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This Day in History: Donald Ballard's Heroism in Vietnam

On this day in 1945, a hero is born. Donald “Doc” Ballard would enlist in the Navy just after his 20th birthday. By then, he was already a married man, and he had his sights set on being a dentist.


Perhaps the 35 years he ultimately spent in the military surprised him as much as anyone else?


“I started college to become a dentist,” he later explained, “then ran out of money so I looked to the military as a source of financial assistance. . . . the Navy told me that I could be a dentist after I completed some enlisted time and finished my education.”


He’d already bypassed the Army because he didn’t see himself in combat. “I thought that Navy life would be cleaner, and I would be working in a hospital somewhere,” he concluded. It didn’t turn out that way, of course.


The Navy needed corpsmen more than dentists, so Ballard was told he’d be “studying the whole body” at first. He could “change to the dental side” later.

On May 16, 1968, then-HC2c Ballard was a frontline medic serving with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. His company was working to rejoin the rest of its battalion in Quang Tri province.


Suddenly, the company was ambushed.


“Typically, they’d let some of us get by,” Ballard explained, “and then they would get in the middle of us and start ambushing us.” The strategy created confusion as Marines worked to figure out who was friend vs. foe, but Ballard thought it went one step further.


“The enemy did not treat the first patient as somebody that they wanted to kill,” he concluded. “They literally wounded him with the understanding that that would bring other Americans. . . . Here’s the next line of docs coming in for them to target practice on, so it wasn’t the first guy that got killed, it was the second, third, fourth, all the way up to eighth, ninth guy . . . .”


Ballard went in anyway, naturally. He was just doing his job.


During the chaos that followed, a Marine went down, and Ballard rushed to help him. After administering medical aid, he directed four Marines to evacuate the wounded man. Just then, an enemy grenade landed nearby. Ballard shouted a warning, then threw himself on it.


“I’m the only one walking, the only one moving, and so I had to make an effort to get rid of that thing or it was going to kill all of us,” he described. “It was just a little bit out of my reach, and so I lunged for it . . . . I just barely could grab it with my hands, so then I pulled it up under my chest, and I was wearing a bulletproof vest . . . somewhere in my mind was registering that I could possibly save the other guys by letting this bulletproof vest absorb the blast.”


For years afterwards, he would wrestle with the idea of whether he’d known that the move was potentially suicidal. “I was afraid,” he said of those moments. “I was not so much afraid of losing my life, but in a sense, I was because I had a wife and two children at home. I wanted to get home.”


Nevertheless, he’d made the move. He steeled himself, waiting for the explosion. When nothing happened, he changed tactics: “I flung it in the air, and somewhere in the air it exploded.”


“I owe my life to God,” he later wrote.


Ballard would later receive the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but he didn’t think he’d done anything special.


“I don’t feel like I did anything spectacular,” he concluded. “I was a patriot. I was an American. And I was wanting to do the right thing. . . . I was awarded the Medal of Honor basically for just doing my job the best I could do it.”

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