For the next 10 1/2 months Stephen Cobb would get to see a lot of Vietnam as the troop was always on the move.
Rarely did they stay more than a couple of weeks in one spot. While the base camp at the time was about 30 miles northwest of Saigon, the troop spent most of its time in Tay Ninh Province. This bordered Cambodia and the unit often found itself in Cambodia which it was not supposed to be in. But there were no "Welcome to Cambodia" signs and the maps proved to be very inaccurate.
The unit participated in several of the major operations done by the 11th ACR. But a good deal of the time the unit was in the field as to work with other units including the 1st Infantry Division, combat engineers clearing the jungle with "Rome" plows (armored plated bulldozers) and ARVN soliders. Moving around so much and working with so many different units was certainly not boring. But there could be days and days without any contact with the enemy then a brief, quick firefight and back to the same routine.
Stephen Cobb, U.S. Army
There were countless ambush patrols. If the ambush patrol was walking or "dismounted" and there were 12 or more troops, then the medic had to go out with them. This would mean that the members of the platoon would go on a patrol say every three to four days, but the medic had to go out on every patrol. If three or more APC's went out then the medic would have to go. There was a time where Cobb went on ambush patrols for 24 nights in a row, and what made it worse was it was during the rainy season which meant getting soaked every night. Often, as soon as the patrol ended the unit would be moving out to perform the daytime tasks assigned.
Whenever possible Cobb would take part in "Medcaps." This is when the medics and doctors would provide medical care for the "locals." They would go into villages and treat whatever disease or illness there were. Since Vietnam was in the tropics almost every bad disease known could be found there. It was an eye-opening experience. Cobb also donated time at the local civilian hospital in Xuan Loc. This hospital was run by doctors from the Philippines.
When someone was ill or injured the entire family would often come and stay at the hospital while the patient was being treated. There were often more than one patient in a bed due to the crowded conditions, especially if they were children. Many of these children had been wounded by gunfire or had lost a limb due to a land mine. It was amazing what care was given at the hospital considering the lack of basic medical supplies and space.
One of the most difficult events dealing with civilian injuries that Cobb encountered was the day when a bus (like our school buses) hit a command detonated land mine hidden in the road. Today, they are called IEDs. There were more than 50 people in that bus and when the mine exploded the bus was broken in half and twisted round like a large hand had picked it up. More then a dozen people were killed instantly and the rest were seriously injured. It became a major mass casualty incident which put a terrific stain on resources. It was a horrific scene. One of the saddest parts of this incident was all the victims had to be taken to the hospital in Xuan Loc as no civilians were allowed to be treated at the surgical hospital located on the base camp. Cobb could never understand that policy. He had always been told we were in Vietnam to win over the people, to "win their hearts and minds." By not providing top rate medical care was the U.S. doing this? No, and this was not the only incident in which that would happen. These incidents changed Cobb's feelings about the war and the involvement of the U.S.
Over the months there would be repeated small, fierce firefights with usually someone getting wounded or worse and then again days of no contact. The ambush patrols continued on a regular basis.
During this time he learned to see humor whenever it occurred in order to keep his sanity. There was the time the helicopter, as it was landing, blew him into two feet of muck while he was trying to go to the bathroom. Everything from his waist down was covered in a thick, slimy, gray gooey muck. It was done intentionally by the pilot and today it is a funny incident. Or the day, again while at the outdoor bathroom, the platoon decided it would be funny to start to drive off without their medic. Picture him pulling up his pants, carrying his M-16 in one hand and his shovel in the other and chasing down he road to catch up with the tracks. This humor certainly helped him get through the months.
In Vietnam the troops would usually called their medic "Doc" and Cobb quickly earned this title. But as time passed and he did some crazy things to help keep morale up he soon was given the name "Quack." It was not a name of disrespect but one that held a very close meaning to Cobb as it still does today. But when you know what hit the fan "Doc Up" was used automatically.
Besides taking care of any injuries or wounds that members of the platoon may have received, the medic's job also included making sure all members got their malaria pills, the big orange one once a week, and the small white one each day. The medic had to monitor the general health of each member, make sure they were taking good care of their feet especially in the rainy season and especially with a cavalry unit. There was always the monitoring of their mental health also which was often very hard to do. The "Dear John" letters from home from either wives or girlfriends proved to be one of the hardest issues to deal with. And it was important to keep everyone focused on their duties as one slip could cost someone their life. Such were tasks that Cobb dealt with each and every day.
He did lose a couple of the platoon members during the time in the field. He still runs those days through his mind at times, still trying to figure what he could have done better to save their lives, although in reality nothing else could have been done.
An interesting fact is the Regimental Colonel for the 11th Armored Cavalry during most of the time Cobb was in Vietnam was Colonel George Patton the third. He was the son of Gen. Patton of WWII fame. He met the Colonel a couple of times out in the field. And yes he had pearl handled pistols just like his father. Cobb felt that he was an outstanding commander, especially because instead of flying over the tracks he had his own command track that often followed right along with the other tracks. He had his boots on the ground therefore having a good knowledge of what the troops were actually encountering at the time.
With about one and one half months to go Cobb was rotated back to base camp and was assigned the medical supply portion for the regiment. It was a reward for the time in the field. There were many trips either Long Binh Army base or Saigon swapping and seeking out the supplies that were needed.
He left Vietnam in February 1969 and originally received orders for Madigan General Hospital at Fort Lewis, Washington as his stateside assignment. Could he be any further away from Fredonia in Continental U.S., especially after being 13,000 miles away in Vietnam? Because his mother had some very serious health issues at the time Cobb got a compassionate reassignment to Dunham Army Hospital, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa. He had never heard of the place and thought maybe he was going back to college early, but it was for officers to obtain their master's degree in hopes of becoming a general.
