By BOB PALMER
Jimplecute News Editor
JEFFERSON – The blue-gray eyes grew wide and his hands flailed the air as Claude Gifford attempted to describe bodies flying through the air.
“The mine kicked the whole track (armored personnel carrier) up in the air at least two or three feet and blew the tracks off each side,” Gifford said, still able to see the explosion in his mind 49 years later.
“You see all your buddies flying through the air and they land on the ground,” Gifford, who lives in the Berea community of Marion County, said.
“They’re so shook up. They’re laying there. They can’t talk. They’re just shaking.” Gifford was drafted on April 10, 1969.
He was sent to Vietnam in January of 1970 and returned home in December of 1970. A member of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, Gifford served as a conscientious objector medic.
“The first five months, I believe, I was over there I was in a base camp called Quan Loi, up close to the Cambodian border,” Gifford recalled. After working at the fire base’s aid station, Gifford was assigned as the medic for a platoon of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in time for the Cambodian Invasion.
Gifford said the decision to be a conscientious objector came easy for him, but walking the walk was a challenge. “I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and I believed everything they said,” Gifford said. “I pretty much still do. Now I will argue with them a little bit on the conscientious objector business now, but I think that’s what I should do.”
Seventh Day Adventists are willing to serve in the armed forces, but in a non-combat role. The 2016 movie “Hacksaw Ridge” told the story of Desmond Doss, an Adventist serving in World War II who had to endure ill treatment in training and in the field, but won the Medal of Honor.
“Thanks to Desmond Doss I didn’t encounter much abuse,” Gifford said. “By the time I was in, the church has gotten official recognition from the Army. They even had a special basic training camp for us in Fort Sam Houston down here in San Antonio and we had, as far as I know, the same thing everybody else had, except we didn’t have weapons training. So we got enough respect, we didn’t have to suffer like Desmond did.”
Once in combat, Gifford found conditional acceptance. “I’m climbing on this armored personnel carrier and they said, ‘you the new medic?’” Gifford related. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘Oh, where’s your gun?’ And before I could answer they said, ‘Oh no, not another conscientious objector.’”
Gifford quickly learned the previous medic, also a CO, had been well liked by the crew, but killed by enemy fire. It was the attitude of his platoon leader that stirred a crisis of conscience for Gifford, however.
“That lieutenant told me, ‘if we get in a firefight and somebody gets killed because you didn’t pick up one of the available weapons and help us fight, I personally am going to shoot you and then tell my superiors that Charlie got you.’ I did not argue with him,” Gifford said.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, so why argue with this man?’ I’m sure he meant it.” Gifford said he never had to find out if the lieutenant was bluffing or what he, Gifford, would do in that moment.
“Anyway, nothing ever happened, I never got a scratch,” Gifford said. Gifford shares a belief with many combat veterans. “God spared me,” Gifford testified. Gifford said none of the members of his platoon died while he was their medic, but he got to see plenty of death at the aid station.
“I’ve seen guys who died while we were trying to work on them,” Gifford, who has been certified by the Veterans Administration as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, said.
“I’ve seen a helicopter crash with six men in it, too. I’ll never forget that. And I thought then, ‘there’s going to be some sad families back home. Some sad families.’”
The memory of those men from the Chinook crash will be part of what Gifford carries with him into Memorial Day, Monday. “I’m thinking those who died deserve all the honor they can get,” Gifford said.
“I believe it’s because of these guys that we have a free country. All the freedom we have and everything we have. We wouldn’t be a country without it.”
“To me Memorial Day is a solemn occasion,” Gifford explained. “I’ve been to funerals of veterans and I’ve been to Memorial Day services in Arlington. I always get a lump in my throat.”
A Memorial Day service is planned for 10 a.m. Monday at Oakwood Cemetery in Jefferson.
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