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'You just learn to live with it'

  • LISA PRICE/TIMES NEWS Joe Shamonsky, now of Hometown, holds a photograph of him receiving his Purple Heart from Brig. Gen. Glenn Collins at Fort Sam Houston.
    LISA PRICE/TIMES NEWS Joe Shamonsky, now of Hometown, holds a photograph of him receiving his Purple Heart from Brig. Gen. Glenn Collins at Fort Sam Houston.
Published August 02. 2014 09:00AM

At 6 foot 5 inches tall, Joe Shamonsky wasn't the best candidate for an Army medic. Medics, identifiable because of special insignia and the medical bag they carried, were targets the enemy sought to eliminate.

Fifty years after his service in Vietnam, Shamonsky still has problems with the skin around his elbows.

"Crawl, crawl, seemed like all I did in boot camp was practice the low crawl," Shamonsky said, recalling his days at Fort Gordon, Georgia. "Long distances, day after day."

Shamonsky of Hometown was the youngest of four children; their father died when he was 16. The 1964 Tamaqua Area High School graduate left a job at Bethlehem Steel when he was drafted into the Army. After boot camp he trained at Fort Sam Houston's medical school. In his first battle in Vietnam, he broke the rules.

"We saw them coming at us and opened fire, and my sergeant took a bullet through his leg," Shamonsky recalled. "I patched him up and then went to another wounded guy, but I didn't crawl, I just crouched and ran."

After the fight, his wounded sergeant reached up and grabbed him by the shirt.

"You see all these guys, I can replace them!" the sergeant yelled. "Well, we only got one of you. You crawl!"

Shamonsky, who trained in a sterile hospital environment on base, found himself patching wounds while kneeling in nameless muck, doing his best to provide aid to the wounded. Each platoon had about 30 men and one medic.

"I handed out tetracycline like it was candy, and between the leeches and the mosquitoes, you just didn't get any rest," he said. "Everybody got malaria pills too, but after we went into one really bad area, malaria took out a quarter of the company."

Shamonsky also had malaria, and was taken to a hospital in Japan for treatment, then sent back to his platoon. Their base camp was surrounded by a "green zone," an area where the jungle growth was totally removed so the ground was bare. The area was laced with barbed "trip" wires, rigged so that if anyone tried to crawl through, a flare would erupt.

One night, Shamonsky and his platoon were just leaving camp when a flare shot skyward. They all hit the ground, with Shamonsky happening to be lying next to a path.

"We knew, just lay there, don't talk, don't smoke, keep your head down," he said. "But I could just hear somebody coming, and then he was standing right next to me, speaking Vietnamese."

Medics carried a .45-caliber revolver. Joe drew it and started firing, but as soon as he did, enemy soldiers were able to pinpoint his location by the muzzle flash. Almost immediately he was hit by shrapnel in the face.

"It felt like half my head came off," he said. "I yelled out that I was hit, but then I saw more troops coming in, wounded, and I had to go to work."

The next day, Shamonsky was flown out to a hospital to be treated. The medic that replaced him was killed in action the next day.

Back home, much decorated with a Purple Heart and numerous other service awards, Shamonsky tried to return to his job at Bethlehem Steel, but couldn't tolerate the noise and feeling of confinement working indoors. He worked in construction and also for Lucent Technologies.

He and his wife, Shirley, a graduate of Blue Mountain High School, have three children and three grandchildren. Their comfortable home seems to have a flag on every wall. Outside, an Uncle Sam and an American flag decorate the geraniums.

Joe always wears a "Forgotten Heroes" belt buckle.

"I don't think people realize what we gave up for them," he said. "We fought our asses off and got poisoned at the same time; and then we came back and it was like there was no one to talk to about it. Yet we fought for you and everybody else in this country."

"So much of it was too terrible to talk about, and you know that even if you talk about it, you ain't gonna get it out," he said. "You just learn to live with it."

"I had a friend who was like a brother to me, but when I came back I never looked him up," Shamonsky said. "I couldn't get attached to anybody because I had already lost too many friends."

"The people who went to Canada, maybe they were smart," he said. "We spent our time in hell and nobody should have had to face what we faced."

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