Each week, the Daily Herald will feature a different veteran 50 years after the start of the Vietnam War. Read all future profiles at heraldextra.com/veterans.
Steven Draper survived 93 days in the Vietnam jungle when most Army medics lasted an average of less than seven days.
“They called me ‘Doc,’” Draper said of the soldiers.
He was their physician, confessor, counselor, friend. He gave them hope and strength.
Drafted after graduating from Lehi High School in 1966, he was 19 years old and working at the Developmental Center, formerly known as the Utah State Training School, at its hospital.
Based on some advice from his uncle, Donald Gurney, he decided to enter the Army and become a medic.
“Now you want to tell them that you want to be a medic, because you will be sleeping in white sheets, you will be eating good food, you’ll be working in a hospital, you want to be a medic,” said Draper, quoting his uncle.
“I knew a little bit about hospital aides, so I decided that was good,” he said. “I would become a medic.”
Draper entered Army basic training in 1968 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. One day, his drill sergeant, Roger P. Lucas, called him in and said, “Troop, the worst thing in the world that could happen, has happened to you.”
He thought his parents had died.
Instead, the sergeant informed him he had been assigned to become a medic.
“Great, that is what I wanted to be,” Draper said. “He said ‘Are you crazy? Did you know that the life expectancy of a medic in Vietnam right now is 14 days?’”
Gurney forgot to mention to his nephew that he had been a Naval medic on a hospital ship, not an Army medic in the jungle.
Draper did not back down, and was sent to take 10 weeks of advanced medical training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was then transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he worked in Walson Hospital's orthopedic ward.
Draper saw many veterans coming back from the war in need of ambulatory treatment, with amputations or severe wounds to the limbs.
“I enjoyed that work there and thought that this was where I would spend the rest of my Army career was in that hospital,” he said.
In February 1969 he received orders to go to Vietnam. The director at the Fort Dix hospital tried to get Draper permanently stationed there. They liked his work and wanted to keep him as a doctor’s assistant, Draper said. They were unsuccessful.
“All the strings in the world couldn’t keep me from being assigned to go to Vietnam, so I came home for 30 days before I was to leave,” he said.
He arrived at the Duen Hua Air Base and was transferred up to Dong Ha in the north, next to the demilitarized zone.
After three days, a helicopter took him and other medics into a landing zone base between Dong Ha and Khe Sanh where all the new medics were assembled to be assigned to a platoon. They would care for soldiers patrolling the border in the jungle.
“When I got assigned there, that was when they told me that the life expectancy really wasn’t 14 days, it was seven days,” Draper said. “They were taking medics out at least every day. As they would come in, they would send them out to go in the jungle some place.”
He was assigned to a medical unit stationed in the area and worked with the doctor there.
“And he told me, ‘You will never go out in the jungle, you will stay here with me, unless it comes down to you or I, then you will go out to the jungle.’”
After three weeks working at the medical unit, the choice was made — Draper was assigned to the 5th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Brigade, Charlie Company 2nd Platoon.
“We were supposed to be a mechanized unit, but the only riding we ever did was to ride farther into the jungle where they would let us out where we would occasionally run into other platoons in our company,” he said. “For the most part we were acting alone as one platoon.”
His platoon of 27–30 men would move during the day, and the enemy would move at night trying to sneak past the platoons.
“They really didn’t want to run into us in the jungle because they had a mission of their own to do,” Draper said. “Firefights were common when we would engage the enemy or visa versa.”
The enemy knew that at night the platoon wasn’t moving because moving at night meant sudden death.
“Anything that moved at night was killed, no questions asked,” Draper said.
The soldiers would fix the perimeter for the night, and Draper, considered an important and necessary element of the platoon as its medic, would sleep by the radioman and a commanding officer, if there was one, in the center of the temporary sanctuary within the perimeter.
“Not only was I their doctor but I was their chaplain,” he said. “The men seemed to learn to love me, and not only that, they came to me with all their troubles, [whether] a letter from home, they had bad news, or being homesick or being physically sick, I was their go-to guy.”
As time went on with this platoon of men, they had firefight after firefight, he said. When he treated his first wounded in action, Draper said he was scared to death.
“My last firefight, I was scared to death,” he said, and his voice caught. “It’s been 47 years and it doesn’t get any easier.
"Vietnam will never die with me or be any less than the day it was when I got there, but I was a blessed man to be there.”
He was not a conscientious objector, when a lot of the Vietnam medics were.
“I believed that my only way home was to fight my way home,” he said.
The Army issued him a 45 caliber pistol, and he took an M16 rifle from the first soldier who fell after Draper was assigned to the platoon.
He used the rifle to defend himself and to support the troops. The pistol he carried at his hip.
“My first firefight, it was pitch black,” he said. “You could see nothing as you stared out into the jungle. You couldn’t see what you were aiming at.”
