MILTON — In 1968, in the Quang Tri province of Vietnam, Navy Corpsman Don “Doc” Ballard risked his life to save his patients and Marines by diving on a live grenade.
It delayed exploding long enough for him to throw it away.
Ballard traveled from Kansas City, Kansas, to share his story during the Heroes Among Us speaker series, which kicked off Thursday at the Pensacola Veterans Memorial Park. Wednesday afternoon, he joined the League for lunch at Grover T’s.
AWAKING TO GUNFIRE
Ballard joined the Navy in 1965 while he was studying dentistry in college. The Navy then transferred Ballard to the Fleet Marine Force, where he became a hospital corpsman.
He served with the First Battalion, Sixth Marines out of Camp Lejeune and, a year later, went to Vietnam with the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines. He served approximately 10 months and 14 days before being medically evacuated on injuries.
“I had a concussion,” he said. “I was unconscious and bleeding out of every orifice … I woke up three days later in Japan … The first thing I remember doing was I stood flushing the toilet. We had none in Vietnam. The first meal I had was a cheeseburger, fries and a malt. That was my high school favorite.”
Ballard went from Japan to Okinawa to Camp McTureous, where they had what was known as a redline brig, a prison for the worst military criminals. He served there as a corpsman almost eight months before returning to the United States.
“A year later, I exited the Navy and joined the Army,” he said.
On May 16, 1968, Ballard survived three hand grenade attacks. At the time, Ballard was serving as a corpsman in the Quang Tri province with Company M, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines of the Third Marine Division when the North Vietnamese Army attacked.
“That day was not much different than any other day in Vietnam,” he said. “I woke up to gunfire and heard ‘Corpsmen up!’ That was the call for a doctor. Somebody was shot.”
An enemy threw the first grenade while Ballard was moving patients into a bomb crater, but it went off without causing injury. The second bounced off Ballard’s helmet while he was treating a patient. He threw it away before it could hurt anyone.
‘I LOVE HELPING PEOPLE’
Ballard served in the military from 1965 to 2000, with his only break being time to finish his college education between the Navy and the Army. He spent another 20 years in public service.
“I’ve worn (these) uniforms: police, fire department and paramedics,” he said. “I retired from the fire department paramedics in Kansas City. I understand service. I encourage people to be less selfish.
“For 55 years, I was either shot at, ran into burning buildings, and was a health care professional,” he said. “I love helping people even when they can’t say thanks.
“That’s my reward: seeing people recover and know I made a difference.”
‘A HIGHER CALLING’
Military service, which ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor, was not just a choice, Ballard said.
“I had a higher calling,” he said. “I do appreciate love for God, country and family. When you put that all before yourself you can do good things.”
After a life of public service, Ballard went back to school to become a funeral director.
He then started two nonprofit organizations: Triumphant Spirit Foundation and the National Combat Medical Memorial and Youth Education Center. The first provides funerals for veterans whose families can’t afford them. The second provides education for Boy Scouts on Americanism and the U.S. Constitution.
“In Vietnam, I put bodies in bags,” he said. “Today I pick up bags and provide funerals.”
The soldiers he provides funerals for died at roughly the same age of the friends he lost when he served.
Ballard wears his Medal of Honor for two reasons.
“Every time I put the medal on, I remember the guys that died, that I served with,” he said. “I wear it in their honor.
“The other reason is that 99 percent of the American people have never seen a medal of honor nor talked to a recipient. I do it as outreach and awareness.”
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