Many might consider three Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star for valor from service in the Vietnam War to be quite an impressive distinction. However, for U.S. Marine Corps veteran David Hunter, these recognitions are simply a byproduct of an intense set of experiences that were the beginning of a maturing period for a young man seeking some direction in his life.
Growing up in the community of Harriman, New York, Hunter left high school before he could graduate in pursuit of "something a little different." He then stopped by his local recruiting office to take the first step in embarking upon a life of adventure.
"I wanted to go somewhere, and I wanted to get there quickly," Hunter said. "I actually thought I would join the Navy but their recruiter was out of the office when I stopped by, but a Marine Corps gunny (gunnery sergeant) came over to me and said, 'Come on — I'll buy you a beer.'"
Enlisting in the Marine Corps in April 1965, the 18-year-old recruit completed boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, followed by several weeks of advanced infantry training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Receiving assignment to the 5th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California, he was soon engaged in training to prepare for deployment to Vietnam.
In late April of 1966, the freshly trained Marine arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the USS Princeton and was soon engaged in Operation Hastings — a major military operation that pushed the North Vietnamese Army back past the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
"We lost Marines in Hastings, but we killed a lot of North Vietnamese regulars," he said. "The North Vietnamese were professionals who knew how to fight and stood nose-to-nose with us in combat," he added.
Serving in several locations throughout Vietnam as a member of battalion-sized sweeps, search and destroy missions and combat along the DMZ, Hunter noted he was first wounded during a mission on July 23, 1966, when a rocket propelled grenade struck the ground less than 10 feet away.
"The detonation wounded one of the guys on my team and when the battle was all over, I was bleeding from several places," he recalled. "They considered me walking wounded, and I was treated by a corpsman for several shrapnel wounds. Several days later, I was evacuated and treated in the infirmary aboard the Princeton for infection of those wounds."
Quickly returning to duty with his battalion, in late summer of 1966, they began moving north toward Da Nang while conducting minor sweeps, company-sized drills and ambushes. Weeks later, he was transferred from 3rd Battalion to 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines.
"We locked fists with the 22nd North Vietnamese Regiment in an area called Phu Loc 6 prior to Christmas (of 1966)," Hunter said. "We fought them all the way through Christmas, and I survived by the grace of God."
On Dec. 16, 1966, he braved enemy fire to retrieve much needed ammunition and medical supplies from a helicopter that crashed in a rice paddy. For this, he earned a Bronze Star medal for valor. On the same day, while on a patrol, he saw a North Vietnamese soldier stand up and the flash of the muzzle blast from his rifle.
"I remember lying on the ground and had a bullet in my chest stuck between my ribs," he explained. "Fortunately, I was wearing a flak jacket and the bullet hit magazines I was carrying, nicked the corner of a grenade hanging from my suspenders and tore up the button of my jacket."
A corpsman was able to remove the bullet on the spot, and Hunter was later evacuated to An Hoa, where he received five stitches from the bullet wound. The incident earned him his second Purple Heart. He would go on to earn a third Purple Heart on April 10, 1967, during a search and destroy mission known as Operation Union II, when he received shrapnel wounds to his back from a 120mm rocket.
He left Vietnam in late 1967 and, after a brief time back in the states with the 2nd Marine Division, he returned to Vietnam in April 1969, and completed a tour as the platoon sergeant for Company A, 11th Engineers, 3rd Marine Division.
"The most intense thing that happened to me on my second tour was when I was operating a bulldozer at Vandergrift Combat base and a rocket struck next to the dozer," he said. "It blew me off the dozer, and I ended up with a ruptured left ear drum, permanent hearing loss and it dislocated my right shoulder."
After Vietnam, he finished his high school education through night classes. Hunter remained in the Marine Corps, transitioning from the enlisted ranks to warrant officer and eventually becoming a commissioned officer, retiring in 1989 as the captain in command of the Marine Corps Detachment at Ft. Leonard Wood. For 15 years following his military career, he was a field supervisor for two telephone contractors.
The married father of four humbly explained when looking back on his experiences in Vietnam, he often focuses on moments touched with humor rather than the loss and injury so often associated with service in a combat environment.
"Even when I was a kid, I was a clean freak, but you didn't get much time to wash or shave when you were on the move in Vietnam — and that really bugged me," he asserted. "And those canned rations they fed us they were nasty; there is no other word to describe them."
With a grin, he added, "And in every circumstance when I was wounded, it was because there was nowhere to go to avoid the situation and the first question that came to mind was whether or not my fellow Marines got the guy that did that to me."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.