Memorial for Rick PattersonDonate To This Campaign
For more than 40 years, Richard E. Patterson served his fellow disabled veterans through his career with DAV. The combat-disabled Army veteran joined DAV in 1968, immediately after leaving the service, and retired as its executive director in 2010.
On Sept. 19, 2022, Patterson died at his home in Fairmount, Alabama. He was 74.
This story, first published online in 2010 and edited since, recounts the harrowing tale of Patterson’s trial by fire as a young medic in Vietnam. As a warning, it contains graphic descriptions of combat that may be triggering or upsetting to some readers.
Looking out across the dark courtyard, you catch the warm glow of light spilling out between the slatted blinds of a large office window. It is after normal business hours, and quiet has finally won out against the noisy hive of activity at DAV National Headquarters, the organization’s spiritual and business-based home. But work is not over in the lighted office.
A bespectacled man sits completely still at his desk, forehead resting in his hand as he scans a spreadsheet with a hawkish eye bent on snuffing out fiscal accuracy. Staring down over his shoulder is movie star Mel Gibson, glaring intently from the marquis poster of the Vietnam War film “We Were Soldiers.” More than a piece of cinema memorabilia, the picture is a reminder of the path that inspires another late night on the job. It is a reminder that he once was a soldier, too, and young—seemingly too young.
In the summer of 1967, press reports published in newspapers across the country included a headline recalling a near-miracle during an ambush of troops from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, at Dak To, located in the central highlands of South Vietnam.
The curious headline and accompanying story mentioned a firefight in which a medic was saved by a fellow soldier, who was, in turn, saved by a Bible in his hip pocket.
This biblical intervention occurred during the first major action of Operation Greeley, which began on June 16, 1967, and saw the brigade’s “Sky Soldiers” conducting search-and-destroy missions from their base camp at Dak To.
According to the battalion’s official history, nearly all contact with the enemy during the four-month operation was “with one to four enemy.”
June 22 proved to be a ghastly exception.
The nightmare began as Company A humped toward the base camp at Dak To just as the fog of dawn lifted off the dense jungle floor. The paratroopers approached a ridge finger, outlined by a clifflike descent. Despite reservations about splitting up the company on such difficult terrain, the company commander, Capt. David A. Milton, ordered 2nd Platoon to take point and descend from the steep slope into the thick jungle below.
As 2nd Platoon disappeared into the green wall, the morning quiet erupted with the distinct crackling of AK-47 fire.
Then came the desperate call from the platoon commander on the slopes below. North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars in great force were attacking the platoon in waves.
“We shoot one, and five of them drag him away,” the young lieutenant radioed the company’s command post.
The platoon was less than 100 yards down from the command post, so Milton sent in 3rd Platoon to assist the ambushed paratroopers. The soldiers fought their way down to the decimated lead platoon. That’s when another wave of NVA attackers hit.
Knowing the two platoons were effectively cut off from support, the NVA attackers began directing fire toward the company CP. What the paratroopers didn’t yet know was that on those slopes was an entire NVA battalion that was more than double their numbers. The ensuing, daylong firefight would become known as the “Battle of the Slopes” and would enter the 173rd’s history books as one of the fiercest ever fought by Sky Soldiers.
The situation seemed hopeless for the marooned soldiers in the jungle below: wave after wave of NVA attacking, AK-47 rounds snapping, wounded men lying bloody all along the muddy jungle trail, ammo running low and a thick canopy of foliage overhead preventing the effective use of artillery support.
The entrenched NVA force prevented nearby Company C from linking up with the beleaguered troops from Company A. Desperation held a grip on the voice of Milton as he radioed for ammo drops and air and artillery support.
“Some of my people are fighting their way through and we’ve got some real heroes, and I’m damn proud of ’em! But I’ve got two elements out there I feel I’ve lost completely,” the captain can be heard shouting into his radio in recordings still available in military archives. “These people all got black berets. They got AK-47s, every one of them, and they’ve got so much damned ammunition. They’ve got twice as much as I’ve got, over!”
Hearing the frantic calls from the platoon leaders under attack, the company commander turned to his senior medic and told him more medical help was desperately needed in the raging battle below.
It would almost seem laughable that “senior” was a part of the young man’s title. Rick Patterson had enlisted in the Army shortly after turning 17. Now, at 18, the baby-faced native of one of the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods in Boston was senior among the company’s combat lifesavers.
Known simply as “Doc,” the young specialist 5 hesitated for a second, contemplating sending down another medic before deciding to descend the slope himself and enter the firestorm below.
Patterson scrambled down the trail, seeing wounded comrades being tended to by fellow soldiers. He made it to the platoon’s skewered defensive perimeter to find what was left of the lead element. The remaining soldiers of 2nd Platoon fired in all directions and desperately scanned the wall of jungle for signs of the enemy.
Seconds later, the NVA launched another attack with grenades and small-arms fire. Patterson hit the dirt and low-crawled to another medic, who was tending to a badly wounded paratrooper.
