"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Peace in Knowing: by CJ Heck

Combat Medic Memorial

Through Memoirs From Nam, I have now heard from several people who knew and served with my husband, Doug, ("Doc"), in Vietnam.

I will be forever grateful to these men for the courage it took to reach out, because I have come to understand just how difficult it is for them to talk about brothers they lost in country. 

From a widow’s perspective, their reaching out creates a precious Bridge -- a Bridge of Healing.  To hear from someone who knew and served with their loved one, someone who may have been the last to see him alive, does help answer some of the agonizing questions they have held inside for decades.

Several years ago, I received a letter from Lt. James McCraney, who was Doug’s friend in Vietnam. On the day Doug was KIA, the Lt. had also been part of the same mission.

With his permission, I posted that letter here on the blog, where it touched the hearts of those who read it. (Memoir of Douglas S. Kempf, 8-2-10)

Later, I spoke with Lt. McCraney by phone. It was emotional, but it was good for both of us to talk about Doug, and I respect Lt. McCraney for the courage it took to contact me. There were some things he couldn't share, but it was an important beginning.  He said some day, maybe he would be able to tell me more.

Time passed and we stayed in contact through occasional emails. Then I received another letter that touched me deeply.  It was as difficult for me to read as I know it was for him to write.

I extend my most profound and sincere thanks to you, Lt. James McCraney.
I am ready to tell you as much as I can remember about my short time with Doug. 
As I have mentioned to you before, I was a brand new 2nd Lt., not two months out of Officer Training. I was flown out to a remote firebase on the edge of a small, rice-growing, and very poor village. This firebase was so small that I can't even remember the name of it.

As I made my way from the landing zone, (which was in the middle of a road), I saw a couple of guys walking toward me. One was the guy that I was to be replacing, and the other was Doc Kempf. Both had big smiles -- one was about to go home, the other just seemed genuinely glad to meet me.

I went in and met the officers in charge of the artillery unit at this base. Doug hung around and after a while showed me my "hooch". It was mostly sandbags on top of a metal culvert and an air mattress. His was next door. 
I don't think that Doc ever met a stranger. Everyone knew and loved Doc. He was our friend and our Mama. He treated us for everything, listened to us, and he always seemed to know what to do. We hung out a lot whenever we both had some "free" time.

I was asking him about being in country and where all he had been He stated that the infantry had been south in the area called Pineapple -- this is the Mekong Delta. All were glad to get out of there, since it is wet and muddy most of the time. It was the rainy season when I hit Nam and it would rain until November or December.

Doug and I would sit in our hooches and fight the rain, play cards, but mostly we would talk. Since I was single, I didn't have family to talk about like he did. He always talked about you and about how he missed you, since you had only been married for such a short time. He showed me pictures, too, however, the only one that I can remember clearly now was a photo of his niece. He was so proud of all of you.

Doug and I didn't know when the next mission in the boonies would be. Bear in mind, this would be my first mission. He tried to prepare me as best he could, telling me what to take and all. Also trying to let me know what to expect even though you can't explain it. Remember, he was my Mama at this time. Even though I was an officer, I never looked at Doug as an enlisted man. We were just friends, that's all.

One day he asked me to go into the village with him to "doctor" some of the kids. They were dirty and had skin rashes on them. Doug would treat them and give them what "goodies" that we had. I was always fearful that someone would kill us down there, but he didn't seem to worry. He had a great big heart especially for the kids. I told him that he would make a great doctor someday.

The time came for my first mission. We were going out for about three days recon. Doug didn't seem to think that this would be much. He was right. They were uneventful, long days of scorching heat -- when it wasn't raining. Since I was an artillery officer, I walked in the formation in the middle with the Captain, his radio, and Doug, We were always together, or close.

Upon coming in from this mission, Doug worked on us as best he could. He called me a big baby since he cut a boil out of my back. I told him that he could at least give me a stick to bite on. He just laughed. 
Doc treated scratches, sore feet, or whatever else ailed us. We would laugh and talk and dream of home and loved ones during this downtime. Doug always liked to hear me talk, since I was from the deep South. I told him that he talked funny to me and he would even try to talk like me -- I couldn't get the Yankee out of him.

The next mission was in September. There was still a lot of rain and humidity. This mission was to be for two weeks. That is no fun. Again, Doug told me how to pack. For the life of me, I don't know how he always seemed to be in such a good mood. We had been out for one day and nothing happened.

The second day, around 11:00 am, we were ambushed. The forward units were hit the hardest. Doug and I were in the middle of the unit and "fairly" safe at that point. They radioed back to the Captain that we had hurt and dead. This had gone on for about 30 minutes. 
Doug was listening to the Captain's transmissions. He started to go and someone pulled him back. He would look at me and me at him. He knew what he had to do. 
Momentarily, someone hollered, "Medic!" He didn't balk. Grabbing all of his gear, he raced up to the front.

