Corpsman Doug Tollefson slogged sixth or seventh in line as the Marines ascended a ridge overlooking Vietnam's Thong Duc Valley. It was 1969, months after the Tet Offensive, near the border with the communists.
The point man snagged an enemy trip wire, igniting an explosion that sent shrapnel zinging in a deadly circle. The hot fragments missed Tollefson, but hit several of the Marines, wounding the point man badly. Adrenaline surged in the young medic, who sprinted up the hill and picked up the wounded man. As he ran back to safety with his precious load, bullets whistling by, Tollefson's fingers sank into the wounds.
The good news: the Marine survived. The bad news: Tollefson, a 21-year-old North Dakota farm boy, discovered for sure that the world contains evil.
"Without question, war is hell on earth," says Tollefson, 63. He's now chief fundraising officer for the Archdiocese of Portland. "You have kids out there fighting.
They are doing things that will forever change their lives, seeing ugly things, cruel things that are unimaginable. It truly leaves you scarred for life."
Tollefson did not want to go to Vietnam. To avoid being drafted into the Army, he joined the Navy at 20, hoping for a ship assignment or stateside duty. But corpsmen were not lasting long in Vietnam and the Navy — which provides all medical support for its amphibious force, the Marine Corps — sent Tollefson to fill a slot in the 3rd battalion, 3rd regiment, 1st Marine division.
His unit's home was An Hoa combat base, set in the forested mountains. The quartermaster issued him a 45-caliber pistol, which he exchanged for an M-16. But his rucksack mostly carried field dressings, not ammo. The members of his unit called him "Doc" and looked out for him. They all knew their lives might depend on the blond youth with a mustache.
In addition to scooping up the wounded under fire and stanching blood flow, Tollefson served as psychologist and makeshift chaplain to scared youths and those who got Dear John letters from home. He tended men with fever and dysentery and worked on jungle-ravaged rotting feet.
It was a year in the bush, living rough and heading in and out of combat. He found the land stunningly beautiful, but devastated. As he accompanied wounded soldiers on helicopter rides to hospital ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, he saw hillsides and valleys marred by bomb craters and plant life defoliated by agent orange. It brought to mind the acne-scarred face of an unhappy teenager.
He witnessed the solemn power of the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey, which fired two-ton shells more than 20 miles, loads that roared overhead, exploding horribly into the enemy. He saw the massive destruction caused by B-52s on a bombing flight from Okinawa. When the fighting on the ground got fierce, even a corpsman had to shoot his gun. "You do the things you have to do," he recalls. "Everybody was there to do a job and protect one another."
His unit kept on the move, hiking five to seven miles per day to keep from being hit by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army. One evening, he was sitting making hot chocolate between a foxhole and a villager's small garden. He saw the corn stalks shudder and a rocket-propelled grenade burst out of the greenery and rattled to a halt at his feet. It never exploded. He keeps several photographs of the slim green warhead that could have blown him to pieces but didn't.
Other times, he had to pick shrapnel out of his legs. Nothing big, he says with a shrug. "I was very lucky to not be severely wounded during my tour in Vietnam."
Mostly, he explains, the mind of a soldier shuns the bad and remembers the good.
Tollefson recalls good times and big laughs with his buddies who came from all over the U.S. He remembers vividly that in combat it didn’t matter if you were Hispanic, Black or white; you were a person who cared for and looked out for the others.
Once, a helicopter delivered a load of steaks by mistake, probably intended for a group of officers billeted elsewhere. Tollefson and his unit cooked up the beef and ate it before anyone could fix the error.
After his tour ended, he flew back to the U.S. in 1970, height of the anti-war movement. Commanders suggested the men remove their uniforms in public.
Tollefson took the advice for part of the trip, but at the Los Angeles airport, he put the uniform back on and proudly wore it the rest of the way home.
Back at the farm, he awoke early the first morning by habit and with a rifle, took the farm dog on a five-mile hike. He would finish college and apply for medical school, but his father fell ill and Tollefson returned home to farm wheat, barley and oats. He also raised cattle.
He feels as if he lost track of the decade after his homecoming.
"I didn't think I was that affected, but it wasn't true," he says. Once, when a car backfired, he scuttled under a coffee table for cover.
Tollefson's father would confess he hardly knew the boy when he returned from Vietnam.
For the most part, Tollefson says, "you just have to man up." Yet even now, certain films or sights, sounds and smells bring his mind back to combat.
"You learn to handle it," he says. "But it never totally leaves you. What Vietnam did to most people was harden them."
He converted to Catholicism when he married wife Julie 30 years ago and has cherished family life. A member of St. Juan Diego Parish in Portland, he's a parent of two and a grandparent of three.
After leaving farming, he went to work with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and then the North Dakota Farm Bureau. He later entered the North Dakota State University system where he worked as a development associate and was able to receive a master’s degree in philanthropy and development.
"I wish there didn't need to be war," he says. "But I don't regret having spent my time with the Marine Corps. It taught leadership, endurance, perseverance, persistence — a lot of things that allowed me to be successful in life. Ultimately, it made me a better person."