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Veterans’ Reflections: 'Learn Everything You Can'

By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2010 – When Frank “Irish” Healey was in Vietnam, he was a walking dead man. At least that’s what infamous Radio Hanoi broadcaster “Hanoi Hannah” said of Healey and his fellow Marines in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Frank "Irish" Healey, a former Marine with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, and a Vietnam veteran, poses for a photo at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Aug. 20, 2010. DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The unit became known as the “Walking Dead” because it took heavy casualties in a particularly hot combat zone near the demilitarized zone, where the North Vietnamese army was coming across the border into South Vietnam.

“She said we’re ‘already walking dead men and they don’t know it,’ so that’s where the name came from,” Healey said.

The Barnegat, N.J., native said he hadn’t expected that Marines would face such heavy combat in Vietnam. In 1964, when he followed two friends to enlist in the Corps, Vietnam was an advisory mission. They knew things were going on there, he said, but it wasn’t a full-blown war.

Healey followed a long family tradition of service in enlisting: his father and all of his uncles were veterans of World War II or Korea.

“To be a Marine was to join the best,” he said. “I was brought up learning about their valor in World War II and Korea, and that was where I was going to go. If I was going to go, I was going to go with the best.”

He spent two years in Europe aboard the USS Springfield, touring the Mediterranean, before he volunteered to go to Vietnam with the 1-9th Marines in February 1967. They were looking for troops to send to the combat zone, and Healey said he knew it was his obligation to go.

The Marines he met there would end up being an integral part of Healey’s life, even after combat. He still regularly attends 1-9th reunions and is close with many of the Marines with whom he served in Delta Company.

“They’re like brothers to me –- they’re family,” Healey said. “We lived together, we fought together, we bled together, and unfortunately, some of them died with us.”

During one particularly vicious battle near An Hoa, Delta Company took serious fire. A helicopter came, against orders, to pick up some wounded Marines, though it ended up getting shot down a short distance away.

A UPI photographer, Frank Johnston, happened to be on the chopper, and stayed with Healey and the other Marines as they rallied around the fallen aircraft, eventually taking refuge in an abandoned church. Johnson’s photographs of the scene found their way to the pages of Life magazine and numerous newspapers, magazines and books about the war in Vietnam.

The pictures, depicting exhausted, injured Marines fresh off the battlefield, defined an era for the Corps. While Healey said he appreciates that he’s a part of that history, he added that it doesn’t matter that it’s him and his company on the film.

“It’s great –- but the point isn’t who’s in the picture,” he said. “Every one of us was in that picture. We were tight, we were close, and we shared everything we had. Every Marine and corpsman was in that photograph.”

Healey left active duty in 1968 and served two more years as a reservist. In 1970, he accepted a discharge as sergeant, but his story with the Marine Corps doesn’t end there. His son enlisted in the Corps, and he went to Camp Lejeune, N.C., prior to deploying to Saudi Arabia with the 2nd Marine Division. Then-Maj. Gen. William Keys was the commander of that division -– some years prior, he had been a company commander with the 1-9th in Vietnam.

Healey said he made a phone call, unbeknownst to his son. At first reluctant -- and impeded by his noncommissioned officers, who assumed he was being insolent -- the junior Healey eventually made contact with Keys.

“A two-star general went out and found a private first class and had him over for dinner about a dozen times before the Gulf War started,” Healey said. “My son came home and said, ‘Dad, I walked in with PFC chevrons on and dirty utilities, with colonels sitting around. A general walked in, took one look at me and said, ‘You’re a Healey, I know it.’ He took me into his office, gave me a cold bottle of water, sat down, and talked to me like a father for an hour and a half.’”

“That’s a veteran,” he added. “We’re a family.”

Healey said his best advice to servicemembers now is the same he shared with his son upon enlisting: “Learn everything you can.”

“Whatever you train in, train hard, and train well. Know your job, and know two to three jobs above you,” Healey said. “Because if you’re in combat, and you’ll have to take over when people get killed or get wounded, you’re going to have to know that job and know it well to survive and make sure your friends survive.”

(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)

 

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