Jim Dempsey was an amazing man who taught us that each moment of our life can and does have an effect on everyone around us. Those moments, like drops of water in the ocean, may seem simple – even overlooked to us. But to others, they may report the memory for years to come – and those memories shape who we become, and how we will, in turn, act or react to someone else. Here is one such moment, and a good depiction of Jim “Doc” Dempsey.
I was drafted in June 1966. After basic training I was assigned to the Light Vehicle Drivers Course for my AIT. What a gift. I have always been a car freak, loved to drive and had even worked a couple of jobs driving small trucks.
AIT was a breeze. When orders came down I was first told I was going to Germany. Oops! They made a mistake. I was really being assigned to Viet Nam. Going to a place called An Khe. I knew there was a war going on, but it was fairly early in the war and I knew very little about it, and had no idea where An Khe was or what units were there.
On arrival in An Khe I and the rest of the planeload were taken to the 15th Admin Company where we were processed in, and awaited further assignment. It became apparent we were in the 1st Cavalry pision, Air Mobile but that really had no particular meaning. It was quite strange with the different sights sounds and smells.
Within a couple of days I was assigned to HHC 2/5 (headquarters and headquarters company 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment) as a driver.
Oops again! There is nothing for me to drive, so I am reassigned, this time to B (Bravo) Company 2/5 (2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment) a “line” Company. I am to be a rifleman. Commonly known as 11Bravo.
There is only a skeleton crew from the Company here in Base Camp, so I am given my gear which consists of my rifle and web gear and sent “forward”. Forward is an LZ called Hammond, and it is a forward re supply base for the troops on the front lines.
I get my first ride on a Huey helicopter and the un-mistakable sound and feel of being a passenger in that machine with the doors open.
As informal as it was back in Base Camp, it is markedly more informal here at LZ Hammond. There are also just a few people here from Bravo Company, and it’s like they don’t know what to do with me. I get to just “hang out” for a couple of days when the decision is made that they can’t keep me here any longer and it’s time that I join the Company in the field.
Another ride in a Huey which I later learn is a “log” bird. It is late in the day and it takes me to what amounts to a mountain top, drops me off and I feel like I’m in some World War II movie. People walking around with rifles slung over their shoulder or just being held informally, many with no shirts on, and looking seriously grubby.
I have been told to report to a Lt. Butler, and being as “green” as I am, I’m not sure exactly how to do this. I see that “chow” is being served. You have to understand that the buffet line consists of a line of marmite cans (insulated metal containers designed to transport food) lined up on the ground with some soldiers standing behind them serving food to others walking through the line. I don’t see anyone that appears to obviously be an Officer, so I walk up to the server closest to me and ask who Lt. Butler might be.
Waddaya know, I have found the right person, standing there serving chow, no shirt and this an Officer. This is definitely a different Army that I have been exposed to in the U.S. Lt. Butler tells me to follow the trail past a row of pup tents made of pairs of ponchos rigged together. He tells me to find “Diaz” which I do, and I am shown a place to bed down for the night.
The next morning is a beehive of activity and everyone is packing up their gear to get ready to move out. After some hurried instructions of how to set up my web gear, which I had never gotten having not gone through Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) I get my stuff together and we move out. We are walking in a line up a ridge where the land drops off to either side of us. It is hot, humid and carrying all my gear is difficult.
I am sweating profusely and my head feels like it is in a steam bath with my steel pot (helmet) on. I don’t know how much time has elapsed as I try to keep up with the column. The next thing I know I am laying on the ground with this big fella leaning over me sprinkling water on my face from his canteen and patting me on the cheeks to wake me up. It appears that I passed out, and it turns out that the big fella is Doc Dempsey.
He lifts me back on my feet and takes my web gear off, and we start moving along with the column. As we walk, little by little as I seem to get accustomed to the grind and the heat, he hands me my gear little by little until I have it all back.
I have no idea at this time that there will be other experiences in this strange combat environment that we will share. In time I will come to know this big man much better and learn how much I would grow to like and respect him.
In the early ‘80s, Jim and I were roommates in Sinton. He was the Charter Executive Director for S.A.V.E.S. (Sinton-Odem Area Volunteer Emergency Service) and I was a Sheriff’s dispatcher and volunteer EMT. When he first came to Sinton, I offered him a place to stay until he was able to move his Wife down from San Antonio. I don’t remember how long he stayed at my house but, the friendship we developed and the respect I had for him never waned. We spent a lot of our down time sitting in our living room and talking about his experiences (I had none since I was in my early twenties and yet to experience much past high school). He talked about Viet Nam and his time in New York quite a bit. And, to watch him perform day after day, knowing the physical hardships he carried, was admirable. It is, in large part, due to Jim’s efforts, that S.A.V.E.S. was as successful as it was back then.
I left Sinton in the late ‘80s (I don’t remember if it was before or after Jim) and moved to Austin. Our paths crossed one more time in the mid to late ‘90s (I think) when he came to Austin and called me up. We had lunch at a small restaurant (La Madeleine’s) near Seton Hospital and he offered me a consulting job, helping to design the 911 system for Laredo. By this time I had been out of the Emergency Communications business for a few years and, not feeling confident in my ability to add value to the project, I declined. It is one of the few regrets I have because, knowing Jim as I did, I’m certain he would have been able to build me up to the task. He had that quality about him; he was the rising tide that lifted all boats.
I’m glad I found the foundation’s website and wish you all the success in the world in being able to fully fund the scholarships and grants you intend to offer in Jim’s name. What a fitting tribute to a wonderful man. I only wish I had heard of his death at the time. It now seems so distant as to make my condolences hollow.
As little as we saw one another, over the years, knowing he is now gone from this earth gives me a sense of loss I can only describe as having one of the strands in my rope of existence broken. While he was alive, I knew I could – if I ever needed to – pick up the phone and call and he would be there to help in whatever way he could. I grieve at the loss of that friendship…they are so few.
I’m nearing the end of a 30-year career with the Department of Public Safety and have begun taking prerequisite courses for nursing school. After all this time, it is those few years with Jim and the S.A.V.E.S. crew that made the most impact on me. I’ve always longed to get back into emergency medicine and now, I plan to do that.
God bless, Jimmy Guckian.