Several months ago, I learned that alumnus, Jim Purtell, published a book about his experiences as a combat medic in Vietnam. It piqued my interest, so I ordered a copy of Vietnam There & Back—A Combat Medic’s Chronicle. I was only six years old when the Vietnam War ended. What I knew about it, I learned in history classes. But as I read the pages of Purtell’s book, I gained a greater appreciation of the reality of war and how the experience changed, sometimes permanently, the people who served. I asked Jim if we could feature his book, as well as some of his experiences, and I’m grateful he said yes. (Purtell’s book can be purchased online at http://www.Amazon.com.)Karen Boehm, Advancement Director
When Jim Purtell graduated from Lourdes High School in 1967, he felt his options were limited—live at home and work, go to college locally while living at home, or go away to college. But he wasn’t interested in higher education, and he butted heads with his father and didn’t think they could coexist under one roof. So he looked toward the military.
“The country was pro-Vietnam at that time,” Purtell said. “I was patriotic and wanted some adventure, so I joined the Army in June 1967.”
Purtell didn’t want to kill anyone, so he requested to be trained as a medic. He was influenced by his father who was a WWII veteran and officer, and worked in the medical profession.
He completed basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky then continued on to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for leadership school, after which he completed 10 weeks of medical training. His recruiting sergeant told him he’d be stationed in Germany or Hawaii, both places he was eager to visit. He eventually received orders for Cameron Bay in Vietnam, the “country club” of army bases, then returned home for a 30-day leave before deploying.
“I told my family they had nothing to worry about,” he said. “I’m going to the country club of Vietnam. I was in Vietnam for three days and was ordered to get my stuff together and report to the helicopter pad. The infantry unit needed medics. I boarded the chopper with no way to communicate to anyone back home.”
The pages of Purtell’s book share with brutal honesty stories of his experiences, from ambushes and gaining ground to losing friends and leaders. Vietnam was no country club.
“There wasn’t anything good about where we were,” Purtell recalled. “The weather was hot and humid. There were insects and snakes, greenery that would cut you or prick you, leaches that attached to your armpits and groin. We all hated being there, especially when the country started turning against us.”
Politicians publicly came out against the war, and music and television picked up on the anti-war fervor. The disdain people felt for the war trickled down to the soldiers themselves.
“Walter Cronkite reported nightly on how many of our ‘American boys’ were killed. We were over there trying to fight it,” Purtell said. “People couldn’t separate the war from the warrior.”
In February 1969, Purtell finally returned to Oshkosh. He was excited to be home with family and friends. But he realized quickly the transition back was not as smooth as he imagined. The anti-war sentiment was high, and he found it difficult to connect with people who didn’t understand what he’d experienced. He recalled veterans having a difficult time finding a job because employers believed what they saw in the media—”that we were crazed drug addicts and baby killers.”
“After I returned home, I thought everybody had changed, and it bothered me,” Purtell recalled. “Then I realized I was the one that changed so significantly. That realization took months.”
Feeling lost, Purtell reached out to Al Torsiello, who he served with in Vietnam. He discovered that Torsiello was having the same acclimation issues, and the short visit in New Jersey was time well spent for both of them. Forty-five years later, Purtell and Torsiello combined their musical talents to write a CD of songs about their war experiences, titled Vietnam: There & Back. Torsiello would later write the forward to Purtell’s book in 2018.
While writing the book, Purtell recalled a quote that was etched into the exterior of the Lourdes building, “The truth shall set you free.” Purtell said it was paramount that he tell the complete truth about his war experiences—the good and the bad—and let the chips fall where they may. Writing the book, which he hopes also conveys the brave stories of his fellow infantrymen, did help set him free.
Purtell had 18 months left to serve after leaving Vietnam. He was stationed in Savannah, Georgia, at the Tuttle Army Health Clinic. In June 1970, he enrolled at UW Oshkosh and graduated in three years with a degree in education with a social science emphasis. He later received a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling and moved to the east coast to help disabled veterans find employment.
He worked for the federal government in several different agencies including the Defense Logistics Agency, the Department of the Navy, and the U.S. Department of Labor – OSHA. Purtell, now retired, splits his time between Oshkosh and Fort Myers Beach, Florida.