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Treating battlefield wounds grooms vet for job in operating room

Michael T. Daniels operated a heart and lung machine as surgeons performed open-heart surgeries.

Not everyone possesses the mettle to be right in the middle of such intense work, but Daniels watched the skilled hands of the surgeons with admiration. As a Navy corpsman, his own hands had helped saved the lives of wounded Marines in Vietnam.

He also knew the other side of surgery: what it was like to be on an operating table after an enemy bullet tore a hole in his chest.

In fact, the war groomed him for his job as a civilian.

When he enlisted in the Navy, he says he took an aptitude test that qualified him for either radio/radar operator or corpsman. He'd always had an interest in medicine and picked the latter.

His first encounter with war casualties occurred in December 1967. Four tanks rolled into a compound carrying the dying and dead.

Daniels helped unload and triage the casualties. Then he was given the task of squaring away the dead.

"My job was to collect personal effects, pictures of family and girlfriends from the helmets of 33 18- and 19-year-olds. This was in a 90-degree Quonset hut," he said. "Welcome to Vietnam."

Out on patrols, Daniels said he was given the chance "on a daily basis" to put his first-aid skills to work.

"I'd patch guys up with bandages, start intravenous fluids and give morphine shots when it was needed," he said.

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Michael T. Daniels, 69

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Wheatfield

Branch: Navy, attached to Marine Corps

Rank: hospital corpsman 3rd class

War zone: Vietnam War

Years of service: August 1966 – June 1970

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Vietnam Service Medal with Marine emblem and 2 campaign stars, New York Conspicuous Service Medal and National Defense Medal

Specialty: corpsman

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Sometimes, the wounds were catastrophic and little could be done.

He remembers a Marine with a bad case of athlete's foot asking him for help. But before Daniels could make his way over to the Marine, an enemy mortar flew into the encampment. The Marine's arm was nearly torn off by the explosion.

"The head corpsman told me to apply a tourniquet, but I froze thinking this can't be the same person. He died right in front of us," Daniels said.

Another time, while out on patrol, he was with approximately 40 Marines who had been pinned down on a hillside.

"I was lying on the ground and I could see dirt kicked up behind me from bullets hitting the side of the hill. Another corpsman about 10 feet away stood up and was hit by friendly fire. I couldn't get to him," Daniels said. "I'm pretty sure he died."

At one point, a Marine fell apart.

"He just started going berserk. He was saying to me he couldn't take it anymore. He had an M-16 rifle and I thought to myself he could kill us. I told him he had to get it together. 'You're the one that has to protect us.' He finally snapped out of it."

When it was safe enough for helicopters to rescue the patrol, 15 of the Marines had been killed or wounded, Daniels said.

In another firefight, he recalls coming to the aid of a Marine who had lost nearly half his face to shrapnel.

"He was actually sitting up, and he was talking to me. All of this time, I could see his nasal cavity, the back of his throat and fragments from his teeth and jaw. He's asking me if he'll be OK.  I made assurances and took the largest battle dressing available and applied it to his face.

"A few months passed and he sent word to me that he was doing good and thanked me for the great job I did. I really was surprised he was alive. It was such an open wound. God heals in miraculous ways."

Perhaps the most intense situation for Daniels occurred when he had to perform first aid on himself.

He had been assigned to a patrol of several Marines who were trying to locate enemy positions.

"I wasn't supposed to go on this patrol. I was supposed to have some time off, but due to another corpsman taking sick, I was assigned," he said.

At nightfall on July 4, 1968, the eight-member squad set up camp and took turns standing watch.

"I took the first watch and then went to sleep. I woke in the morning to the sound of gunfire. I started running to our machine gun pit and dove into it. The machine gunner asked me if I was OK.," Daniels recalled.

"I said, 'I don't think so.' I heard gurgling in me when I took a breath. I had a sucking chest wound. My lung was deflating. I said to him, 'If anyone else is hit, I'll tell you how to bandage them.' I didn't think I could do it.

"The gunner left the pit to check on who might still be alive and he said to me, 'Doc, just say a prayer.' "

While he was alone, Daniels managed to patch the entry wound from the bullet in the front of his chest.

"I didn't realize there was also an exit wound under my left arm."

When the gunner returned, he had bad news.

"He told me four of our guys had been shot in the head and were dead and that our radio was hit and out of commission."

For a short time, Daniels and his companion sat quietly until they determined the enemy was no longer in the area.

"Two other Marines in another pit came over to us, and I was asked if I could walk, and I said I could. I started to walk maybe 20 or 30 feet, but went into shock, and they had to carry me. They dropped me off at the head corpsman hooch, a hole in the ground."

As a young Navy corpsman, Michael T. Daniels treated the wounds of others before being wounded himself on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Daniels received first aid and then was moved to a landing pad where a helicopter arrived after what "seemed an eternity" and transported him to a field hospital at an air base in Khe Sanh.

"I was on an operating table talking to the doctors as they put in a chest tube to drain blood. They asked me who my next of kin was. I thought, 'Hell, I'm not about to die.' "

Later, when he was taken aboard a hospital ship, he found out just how close he actually had come to dying.

"They took a series of X-rays and told me the bullet had come within centimeters of hitting my aorta."

Daniels was transferred to an Army hospital in Japan and eventually back to the United States. At a Navy hospital on Long Island, he received months of respiratory therapy to improve his breathing capacity.

Two months after he was discharged from the service in June 1970, he put his medical experiences to work and was hired at the former Millard Fillmore Hospital in Gates Circle. In time, he advanced to working as a technician operating a heart and lung machine.

And while his battlefield experiences had prepared him well for his work inside a modern American operating room, Daniels said he was sometimes amazed at how the surgeons went about their work repairing the heart and its arteries.

It might seem logical to conclude that he would spend his entire career working in a hospital. But the realities of life took Daniels in a different direction.

"I passed a civil service test for the Post Office and got a job that pretty much paid twice as much for sorting mail," he said.

The money came in handy. He and his wife, the former Carol Breisch, were raising two daughters, Amy and Wendy, who are now grown  and have families of their own.

Daniels says that he occasionally reflects on his time in Vietnam.

"I have post-traumatic stress. It hits me at the strangest times.  I think about things. I remember this girl. She was about 13 years old and lying on the side of a road. She was unconscious.

"I checked for broken bones and I could not find any. But when we went to lift her up and put her on a stretcher, my hand sank into her back and a pool of blood."

The girl and her mother were placed on a helicopter gunship.

Daniels says he is certain that by the time the helicopter arrived at the hospital, the girl was dead.

Such war memories are anything but pleasant.

Yet, when he thinks about the Marines he served with, he says he is certain that "there were no better bunch of guys."

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