Benjamin (“Skipper”) Mayhew III grew up in Chilmark, and served in Vietnam as a medic.
I was in the Army as a medic. Vietnam: two years. It was actually a little bit shorter than that, because when they get you back, they pretty soon got rid of you right away.
I got drafted, and they had me stationed in [Oahu, Hawaii]. That was, or at least I heard, to get us climatized. To be able to withstand the heat in Vietnam. It was hot. It was brutal.
I went to Texas for medical training, and after that I belonged to a unit. They had me stationed in Hawaii as a part of the 25th Infantry. They stuck us there so we were just there when they transferred us [to] the Vietnam thing. Basically, they only needed the numbers. It was strictly politics, nothing to do with right or wrong, or anything else. At least, in my opinion.
[The transition] was easy. I had no problem. I came back right here. I was living with my parents at the time, and I didn’t have any kids, and I wasn’t married at the time — I am now — so at that point in my life I played it by ear.
For me, it was really [that] I ended up with PTSD. I’ve got a psychological condition. Basically, when I was in Vietnam, I was in one place doing one job, and then they grabbed me and used me to do a triage, because they just had [soldiers] come in one after the other. It could be anywhere between eight to 11, 12 guys in the chopper, wounded or dead … Basically, for each and every guy, I had to play God. I had three other guys who were under me, but I made the decision for all of those guys. It really has a psychological [impact].
I didn’t want that job, but I did it. You know, you do what you’re told. I was a medic, that was my MOS [military occupation specialty]. They put us with a unit that they started up. We were there when they started in Vietnam. This one company they ran over first, and then the other three companies were there with them within a week or 10 days. I did that. It was scary. I mean, it’s scary what it did to my brain. Psychologically, making all of those life decisions, that’s the last thing I thought I was ever going to be doing.
I figured I was going to be getting out of the military in a few months, and … I did what I was told, and I did it for a day, a night, and a day.
I had 45 seconds, something like that, for each guy. As a medic, you couldn’t hear anything, so you had to do it by feel. I realized that right away. It’s kind of like field expedience. You’re allowed to make some adjustments like that. That was a big deal for me.
That’s what I did, and you want to serve your country, right or wrong. And, in my opinion, [the war] was as wrong as wrong could be. I didn’t know that in the beginning, but I found out a few years later, something was really wrong. I mean, I recognized something was goofy. What’s interesting is all these guys, they had a unit working on psychological [issues], so they were following you, and trying to keep an eye on what you were doing. A lot of questioning and all that.
I did my job, and I made mistakes on the guy and he died when he shouldn’t have died, but nothing I could do about that. I realized right from the get-go that it was my decision. Nobody else was going to come in and change anything. I was being criticized because they didn’t do it. I did it.
Everything was fine until that point … I never had to fire my weapon over there, thank God. Because if I ever killed anybody, then it was going to be on me for doing it, killing them. I just made sure I didn’t get in that position where I had to decide on that kind of thing. Mine was just to decide what condition he was in, whether he was going to go in and get assigned right away, and [whether] they were going to work on him as quickly as possible. So it was triage; it was emergency-type stuff.
Once you do something like that, it’s way out of the norm. It’s so strange and out of the norm. And the Army didn’t really know what they were doing at that point. We hadn’t been at war in ages, and in my opinion, it was totally trumped-up. It was all about the Benjamins. Most of this stuff has got more to do with the Benjamins than it does right or wrong. It is very unfortunate. A lot of lives were lost. Priorities weren’t always in proper order.
After that, I simply felt I had no business being here. Now, when I saw how many guys died — I mean, these guys ended up basically ambushed. They thought they were going to be ambushers, but got ambushed by the locals. They were way better at this guerilla warfare.
There were obviously men who were affected by it. I didn’t know when to grieve. At that point, I didn’t know much about PTSD. I don’t think a lot of people did. We are no longer dealing with it quite the same way. It’s good. The world really needs to hear about those things — what really took place, and that kind of thing. A lot of stuff gets covered up, especially in the military, especially with a whole thing like that.
Everybody had a job, and it was a lot of different jobs over there, like everywhere. You had a lot of different hats to put on.
I was learning. At that point I didn’t know the effects. I never even heard of PTSD, I never heard of any of this stuff. I knew enough to know. A lot of guys were badly affected, and have been through too much, and doing things like that. I was definitely a standard case. It’s just kind of how people behave. We know that people behave a certain way; it depends on the individual, but it depends on the circumstances of what’s going on. For me, it was not good. I was very badly affected. And, you know, even a few committed suicide.
They have a whole history of shell shock. They have a different name each war, but it was the same thing — shell shock or battle fatigue. Names that’ve never even been spoken before.
The Army’s much better now. Way, way better. It’s like day and night. The military is very slow about a lot of stuff. When they get something right, they’ll keep going with it … and what’s best on how to treat it. It depends on the individual, especially psychological stuff.
Interview by Eunki Seonwoo.