot, limping around on his cast leg. We all became quite found of Bugs. We fed him our K-Rations, which unfortunately proved to be his undoing.
The food was too rich for the bunny's diet and he developed a fatal case of gastritis which eventually killed him.
We made him a little cutout purple heart, wrapped him in a battle dressing and placed him in a cardboard box. After digging him a small grave, our platoon leader said some words over him and we all hummed taps and he was then buried with full military honors.
I know this all sounds pretty melodramatic, but it was in fact, heartfelt. Before we return to San Diego, we had lost a total of 30 guys due to "friendly fire". There we were, twenty big tough marines, tears in our eyes, burying a baby bunny. Bugs was a symbol of the men we lost. The guys we never saw again or had the opportunity to say goodbye to. He represented all of our fallen comrades.
We returned to San Diego just before Christmas. No fanfares, yellow ribbons or crowds cheering. Just another expedition.