David Adams graduated from high school in his hometown of Monroe, Utah, served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to West Virginia and was three-quarters through his bachelor’s degree when he was drafted in 1967.
He joined the U.S. Army to serve as a lab technician, but, because of an intense need, he became a combat medic.
“War is not fun. It never is. I was grateful I was over there trying to save lives rather than take lives,” he said.
He completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, then continued with advanced individual training at a general hospital first in San Antonio and then at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco.
After training was complete, Adams went to Vietnam for a year, serving in a 40-bed hospital facility like “MASH,” a mobile army surgical hospital, that even had the red cross on the building, the hospital, the admin building and the supply building, he said. They had a lot of medics and four excellent doctors, whose quick thinking and medical expertise saved a lot of lives and taught him a lot, he said.
“We stabilized patients then sent them on down to a big surgery unit. Ours was mostly a stabilization situation,” he said. “My first night in Vietnam, they brought in 75 casualties and 19 of them died. So, it was busy all the time. We got to do everything that needed to be done.”
He even delivered a couple of babies in a rice field, he said. The medics would go into the villages three times a week to help the Vietnamese people. The doctors were not allowed to go. Adams said they pulled teeth, performed surgery, cut out cancer and “anything that needed to be done, we did it.”
He was given a Bronze Star, an Army Commendation with an Oak Leaf Cluster and a Vietnam Campaign Medal.
He said they were attacked a number of times. Their base camp was 13 miles from the Cambodian border. They were the Big Red One, 1st Infantry Division. But they were called the Big Red Bloody One because they were involved with more fighting than any other division.
“So many of the young men were 18-19 years old and, sad to say, many thought they were bulletproof,” he said.
His first night with so many casualties was one of the worst ones, but another experience was even more difficult. Some soldiers brought in two enemy soldiers who were shot out in the jungle. They didn’t have anything to treat their wounds, so they took leaves and wrapped them with vines. Due to the humidity and other factors, the wounds were infected with gangrene.
“It was the most horrible smell in the world,” Adams said. “They were just shaking.”
When he took off the leaves, the infection poured out like green mud.
“These poor young men looked at us and said, ‘Thank you for trying to help us.’ They both died in about 20 minutes. That was one experience I will never forget,” he said. “We are all God’s children. They had families, I’m sure, loved ones. Why do we have to try to kill each other?”
Despite the politics, Adams and the other medics were able to treat a lot of the enemy and share medication. Sometimes he would fly out in the helicopter to pick up the wounded. Or the dead.
Turning to God, saying his prayers and worshipping with other members of the LDS church helped him through the experience.
“There’s no atheists in foxholes. I saw that. I was grateful. That was a great experience for me to be involved in the church there,” he said. “I taught and baptized three that lived with me.”
Interestingly, they were from West Virginia where he served his mission, he said.
At church conferences, he was able to see the four other soldiers from his hometown of Monroe. He was grateful for the apostles Gordon B. Hinckley and Bruce R. McConkie who came to conferences.
“The support we got was absolutely amazing. They were just so caring, uplifting and strengthening,” he said.
Friendships and recreational activities were also helpful. They were encouraged to Americanize everything. They had a big screen to watch movies — although it had lots of bullet holes shot through it. They had an Olympic-sized swimming pool left by the French and they even ate steaks, he said.
When Adams returned from Vietnam in 1971, he was able to complete his education at the University of Utah. Applicants to the physician’s assistant program were required to have had experience in Vietnam.
“I was the eighth PA in Idaho,” he said. “I was in the second class at the University of Utah. There was only one class before me.”
He worked in Rexburg with Lester Petersen, who was the first doctor to have a PA, Adams said.
“Luckily I never had to treat gunshot wounds or shrapnel or malaria,” he said. “But car wrecks or someone who almost cut off his arm with a circular saw injury — that did remind me of Vietnam.”
The Adams have six children.
He loved the discipline of the Army and how it saved so many lives as they relied on their reactions and didn’t have to think. At basic training, they would wonder, why are they doing this to me? But that training would save lives in battle, he said.
“I love my country. Like Lee Greenwood, I would stand up next to you and defend her still today. If they let me go back for Iraq and Iran, I would have gone. It’s a feeling of brotherhood I can’t explain,” he said.