One of Draper’s responsibilities was to man the radio for two hours each night so the radioman could sleep.
“On this particular night I was sitting on an outcrop and my radio watch was from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.,” he said.
He sent a radio message of the platoon’s status every hour on the hour so those at the rear would know there were no problems there, that all was well.
After his 4 a.m. contact with the rear radioman, Draper looked down at his watch and decided it was time to move off the outcrop and get back to camp, where his poncho and blanket were.
“So I was moving back down where my boots, my medical aid bag, my poncho and my weapons were lying and just as I got up, the first mortar round came into our position and lit exactly on top of my blanket where I would have been laying down for a brief rest,” Draper said. “It hit literally seconds before I got there.
“I got back down into some rocks for cover, because now all hell broke loose. Every sound you could imagine, every gunpowder, every smoke, every noise was deafening; and through that deafening sound, I heard ‘medic.’ Someone had been injured, and that’s my turn.”
Because of the direct hit on his blanket, he had to grope around in the dark to find his aid bag. Once he found it he made his way to the wounded soldier. A mortar had opened him up from his chin to his knee.
“There was nothing that I could do for him, and the cries of ‘medic, medic’ were now becoming more numerous, and I’m the only medic,” Draper said.
There was a large man with a bayonet at the end of his rifle standing nearby.
“Stay with him, it won’t be long,” Draper told the soldier.
He moved to the next wounded soldier and was able to treat him, and as he turned toward the hill to go to yet another, he was shot in the back of the leg, the shrapnel continuing through the front of his leg.
“I didn’t have time to treat myself; I moved on to the next man and then the next man,” Draper said. “As things started to quiet down and there wasn’t the need, the cry for medic, I wanted to get back to the first soldier who had fallen because he was a friend of mine.”
As he crouched down beside his friend, Draper's right hand went below his knee just as he heard a faint metal-to-metal sound, “tink.” He didn’t know what that sound was, but instantaneously an explosion took place right on top of his young friend’s body.
The impact sent Draper backward, catapulting through the air. He said he remembers thinking his feet were gone.
“As I landed in sitting position, I reached down and counted my toes,” he said. “They were all there. The problem was some of the connective tissues and bones between my knees and toes were broken and shattered.”
Both legs broken and three shin breaks in the skin, he began hearing the cries for medic gain.
A soldier who saw the explosion called out, “The doctor is dead, the doctor is dead. Take care of yourself.”
"There was a hole in my hand and I could stick my finger straight through it," Draper said. "I yelled up, 'Hey, is my aid bag up there?'"
“Is Draper still alive?” someone yelled back.
“Yes, but I won’t be if you don’t find my aid bag,” Draper said.
No one could find the aid bag. No one was moving. They were hunkered down against the firefight.
Draper tore his shirt and made some tourniquets to stop the bleeding in his legs, but still had no aid bag.
“As I lay there listening to incoming mortar rounds, explosions in the air, thinking it was probably the end for me, I said a small prayer and remembered the saying ‘do all you can do to help yourself and when you have done all you can do, I’ll step in and help you,’” Draper said. “I petitioned my Father in Heaven to help me.”
He opened his eyes and his aid bag was on his shoulder, where it had not been before. He looked around and nobody had moved. Nobody had come to his aid. He treated himself and bandaged his wounds.
Draper found the morphine and decided the shot would be more painful than the painkiller was worth.
“I had no pain, I had not gone into shock, I had taken care of myself,” he said. “I thought if I could make it to a nearby rock I could survive.”
Snuggled up against that rock, Draper peeked around and saw the enemy approaching through the tall grass,
“I hollered up ‘I’ve got enemy coming in the back door,’ and a soldier I had never seen before came up next to me with his machine gun and quickly dispersed all the enemy that was approaching from behind,” Draper said.
A medevac arrived at dawn to transport the dead and wounded to a medical unit or hospital. Draper was part of that transport. He had survived longer than most medics in the jungle.
After he was stabilized he was sent to Japan to a larger military hospital, where he had five more operations on his legs before the Army sent him home. While he was recovering, a Red Cross worker asked if he would like to call his mother.
His mother, Donna Gurney Draper, was sitting at the breakfast table when her son called. A reserved, quiet woman, she asked him why he was calling.
“I was wounded a little bit; I’ll be OK. I’ll be coming home soon,” he told his mother.
It wasn’t more than 5 minutes later that the police arrived at her front door. They gave her an Army telegram letting her know her son had been gravely wounded and might not survive his injuries.
“I just got off the phone with him, he’s fine,” she told the officer.
From Japan, the military sent him to a hospital in Denver, where he received therapy until he was discharged in 1970.
Now the owner of Steve Draper Construction, Draper and his wife of 45 years, Cindy Draper, are American Fork residents, having moved to the city in 2013 after living in neighboring Highland since 1978.