I was wounded on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 1967, on Bach Ma Mountain in Vietnam. Today, the land on and around the mountain is Bach Ma National Park, but back then, I was on no walk in a park. My Marine Corps reconnaissance team was on a mission to reconnoiter a former French resort on Bach Ma Mountain. First Marine Division planners suspected the old, abandoned resort was being used by the bad guys – the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.
As darkness fell upon us that last day of 1967, our first day on the mountain – about halfway up the 1,450-meter elevation, in montane rain forest – we stopped for the night. However, some of those bad guys decided to interrupt our New Year's Eve. They somehow had detected our presence and started to probe us in the dark.
We put on our gas masks, tossed a couple of CS gas grenades at the enemy soldiers, and then put on our best escape-and-evade act. After all, we were there to reconnoiter, not stage an infantry assault. Besides, we were a small recon team, and they might be an NVA rifle platoon or company or battalion.
As we pulled into a new position and set up a 360-degree perimeter, the earth erupted behind me. Suddenly, everything in my vision went silver; I couldn't hear; and I was losing consciousness. I'd been hit with shrapnel, compliments of the 106s of the 5th Marines in the valley below.
A 106 is a 106 mm recoilless rifle, but it's not a rifle in the normal sense. It's a small artillery piece, and a 106 high-explosive round had impacted in a loud explosion just a few feet behind me. I had been flat on the ground in the prone position; that means I was laying on my belly, with my legs spread apart, pointing my rifle where an enemy might approach from.
When a high-explosive artillery round impacts the ground, shrapnel blasts forward in the direction the round is headed when it impacts. So, yes, it blasted me between the legs, and there began the legend of Iron Balls.
Several minutes after the explosion, I was barely conscious, still couldn't see, and couldn't really hear. Then, as if I were in a bizarre dream, I faintly heard a distant voice. "Where's Griggs?" it said. I was in a bush, unable to function, unable to understand where I was or what was happening. Our Navy corpsman, Doc Gus Villanueva, finally found me.
A Navy corpsman is the same as an Army medic. But don't call a corpsman a medic. He's a corpsman, and he patches up U.S. Marines. Doc Villanueva is the best corpsman I've ever known. I was in good hands.
The enemy must have figured we couldn't possibly be holed up where we were holed up, because an American artillery round had just exploded there. That was the only good thing about that misplaced 106 mm high-explosive round.
Most importantly, at the moment, Doc Gus had to inspect my wound and my condition, in the dark, without his flashlight giving away our position. So, he quickly told me to get on my hands and knees and covered me with our two government-issue, rain-repellant, green ponchos. As I became a little more coherent, he joined me in the makeshift tent with his flashlight and began to examine my distressed derriere.
There I was, bringing in the new year with our corpsman's head up my butt. If I hadn't been in so much pain, the situation would have been hilarious.
Years later, in a 1992 letter to me, Doc Villanueva recalled the examination. His face and his flashlight were up close and personal, he recounted.
"The light shone on your lily-white, honky buttocks, but revealed no injuries," Doc wrote in the letter that I still keep in my Marine Corps footlocker. "I asked, 'Just where does it hurt?' You said, 'The balls! The balls, man!' I recall that you always ended your sentences with 'man' when excited. I remember you spreading your legs so that your testicles were clearly suspended, and seeing a trickle of blood at the 12-o'clock position of the left testicle."
So far, I'm sure, this is way too much information for many readers, but my fellow recon Marines will relish it. Allow me to quote just one more paragraph from Doc's letter.
"I remember leaning forward for a better look and asking 'Does this hurt?' as I gently touched the bleeding testicle. I heard you gasp in pain and collapse on the ground. 'Hmm, guess it does hurt,' was my response, to no one in particular."
Thanks, Gus. Your exam, the crazy pain, the added discomfort of the drenching rain – Bach Ma is one of the wettest places in Vietnam – combine for a lasting recollection of my most memorable New Year's Eve.
How could such a small wound cause so much pain? Doc couldn't answer that, but he could inject me with a dose of morphine, which helped me make it to New Year's Day with a little less discomfort.
The daylight on the morning of Jan. 1, 1968, showed that my wounded left sphere had swollen immensely. On the brighter side, the enemy soldiers had given up on finding us. But in my condition, our mission was scrubbed. Meanwhile, helicopters could not fly in the low, rainy clouds – especially in the Annamite Mountains – so a medivac was out of the question. We would have to make it back down the mountain on foot and get me medical aid.
We had to move slowly because of me, and it was a couple of days later when we reached the aid station at the 5th Marines command post. Remember I pointed out that the Bach Ma area is one of the wettest places in Vietnam? It's also notorious for leeches, and when the 5th Marines doctor examined me at the aid station, he discovered a bleeding leech wound on my penis! And he feared the leech could be inside me! Can this story get any crazier? Welcome to 1968, Griggs! By the way, don't plan on fathering any children,
The choppers were still grounded, so the doctor and Doc Gus threw me into a U.S. Army M37 truck headed to Da Nang. After a long, bumpy, painful ride with an Army lieutenant and his driver, I made it to 1st Medical Battalion, where I spent a week, followed by three weeks in the urology ward aboard the Navy hospital ship USS Sanctuary.
Indeed, the beginning of 1968 was no celebration, and to rub salt into the wound, I didn't even receive a Purple Heart, because I was wounded by friendly fire. Why do they call it friendly fire? It's not at all friendly.
I could complain that all I got from New Year's Eve 1967 were many pangs of pain, some hospital time and the nickname Iron Balls. However, once again, I try looking on the bright side of it all. Dr. Blum, the urologist aboard the USS Sanctuary, fixed my parts – the leech had not hitched a ride with me, by the way – and I went on to help create two little human beings.
And, hey, I'm still here in 2012, but I'll be careful how I bring in 2013. Happy New Year!