Day by Day

Medic’s essay on AR-15s and mass shootings was first published on CounterPunch on 15 June 2022.

The AR-15 is a weapon of war. It should not be sold to civilians. It kills or injures by inflicting severe ballistic wounds on the enemy. However, during my tour as grunt medic in Vietnam in 1970, where I encountered—up close and personal—my share of dead VC and NVA, I saw only one NVA—an older man—“exploded” by an AR-15. He and the girl next to him had somehow survived an automatic ambush. That night, around 2a.m. five daisy-chained Claymores blew up when the trip wire placed across a well-used trail, nudged by an errant foot, detonated the mines. We lay low as a chorus of dreadful screams filled the air, and kept silent as the lightly wounded stampeded past. For hours we listened to the weakening groans of those left behind.

At dawn, two platoons surrounded the eight enemy who lay lifeless atop each other, blown down, perforated by the mines’ many thousand steel bearings, the ten kilos of C4 equivalent to a dozen sticks of dynamite. When the old man moved, my lieutenant walked up to him and shouted “Chieu Hoi!” But the hardcore NVA did not surrender; he lifted his AK to fire. Point blank the lieutenant shot him with his AR-15, prompting the machine gunner and everyone else to open up. When the cordite smoke cleared the man had no head—you’d expect that from twenty soldiers firing at close range—but the girl next to him—who appeared intact, moved. I approached her. She’d been hit by the Claymores and was now shot up by rifle and machine gun fire. She was dehydrated; both her legs were broken by bullets. I gave her water, tried to splint her with rotten bamboo. She was medevaced. Likely “interrogated.” If M16s or AR15s exploded people, it didn’t happen to her.

It didn’t happen to Red either. I was a hundred yards away when I finally got to him. He lay on the ground, stone faced, surrounded by the platoon, who were unusually quiet. Red had been shot six times, in the arms and belly. I patched up the small bullet hole wounds. We called in a medevac. Never heard from him again. Twenty-eight years later the RTO told me Red had been warned several times to move up during enemy contact. This time, when Red failed to advance, the RTO shot him at close range.

I helped bury NVA sappers on LZ Ranch the morning after it was overrun. Each had been shot at close range. Unlike the GIs blown apart by Chicom grenades and satchel charges thrown into bunkers, the sapper bodies had only small purple patches where the bullets entered.
High velocity bullets cause terrible wounds, but expanding bullets do awful damage. Rangers or Special Forces or Seals might have carried hollow heads; we didn’t. Once, after an ambush, when we scavenged the enemy dead and found several small boxes of hollow head AK ammo, our reaction was fear and anger.

When it comes to AR-15s exploding human bodies I wonder about the DTIC report cited in a recent Gawker article quoted on the Intercept. Were the field reports, like U.S. body counts in Vietnam, accurate? Or were they at best exaggerated, and possibly false?

As it happens, the photo accompanying the Gawker article of Sergeant First Class John Volitis wielding an AR-15 is miscaptioned. He’s not in Vietnam. He’s stateside at Fort Bragg. You can tell by his starched fatigues.

Automatic weapons have only one purpose—to inflict as many deaths or severe ballistic wounds as possible. The AR-15 and assault rifles like it should not be sold to civilians. The Aussies and Kiwis have succeeded in removing such weapons from their streets. I’m not optimistic about the U.S. Day by day, we’re imploding.

Top photo: circa 1950: Arizona schoolchildren dressed as cowboys playing out a shoot-out in the classroom with their teacher. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Soldier with AR-15 photo caption: Army Magazine, August 1963, page 4.