Dec. 6—Dr. Conrad Easley said he never cried during the year he spent as a U.S. Army medical officer in Vietnam.
"But I've shed many tears since then," said Easley, a Dalton surgeon.
Easley said he was surprised recently when he opened his mail and found he had received a Bronze Star for his service, 54 years after he left Vietnam.
One of the U.S. Armed Forces' highest awards, the Bronze Star is awarded for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone.
"I was very proud to have received it," Easley said. "I don't feel like I'm a hero. I was just doing my job. But I do know that I did my job very well."
Easley said he was supposed to have received the award decades ago, but with changes in his commanding officers and changes in his assignments the award didn't happen.
But several years ago he was talking to Dr. Bernhard Mittemeyer, a retired lieutenant general whom he served under in Vietnam. When Mittemeyer found Easley had never received a Bronze Star he began an effort to help him receive it.
In a letter to the military awards office, Mittemeyer called the award "long overdue" and said Easley deserved the award for both valor and for meritorious service in a combat zone.
A graduate of Dalton High School and the North Georgia College & State University (now the University of North Georgia) in Dahlonega in 1962, Easley earned his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta in 1966. He received deferments from the draft to attend college and medical school and to complete his internship.
Easley knew he wanted to pursue orthopedic medicine and could have asked for another deferment to complete his residency in that specialty.
"But I was against that," he said. "The Army wanted young doctors. I knew that I would be sent to Vietnam. I wasn't eager to be shot at. But I just thought it was the right thing to do."
"This was 1967," he said. "I was first sent to San Antonio, Texas. Fort Sam Houston is where most of the Army's healthcare providers start their training."
North Georgia College then and now has been designated by the state legislature as the Military College of Georgia and by the U.S. Defense Department as one of six senior military colleges, meaning it offers Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs and maintains military standards similar to the nation's service academies.
"I was well trained and prepared to be a leader at North Georgia," Easley said. "I have so much respect for what that school did to prepare me for life ... and for death."
He was selected as class executive officer.
"I ran the show for six weeks," he said.
Easley, who was a captain, said shortly before his training ended he was approached by several officers, including a lieutenant colonel who told him he wanted him as a medical company commander in the 101st Airborne Division. He also told Easley he'd already reserved a place for him at jump (parachute) school.
"After finishing jump school at Fort Benning (in Columbus), they gave me a couple of days to come back here and tell my parents what was going on, then it was on to Fort Campbell, Kentucky," he said.
He had two and a half months to prepare his company for Vietnam.
"We left on Dec. 15, 1967," he said.
They soon found themselves at Cu Chi Base Camp treating casualties.
Around the end of January 1968 they were sent with the rest of their brigade north to Landing Zone El Paso, later known as Eagle Camp.
"El Paso turned out to be a horrible place for my company," Easley said. "We started taking fire, lightly at first, almost immediately."
They piled up sandbags around their tents and used them to create tunnels to the other tents, so they wouldn't have to work in the open.
On Jan. 31, 1968, Easley was awakened by an explosion followed by a whistle indicating an attack on the camp. Then he heard a sergeant calling for help. Easley crawled through the tunnel to the medical tent.
"I saw the most awful sight I've ever seen," Easley said. "The top of the tent had been hit, probably by an 82-millimeter mortar. On the floor were broken IV (intravenous) bottles. Four of my men were dead. Six were wounded. The ground was a mixture of IV fluids, blood and mud. I've shed many tears thinking about that day."
There was no time to grieve. He and the other members of the medical company began treating the wounded as the mortars kept falling.
"It went on all night," he said. "I was told they fired over 100 rounds. I can't say exactly how many it was because I was too busy to count."
The following morning he organized a breakout from the surround base and led a convoy to take the wounded to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Phu Bai, near Hue. He had expected to quickly return to his unit. But he found the hospital was overwhelmed with wounded from the Battle of Hue, which had just started, and his services and those of the medics who had come with him were needed at the hospital. He remained there two weeks before he and a dozen of his men were able to rejoin their unit.
He continued leading his men in treating the wounded under combat conditions until May 1968, when he was selected for Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Team 162, which advised Army of the Republic of Vietnam airborne units.
"That was a real honor," he said. "It was a big deal. A lot of people wanted to be in that outfit. I spent six months with them. The Vietnamese airborne was the elite of the Vietnamese military."
He said while serving with Team 162 he was able to meet VIPs (very important people) such as Gen. Hal Jennings, then MACV command surgeon and later surgeon general of the U.S. Army.
"I didn't go there to be a hero," Easley said. "I want to emphasize that even after receiving this award I don't regard myself as a hero. The heroes were those guys walking through the rice paddies. The guys who were taking it every day and who kept on going."