In a weekend long visit to Salem and Dent County, Donald “Doc” Ballard was featured at Labor Day events around the county, including Ron’s Race for a Reason, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce Rodeo and an event to welcome him held at Indian Trails Archery.
Ballard, the last living Medal of Honor recipient in Missouri, presented awards to race winners and prizes to raffle ticket winners at Flat Nasty Saturday.
Ballard, 72, is a retired colonel with the National Guard and a former member of the United States Navy. His Medal of Honor was received for heroic actions in the Vietnam War in which he acted as a hospital corpsman on the front lines. Now in his retirement years, Ballard works constantly to support the causes of veterans and promote better care for them in the future.
“I support a lot of veterans’ initiatives, about 36,” Ballard said. “Anybody who has a great cause that helps veterans and helps honor them for their services and makes the public aware of their sacrifices, I try to support that. I travel 200-plus days a year supporting those activities.”
Ballard, a Missouri native living east of Kansas City, travels the country and state in support of various events and organizations that promote veteran welfare, mental health and in their memory. When not on the road, Ballard works as a funeral director who provides services free-of-charge to veterans. At the age of 60, Ballard returned to school in order to receive his license to provide funeral services for those who could not afford the expense.
“Most veterans believe that the government is there to take care of them when they die, and that’s far from the truth,” said Ballard, who took time to be interviewed Friday at The Salem News office. “They don’t take care of the funeral side, the casket, the transport. . . the benefits kick in when you report to the cemetery. That (funeral) can be $10,000 to $15,000. We do it at cost, and it’s free to the veteran through a non-profit that supports the expense.”
The organizations – The National Combat Medical Memorial and Youth Education Center and the Triumphant Spirit Foundations – both have a program called Forgotten Veterans that provides money for funeral expenses of those in need of assistance. Ballard is a representative for both and has performed over 100 free funerals for veterans.
During the time he served, Ballard became interested in becoming a dental surgeon, having taken classes and gone to school to chase his goal. He joined the Navy in order to pay for his school, and was trained as a corpsman in lieu of dentistry, receiving orthopedic and neuro-surgical courses.
When the draft hit in 1967 after the war escalated in Vietnam, Ballard was drafted to serve with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in the Quang Tri province in southern Vietnam.
“During that time I was wounded eight times. I would get med-evaced out, treated and brought back,” Ballard said, pointing to the spot on his stomach and hip where he was shot. “Sometimes just one wound was all it took, so I’m lucky I could walk away with bullet holes and shrapnel.”
Ballard explained that due to his medical training he was an asset on the front lines, where his knowledge of wound care was used as he tied off or clamped arteries in wounds of soldiers and provided initial care. After initial damage control was provided, soldiers were evacuated out if helicopters could fly in the constantly changing weather of Vietnam. Ballard credited the Vietnam medical staff for contributions to our current-day trauma treatment procedures, things such as splinting and airway management that were not commonly used before the war.
In an encampment in Khe Sanh, a forward resupplying airstrip for the military and what would later be known as the Battle of Khe Sanh, the front lines were attacked by North Vietnamese soldiers. As the firefight went on, Ballard attempted to help two fallen machine gunners in a fox hole who he soon realized were dead with head wounds. Covered in the gore of his fellow soldiers, six Vietnamese soldiers surrounded the pit where Ballard was, taking the machine guns and checking for any living U.S. troops. Ballard acted dead to prevent himself from being shot, but as they began to leave, an NVA soldier shot the bodies, including Ballard, striking him through the stomach and hitting his hip.
As the NVA soldiers retreated Ballard exited the hole, realizing he only had a knife now with all firepower being scavenged by the enemy combatants. As he made his way up and moved toward U.S. soldiers needing treatment, Ballard spotted the NVA soldier who shot him scavenging food supplies and slit the throat of the soldier. The other five intruders into his block of camp were killed by U.S. soldiers.
As the combat deescalated, Ballard began treatment on wounded soldiers when a hand grenade hit him on his helmet. He threw this one back and began treatment once more, but another took its place with a warning scream by another soldier of “grenade!” Ballard dove onto the grenade and tucked it into his torso.
“I don’t know, it seemed like an eternity and lifetime, but it was probably only seconds, but the good Lord touched my hand and told me ‘This isn’t smart, get rid of it,’” Ballard said. “He told me to get rid of that grenade, and I flung it up into the air and it went off in the air. All the shrapnel and the explosion was away from us. After that I just kept working.”
This act would ultimately earn Ballard his Medal of Honor. In the attack on Khe Sanh, 274 U.S. troops were killed and 2,541 were wounded.
“At the time I had a wife and two kids at home,” Ballard said. “I wanted to get home as much as the next guy, but my motivation was to take care of the people I had responsibility for. The guys I loved. The guys who kept me alive. There is no greater love than combat buddies. Other than God, the guys to the right and guys to left were all we had.”
Ballard then spoke about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and the lack of care for veterans old and new with the phycological aspect of their battles. He explained that by coming home to families and neighbors who had not seen the horrors of combat and without the bonds he made with his fellow soldiers, it was easy to feel lost.
“Not all veterans have come home,” Ballard said. “Physically they may have come home, but spiritually and emotionally they are still challenged. Not all wounds are visible. That is why everything I do and talk about is to try and help that veteran in any way we can.”
One of the biggest aspects of his awareness campaign is to inform civilians and those who are otherwise ignorant to veterans’ issues of the plight that they face. Ballard stated that the work he is doing now is only so that younger generations of veterans can have the support that they desperately need.
“I think if we sat everyone down and had a conversation, just like I am talking to you now, and we explained our positions and our thinking, we would have a better appreciation for veterans,” Ballard said. “You can’t take a 20-something-year-old kid and put them through what I went through and expect them to come home and be normal. I’m okay, right? No.
“Personally, coming off the battlefield of Vietnam, I am just glad to be home,” Ballard said. “I’m glad I have to walk with a cripple leg, I am glad I have back pain… I’m glad because I’m alive. I wear that Medal of Honor for the guys who didn’t come home. They gave their lives so I could live mine.”
One of the causes Ballard speaks about is Americans Working Together. More information can be found at americans-working-together.com/id62.html.