Curmudgeon's Corner: Warriors who had courage, compassion

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 RSV

In the May 26, 2020, edition of The Brookings Register, I paid tribute to HM2 David Robert “Bobby” Ray and Lt. Vincent R. Capodanno: “For the love of comrades and country.” Both men, members of the U.S. Navy, were serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam when they were killed in action; both men were later awarded the Medal of Honor — posthumously. This Memorial Day I will be remembering them again, as I do every Memorial Day.

In so doing, I’m drawing upon some of the words of that column. I begin with an explanation of the circumstances of the two men who went of their own accord into harm’s way.

The Marine Corps does not have its own medical department or chaplains and has its needs for these personnel met by the Navy. In 1968, David Ray was a second class petty officer (hospital corpsman second class: HM2). An HM1 at the time, I was stationed with “Bobby” Ray at Naval Hospital, Long Beach, California.

“With America at war in Vietnam and the Marine Corps in need of corpsmen to accompany its men into battle, many shore duty tours were cut short. (I went back to independent duty aboard USS Vernon County (LST 1161), an old World War II vintage landing ship tank.) … Meanwhile, some of the junior corpsmen I served with in Long Beach were assigned to the FMF (Fleet Marine Force) and sent to Vietnam. Most of them returned, some of them wounded; some did not return.”

Today I still remember David Ray “as a tall, thin, easygoing Tennessean. He didn’t talk a lot but was usually smiling and cheerful. I don’t know that I ever thought of him as having the stuff heroes are made of.” He did; he had what writer Tom Wolfe called the “right stuff.” Add to that Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage: “grace under pressure.”

In May 1968, Ray volunteered for FMF duty. After a brief stint at Field Medical School, Camp Pendleton, California, he was sent to Vietnam and assigned to Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division (Reinforced), at An Hoa.

He was 24-years-old when he was killed in action on March 19, 1969. On April 20, 1970, at the White House, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor: his father accepted the award on his son’s behalf from Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The citation accompanying his award pays tribute to his battlefield actions and courage: “Undaunted by intense hostile fire, HM2 Ray moved from parapet to parapet, rendering emergency medical treatment to the wounded.”

Ray himself was then wounded as he treated others; in defending his position, he killed one of two enemy soldiers and wounded another as they attacked him and a wounded Marine. In a final act of selfless heroism, Ray protected “the patient he was treating. He threw himself upon the wounded Marine, thus saving the Marine’s life when an enemy grenade exploded nearby.”

The ‘Grunt Padre’

Like HM2 Ray, Lt. Vincent R. Capodanno, Jr., a Catholic priest and Maryknoll missionary serving in the Navy Chaplain Corps, volunteered for service with the FMF. He served a year in Vietnam, beginning in April 1966. After a month’s leave, in June 1967 he volunteered for a six-month tour in-country. On Sept. 4, 1967, the priest the Marines affectionately called the “Grunt Padre” went into battle with them.

Father Capodanno’s actions were not unlike Ray’s, but there was a spiritual element to them. The padre’s Medal of Honor citation notes that he “left the relative safety of the Company Command Post … and moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded.”

He himself then suffered “painful multiple wounds to the arms and legs … but he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead he directed the corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines.” He was killed by enemy machinegun fire as he tried “to aid a mortally wounded corpsman.” Father Capodanno was 38 years old.

Members of Capodanno’s family were present on Jan. 7, 1969, for his posthumous award of the Medal of Honor. The citation was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Among the many other honors given to the two men was the naming of United States Navy ships after them: USS Capodanno (FF-1093), a frigate, and USS David R. Ray (DD-971), a destroyer.

For Father Capodanno, another honor is being pursued within the Roman Catholic Church: In 2006 he was named a “Servant of God,” the first of several laborious steps on the way to canonization and sainthood. And on Oct. 1, 2013, Timothy Broglio, archbishop for Military Services, presided over renewal of the Cause for Beatification, the next step in pursuing sainthood for Capodanno. Broglio has suggested that the “Grunt Padre” could someday be the patron saint for Memorial Day.

While medical personnel and chaplains serving with America’s armed forces are classified as “non-combatants,” men of God and healers like Vincent Capodanno and David Ray could most certainly be called “warrior” in the most noble definition of what that word can mean.

When my May 26, 2020, column appeared in the Register, America was fighting a different sort of — but still very deadly — war against an unseen enemy: let me quote from that column.

“So too might the first responders and medical personnel fighting the war against the coronavirus be called warriors. Many of them lost their lives in battle and deserve Memorial Day Honors.

“Remember all of them in your prayers. And be thankful the United States of America still produces valiant warriors such as the men and women cited above.

“They ensure that we continue to have plentiful nice days.”