Vietnam War veteran awarded overdue medals

Billings Gazette

by Mike Ferguson

Nearly 50 years after performing the heroic deeds that garnered him medals including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Vietnam War medic Gary Booth of Billings finally received what he’d earned Wednesday — with the help of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Tester told a crowd he has awarded overdue medals to more than 900 Montana veterans during his two terms in the senate. Booth’s story — which Tester plans to read into the Congressional Record next week — “is the longest citation I’ve ever done,” he said, “which speaks to what you’ve done in theater.”

Booth, 71, registered as a conscientious objector before being called into army service in 1965. According to the citation, Booth’s unit was ambushed by a battalion four times its size on Feb. 21, 1967.

It was Booth’s job to brave enemy fire and run to wounded American soldiers to stop the bleeding and stabilize them until they could be moved.

The first wound he treated was a soldier’s shoulder, which Booth bandaged. Then Booth bandaged the soldier’s weapon so the man could hold it steady and continue firing.

The next soldier to cry out for help — Booth had his service mates call “doc” rather than “medic” because the North Vietnamese had learned the term “medic” and realized they were high-value targets — was shot in the lower back and was too injured to move.

With mortars exploding all around him, Booth ran headfirst into the enemy’s line of fire, slung the man over his back, ran for cover, stopped the man’s bleeding and called for others to help him.

His third call during the firefight was from the first injured soldier, who’d now been shot in the foot. Booth himself was then shot in the femur, and colleagues pulled him to the perimeter and covered him in a poncho, which during the long night of fighting, which claimed eight American lives with 39 others wounded, was covered with shrapnel and debris.

Finally Booth was airlifted to the Philippines, placed in a body cast, and then taken to Japan for three months for further recovery, where his younger brother — also a medic — helped care for him.

Booth spent a year at Ft. Lewis, Wash., where he learned to walk again, then was granted a 60-percent disability.

He returned home, got married, had a family, and went into business with his father.

“We might have to have (Booth’s spouse) Ellen up here,” Tester said, distributing the seven medals. “You’re going to run out of hands.”

“These are small tokens of thanks for what you’ve done,” Tester told Booth. 

When he got out of the service,” the senator said, “probably the last thing that Gary was thinking about was these medals, but it’s good to get the record straight and to recognize the heroes we have and the sacrifices they have made.”

“At the time, I was just doing my job, taking care of the people I was supposed to,” Booth said following the ceremony. “I didn’t expect anything out of it.”

He said that joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Mark Curtiss post in the Billings Heights earlier this year “got me to thinking” about putting the cap on his career as a medic.

He said he never felt ostracized by his fellow military members for registering as a conscientious objector and serving as a medic.

“At the time, a lot of us went in that way,” he said. “Wherever they sent us, that was our job to do. We figured we served as well as those who went in and carried rifles.”

Asked what advice he has for young people considering service to their country, Booth said: “If you’re called, do your job as best you can. Don’t say no. Just go.”