By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneSeptember 27, 2019
FORT SILL, Oklahoma (Sept. 27, 2019) -- If all the world's a stage, Dr. Richard T. Brittingham has had his share of plum roles: prominent Lawton internist, commander of an Army MP Detachment, a full colonel in the Army Medical Corps, battalion surgeon with 1st Battalion, 158th Field Artillery, and state surgeon for the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
But on Sept. 20, he was back to being a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, the rank he wore during his 13 months in Vietnam in 1967-68.
Members of Fort Sill's Marine Artillery Detachment (MARDET) assembled on their parade ground to see Brittingham receive a Bronze Star with "V" for valor, for heroic actions on Jan. 31, 1968, during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive.
Brittingham was then an MP serving voluntarily with the 282nd Combat Aviation Company, I Corps, U.S. Military Assistance Command. A determined North Vietnamese Army force attacked the district headquarters at Huong Hoa (Khe Sanh).
When duty called Brittingham took over for an injured door gunner, using an M60 machine gun to lay down suppressive fire for a helicopter delivering supplies to a besieged combat base.
"We gather here today, 51 years after Dr. Brittingham -- Col. Brittingham's heroic actions as a Marine in an Army helicopter. It's fitting that we do this on this ground here at Fort Sill, for one of the local heroes of Oklahoma. Sir, we are humbled by your presence, and it is our honor to be able to stand in front of you," said Col. Christopher A. Tavuchis, commanding officer of the MARDET.
"It should not go unnoticed by anyone here that at the time, Col. Brittingham was 18 years old. Many of the Marines sitting here are 18 years old, and for them to see you 51 years hence, and see what you've become, retired Army colonel, a doctor, a local businessman of great import in the Lawton area, sir, we're thrilled," Tavuchis said.
Bob Ford was an Army captain and a helicopter pilot at the time of the Tet Offensive. It was Ford who did all the hard work to see that Brittingham received his Bronze Star for Valor, and he was the one who pinned it on at the ceremony.
"I've got the Code of Conduct that was issued to me the second week of active duty," Ford said. Of the six items, the first says, "I am an American fighting man serving in the forces that guard our country and our way of life, and I am prepared to give my life in their defense."
"Lance Cpl. Brittingham should not be here today," were his next sobering words. "His chances that day were very slim. Myself and another Army Huey had gone out to that landing zone to resupply them. The first one aborted the mission because of the door gunner being shot.
"(The pilot) turns around, goes back, and I try successfully to get in under incredible fire," Ford said.
On the way back to get more supplies, Ford radioed the other pilot to inquire after his door gunner, and was told he was out of commission and the chopper needed someone who could do the job.
"My very words over the radio were, 'Get a Marine. We've yet to see one that didn't want to fight,'" Ford said to murmurs of affirmation from the young Marines present.
Ford's helo landed under fire, unloaded, reloaded the M60s, and took off over a flat berm that used to be an old French fort. Over the radio he heard from the men in the compound, "Black Cat 2-1, you cannot believe what's coming up at you."
He got back to learn from his fellow pilot that a combat assault was in the works to relieve the outpost he'd just come from.
"I said, "There's no way you can land but one helicopter at a time.' He said, 'We're not going to land there. We're going to land up on that old French fort.' I said, 'That's impossible. I was just there.' And I went to the commander in charge of all the Vietnamese troops, and I said, 'Sir, there's no way you can land at that place because the enemy is so intense. I've never seen it this bad. Ever.'
"I had never had my judgment questioned as an aircraft commander. I had well over 500 combat missions under my belt as an aircraft commander. But he wouldn't hear it."
Long story short, the lieutenant colonel won, Ford about-faced, and six aircraft went out. Cpl. Brittingham was in the tail end of Charlie, and he encountered an enormous amount of fire.
"Every Vietnamese troop was killed in the landing zone within 10 minutes. Only because of (Brittingham's) action did that helicopter leave the landing zone. We get back, we're trying to assess everything that went on. They take Brittingham out of the helicopter on a stretcher, and honest to God, he comes by, looks up, and says, 'Sir, do you need me any more today?'"
This was after he had taken a bullet to the head.
"Honest to gosh, I don't know if I replied. All I do remember thinking: 'You brave son of a bitch.'"
The crowd laughed.
"I just want to let you know one more thing about taking risk," Ford said. "Cpl. Brittingham took that risk. And the best way that I can describe the risk that he took is what Winston Churchill said to the commanding generals during the Battle of the Bulge: 'Gentlemen, without risk there can be no honor, no glory, and no adventure.'
"Cpl. Brittingham served with honor. He went on one heck of an adventure. And the honor bestowed on him today, and the glory that he receives, is the glory and the honor for every Marine who's ever served."
Brittingham modestly said that for every Marine who gets a Bronze Star with "V" there are another hundred Marines who deserve it.
"You'd think I'd be thinking of something different, but all morning I've been thinking this mustache is out of regulation," he confessed to gales of laughter.
"However, in my defense, I'm receiving this award as a lance corporal. And when I was a lance corporal, I couldn't even grow a mustache," Brittingham mused.
The doctor admitted he doesn't remember a lot of what happened that day.
"We basically did a combat air assault right into the middle of an ambush. There was no prep of the landing zone. So there we were, coming in, and we started getting fire even before we landed. The guy next to me got shot in the head. Next thing I know, I'm getting shot.
"It wasn't a good day for Americans. We took a lot of loss that day.
"I know I should have thought that this is a dangerous mission because a guy just got shot. But there were troops that needed help, and I think anybody here would have done the same thing, really."
Brittingham said he has mixed emotions about receiving the Bronze Star, as it brings back memories he would as soon not remember. It was the Army, not the Marine Corps, that submitted the paperwork for this award. The MARDET commandant noted that Brittingham has a Purple Heart and a Combat Action Ribbon for this engagement.
For the Marines in attendance, Tavuchis said "this is one of the more poignant meanings of today, is to have Dr. Brittingham stand before the Marines, and have the Marines observe Dr. Brittingham get recognized for his heroics 51 years ago This is not an insignificant event. We've already explained to them the significance and the meaning."