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Veteran Spotlight

Tom Camel January 7, 1948 Vietnam - Medic U.S. Army 173rd Airborne, Infantry Brigade

As is true for many veterans, Tom Camel is proud to have served in the military, but he hates war. In 1968 he was pretty sure he was going to be drafted so he enlisted in the Army. He didn’t want to go to Vietnam and there was quite an anti-war movement going on in the U.S. at that time. 

Tom requested and received medical training at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas. He went to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training and Fort Benning, Georgia for Airborne training. He was then stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Tom got on the boxing team and fought to the semi-finals in the All-Army Boxing Tournament. Representing Washington, D.C., he also fought to the semi-finals in the National Golden Gloves Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.

After boxing, Tom was shipped to Vietnam and was attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In 1969 there was talk of peace accords and he naively thought the war would soon be over.

Before he even got to his unit he was taken on patrol with an ambush group in armored vehicles. One of them ran over a bomb and several soldiers were wounded. 

He received his combat medic badge about 10 days after arriving in Vietnam. His heritage is half African-American and half Native American, but he decided he would be there for everyone and wasn’t part of any of the cliques. He had trained as a medic and his main job was to take care of his platoon guys. He saw some combat but was pretty lucky. One of his sergeants was killed out on patrol by “friendly fire” – the term for an accidental killing of an American soldier by another American soldier. Once Tom heard a lieutenant tell some American soldiers who said they “mistakenly” fired at him that he would fire back next time. Ironically, Tom nearly died trying to protect someone from American soldiers.

The enemy targeted medics so he was in a high-risk job. He wasn’t going to let himself be killed, so he carried an M16 and a hand grenade. He tried the impossible task of balancing being both an infantryman and a healer. He spent most of his time in the field and had only one R&R (rest and relaxation) of about a week in Hong Kong.

In 1970, after about nine months, Tom was sent back to a fire base and was going to be reassigned to another location in the field. One night on guard duty he saw a bunch of soldiers threatening to kill another who Tom knew from medical training. Yes, the guy was pretty drunk but the incident made Tom angry. He never could figure out Americans killing Americans. 

The next day a platoon sergeant asked him to go to the NCO club (non-commissioned officer). As Specialist E5 he was eligible and was happy to be asked. On the way back from the club two soldiers with M16’s started beating the sergeant up. Tom tried to intervene but they turned on him, too. They beat him with a rifle butt and kicked him. He fought them off and turned to leave, thinking the fight was over. One of them shot him. They ran when the guy he was protecting shouted, “They shot Doc!” and he was dragged to a medical hootch (hut). Tom lost his leg that night.

He was sent on to an American hospital in Vietnam, then to Japan and finally home. He received a medical discharge 2½ years into his 3-year enlistment. There were several people that helped him through the incident, and he really appreciates that. He was told guys dragged him to a hootch and he remembers being worked on by a doctor, and feeling relief that he was alive and going home! By coming home through medical channels, Tom avoided most of the civil rights and anti-war tension that many home-coming soldiers faced. Also, it seemed rural areas like Ronan were more accepting of the military. Some guys didn’t want to be there in Vietnam and they weren’t there to win a war - they just wanted to survive. He heard that some committed atrocious acts – war can do that to a person and racial tension was high. Tom believes it’s important for veterans to take responsibility for anything they did, and talk through what happened; however, many don’t have anyone to talk to. 

When Tom got home, he drank … and drank to kill the pain. Eventually he got sober enough to go to college. He has several degrees, the last one being a Master’s of Social Work. He worked off and on, periodically relapsing into drinking. For about 5 years he worked as a Master’s level child and family counselor, but stress burned him out – counseling seemed too much like his former work as a medic. 

After receiving treatment at several VA (Veterans Administration) hospitals for chemical addictions he finally in the late 1990’s got treatment for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He continues to deal with the emotional wreckage of what he saw and went through. In time, he learned he needed to forgive – other soldiers, the enemy, the government, even himself, in order to achieve balance in his life. 

After many, many years, Tom has become acquainted with one of the soldiers who was at the scene when he got shot and is working on becoming friends. Though the guy hid from the fight at the time, he did help drag Tom to the hootch. Today Tom works with Veteran’s Court in Missoula, Montana; NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness); and as a self-help group counselor/leader at the library in Missoula. Tom paints turkey feathers and gives them to veterans for their service and sings a tribal song to honor them. 

Being a medic was the most important and meaningful job Tom says he has ever had. He was awarded the prestigious Bronze Star.

Thank you for your service, Tom.

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