We thought they were gone. That was not the case. They had left a couple of guys behind just to wreak havoc on us. As Doug got close, one of them opened up on him and Doug never knew what hit him. I hate to be so graphic, but that is how it was. He did not suffer. 
After everything was really over, it was time to gather everything up. We called in medivac choppers and had to cut down trees in order for them to hover and receive the hurt and dead.

As I got to the front and saw the ponchos on the ground, I asked who they were. Someone turned to me and pointed and said, "That's Doc Kempf". 
I can't describe to you -- and I mean that -- how I felt. All I could think of was, no, no, no! I uncovered him to make sure. He looked peaceful, if that is possible.

As the chopper hovered and the grass was blowing from the rotors, I helped strap Doug into a chair-like device to pull him up into the chopper. 
The last visual I have of him is seeing him going up and going round and round with his arms outstretched. I can't get that out of my head -- and I don't really want to.

That was the end of a too short, but fulfilling, friendship. I have shed many tears over Doug throughout these years. His death has touched me like very few have. I know that all of you feel so much more for him than I could ever feel, but I was fortunate to have been exposed to him.

I never knew anything more after we came back in from this mission. We had a medic replacement, but no one could take Doug's place. He was discussed many times after that.


“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale


  1. Wow. What a story. I'm sure it was tough to read it, (and to write it). But obviously, given the title of this post, it was helpful.

    It's a valuable piece of personal history for you, and general war history for everyone else.

    My son finished his first year of college, and took a class on WWI. He loves history, but had a pretty hard teacher. He also had him first semester for Ancient History, and did not do super well in either class. Still, he's taking the same professor again next fall for WWII.

    My point here, is that he had to do an extensive project in the Battle of Verdun (a battle designed to "bleed France white", and involved heavy losses on both sides) and I think a big part of the course was teaching the students the misery of battle. They discussed politics, strategies, weapon development, but I really felt like the message of loss was more profound.

    And in our house we watched a lot of HBO's Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, and of course Saving Private Ryan - but for some reason, reading the source material from the soldiers in my son's course, the poems, essays and letters written by those men, they seemed to have more of an impact - the same way this Lt.'s letter felt.

  2. Hello M.K.-- thank you so much for your comments. It's true, reading the memoirs do have a huge impact. I agree, it can be "tough" to write about painful issues, but it is also very healing to face the memories, some of them long buried. That is what Memoirs From Nam is all about for all of us -- finding the courage to dig down where those memories are and then writing about them.

    Others also heal by reading those posts, because they can see things from a different perspective, or maybe they relate to them because those memories touch their own, and they haven't been able to write about theirs as yet.

    There is so much good happening here and I'm so proud of the veterans.
    Thank you again for your comments!

  3. Hi CJ. Being able to express emotions, anywhere on the spectrum, is huge. It's extra gratifying when we writers can do it with some kind talent. But it's also huge to just experience it as a witness, as a reader. To be open to other's pain is a part of growing.

    True, reading a good fiction tear-jerker, or watching the same kind of movie - well that can bring a release too, but when you're exposed to these stories that you've been telling - its' incredibly deeper.

    I've been writing a book about my son's illness - and what inspired me was the feeling that my story and journey is not totally unique. The set circumstances are different, but the commonality in certain kinds of suffering and moments of crisis just resonates with many people, and the small ways to cope that I found could help others.

  4. You are very fortunate CJ to have had the opportunity for some degree of "closure". There are many widows and loved ones who have not. To this day details surrounding their loved one's life and death in Nam remain a true mystery to them. They had not the opportunity nor perhaps the will to pursue deeper into a painful time in their lives. Anyways - You have some peace and resolution as a result of your courage an actions - God Bless and forever keep you safe until once again you will be reunited with Doug - Forever.

  5. CJ, this was an enlightening story, sad as war is. I too, as an infantry platoon leader in the Mekong Delta, also with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (2/3 Infabtry), became very close to my medics. I went through several, and they were all great guys. I loved them and respected what they were there for and what they so courageously accomplished all the time. They were indeed some of the greatest heroes of the war. When you called, "Medic!" they were right there, regardless of the incoming fire all around them. They saved a lot of lives because of that. Your late husband was no exception obviously. I really do think, because of the stories I relate in my book, and the proximity of where the two of us fought, you would appreciate reading that book and feeling what we often were going through during that intense war. I will be sending you a few of those stories in the near future. I also cover some of them in my memoir soon to be out. Thanks for being here, CJ.

  6. Thank you for your kind thoughts, John. I'm sure I would appreciate reading your book, because many of your stories will closely parallel those that Doug wrote home about.

    I look forward to reading the stories you spoke about, and please let me know when your memoir is published and I will proudly promote it here on the blog.


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