He worked primarily in the emergency room and outpatient clinic. He was also assigned as an ambulance driver and often had to take patients to either Valley Forge General Hospital or Walter Reed General Hospital. Just before he received order giving him an early discharge by two months to go back to college he also received orders to go to Germany to another Armored Cavalry unit. But these orders were soon frozen and he spent the rest of his active duty time at the War College.
After his active duty time Cobb was to spend 14 more years in the New York State National Guard where he was a company medic for a tank company. During this time he saved a life of a fellow member while at training at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Last summer, 42 years after Cobb left Vietnam, he traveled to Maine to reconnect with one of his best friends in Vietnam. They lost contact for 35 years and then reconnected over the internet and then face to face last year. It was one of the greatest moments of his life to see his old friend Chuck Nute again. On the way there Cobb's wife asked if he was nervous about the meeting and he replied, "Yes, maybe one of us has changed so much we will not hit it off." But that never happened. It was like there had not been 42 years in between at all.
Since leaving the military Cobb has become involved in his community. He has been a member of the Fredonia Fire Department since 1975. He continues to be an EMT and also is the instructor coordinator for the EMT Training Program at SUNY Fredonia. He is the EMS Coordinator for the Chautauqua County Office of Emergency Services. He went to nursing school at JCC and worked as a critical care nurse for 17 years both in the ER and ICU. At age 46 he changed careers and went into teaching. He taught social studies for 17 years at the Fredonia Middle and High Schools and since has retired. He was in the first national class for Teach the Teachers for the Vietnam Memorial in 2000. Cobb has traveled to schools to speak and educate students about the Vietnam War. He continues to be the co-advisor for the middle school backpacking club and works on the school musical every year.
It's an honor for me to do stories on veterans who have served their country, come home and went on with their lives. When doing Steve Cobb's story it brought back a lot of memories for me. Cobb and I actually served the same times together in Vietnam, serving every day of 1968. The U.S. Army had Cobb stationed in Xuan Loc and the Marine Corp sent me to Dong Ha on the DMZ to patrol the leatherneck square.
We both witnessed a war that was different from any other wars that the U.S. ever fought. There was no front and no rear or any safe place to be stationed. Prior to going to Vietnam, groups of 18 and 19-year-old boys made out their last will and testaments. Then later on in the day while confessing their sins, the boys would hear a priest say that for the next year it will be ok not to make Mass on Sundays and it was ok to kill. A war that saw 58,280 take their very last step in the U.S. when they boarded that contracted military plane or stepped onto that gang plank boarding that transport ship never knowing that they are never going to return. A war that used the counting of a dead boy to keep score on who was winning. A war whose leaders let continue on until 58,280 of its brave military were brought home in body bags. Finally, they realized the price of war was way too high. This war took 18 and 19-year-old boys from their high school graduation ceremony and in less than 180 days had them walking patrols with a loaded M-16 rifle walking with a combat unit. This was a war during which young men were given jobs like a gunner on a artillery piece or a machine gunner or a mortar man, a forward observer, radioman or sniper along with many others.
These jobs meant they are called on for one thing - they were called to kill. Those who did the job well achieved rank and perks followed. Those who didn't do well at these jobs were transferred. Steve Cobb's job was different. This medic who was out in the front in harm's way was a man everyone depended on. An ambush could be around the next turn. The next pop could be a mortar on its way. The heat exhaustion, malaria, jungle rot were all everyday issues. The medic lived with the two most wanted targets for the NVA or VietCong snipers were the ten feet antenna of the forward observer radioman who was responsible for bringing in the artillery or the soldier with the red cross on his arm. Taking the medic out left the unit with no one for medical care. To a medic it was loyalty to his unit. In 1968 the Tet offense brought the NVA and Vietcong to a higher level. The NVA knew that the best way to bring down this big giant was to hit and run; the NVA and Vietcong had all the time in the world. Ho Chi Minh stated he can loose 10 of his to one of ours and still win.
Most search and destroy patrols started around 3 in the morning. Each command post in the field had a designated route that was unmanned so the unit could move out safely. In most patrols the point and FOS left first followed by the sniper, dog team, medicine kit carson scout; bigger patrols required radiomen and the chaplain(sky pilot). The medics had no days off. They participated in all patrols. Once the first shot was fired or the first mortar hit the first word was 'medic up.' The patrol could encounter a land mine, a rocket from north or a sniper. When not on patrol his duties still demanded his dedication. The soldier that was bit by the snake, the rat who bite the soldier's ear, when he rolled over, malaria, flu and the common cold.
Steve Cobb will never know how many lives he had saved or how many men still have use of their hand or legs. That wounded soldier a sniper put a round in that he patched up and monitored for shock before strapping him on the EVAC helicopter. The grunt who was hit by shrapnel from a mortar had his pain reduced because his medic Steve Cobb was there by his side to prepare him for his chopper flight to the rear.
The medic, the one with the red cross on his sleeve. The one who participates in all patrols and operations. The one when leaving the wire knows that each and every person with him is depending on him come hell or high water. Each unit knows its medic, each medic knows his unit. It's a title that draws respect at every military reunion for many know that they may not be here today if it wasn't for people like Steve Cobb.
In common times most combat medics carry personal weapons to protect his wounded or sick. When and if the medic used their weapon offensively or carried arms that qualify as offensive they then sacrifice their protection under the Geneva Convention.
Thank you Steve Cobb for your service in Vietnam. Thank you Steve Cobb for your service to our community. Welcome home.