The two worked furiously to pack the wounded soldier’s intestines back into his abdominal cavity using bandages. Patterson leaned forward to say something to his fellow medic. Their eyes met in a gaze just as his fellow soldier was hit in the neck by an AK-47 round. The mortally wounded medic slumped forward and died in the hail of gunfire and desperate cries of wounded men.
Patterson choked back his horror and crawled forward to continue chipping away at the growing pile of casualties. He could hear the desperate shouts of “Medic!” over the bursts of machine-gun fire and the incessant roar of grenade and artillery explosions. He flattened his body as best as he could and pushed his medical bag from man to man.
As he crawled toward yet another call for help, the young medic felt a burst of pain on the back of his right hand and looked up to see his bones protruding through a gunshot wound. As he assessed the damage, a grenade exploded near his right foot, severing his Achilles tendon and spraying his leg with blistering shards of metal.
Now he was one of them—a severely wounded soldier pinned down by an NVA battalion with no immediate prospect of rescue. Severely wounded and barely able to move, Patterson continued to toss medical supplies to nearby paratroopers. But no amount of gauze could hold together the rapidly deteriorating situation around him. The NVA continued to apply intense pressure on the beleaguered Sky Soldiers. All three platoon leaders down on the slopes had been killed or badly wounded. Attempts to “throw smoke” for air support had only helped the NVA attackers zero in their artillery and drop precision rounds on the paratroopers’ increasingly frail defensive position.
As he grew weaker from loss of blood, Patterson began to think of home and his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. He knew his only chance to see his family again was to follow the other paratroopers who were crawling back up the trail toward the company CP. At his first movement down the path, he took another enemy bullet. This shot hit his right hip. But he continued pulling himself with his hands, even the one mangled by enemy fire.
Looking back across the perimeter, he saw the enemy for the first time. They emerged from the jungle, brandishing AK-47s, and executing those wounded paratroopers who were still alive.
Patterson’s hip was shattered and he was dizzy from loss of blood. He crawled into the underbrush, hiding from the executioners below.
Finally, he was able to get the attention of a passing soldier, who called to nearby paratroopers to assist the badly wounded medic. While carrying Patterson up the slippery hill, the group was strafed with bursts of rifle fire. The wounded man was dropped to the ground as the paratroopers returned fire.
In the exchange, one of Patterson’s fellow soldiers, Spc. 4 William L. Reynolds, used his body to shield Doc from the fire. His bravery was rewarded with an NVA round to the hip. But divine intervention saved Reynolds from harm as the bullet lodged in the Bible he carried in his hip pocket. What should have been a damaging wound was downgraded to a deep bruise and a newspaper headline.
Finally, a rope was thrown down to Reynolds, who secured it around Patterson. He was then pulled back up the hill into the company CP and, at last, out of the nightmare of the Battle of the Slopes. In a state of shock, the young medic was placed with the scores of other wounded before being taken by chopper to the nearest field hospital.
Three days later, back in Patterson’s hometown of Boston, the Sunday Advertiser ran a small report on the battle under the headline, “Reds Chop Up GIs.” In a few paragraphs, the article put cold figures on the heated fight: 76 dead and 24 wounded U.S. paratroopers, and an estimated 400 to 500 dead NVA. (Subsequent reviews of the official records by the Army found this initial number of enemy dead to be inflated.) The story noted that a large number of the dead paratroopers were found to have had fatal wounds to the backs of their heads, indicating the execution-style killing of wounded soldiers.
Patterson was one of the fortunate survivors of the battle, although his decimated body could hardly be described as fortunate. He was flown back to the states and endured several operations, accompanied by a long period of physical therapy.
With great luck and even greater determination, Doc Patterson survived the severe wounds inflicted in the Battle of the Slopes and lived to see his first child. As the years passed, he became the father of three more children and ultimately the grandfather of five.
During his recovery time, he had been impressed by the expert care and assistance he received from a DAV national service officer. He had observed this dedicated veterans advocate visiting with several wounded veterans, offering assistance in a time of need.
Patterson channeled the experience at Dak To and the months spent recovering in that Veterans Administration hospital into a desire to assist his fellow disabled veterans. He decided to continue serving his fellow fighting men and women as a civilian, just as he had during his tour in Vietnam. After completing an intense training period, he began his DAV career as a national service officer in Boston.
Four decades later, he finds himself working late into yet another evening at DAV.
These days, National Headquarters Executive Director Richard E. Patterson is called “Rick” by those who know and serve with him, just as he was once called “Doc” by his fellow Sky Soldiers in the 173rd.
And like the title of the movie poster on his office wall, he was also once a soldier.
Donations by check can also be sent to:
Attn: Tammy Shaffer
860 Dolwick Drive
Erlanger, KY 41018
Please include a note stating that the donation is being made in the memory of Rick Patterson.
"Peace be with Rick and the entire Patterson family." - Donald Inns
"I've had the pleasure of knowing and working with Rick for many years -- and particularly the difficult times for DAV in the mid '90s. I have never met a person as dedicated to his organization and all that it represents as Rick. He will always be remembered by me as one of the best examples of DAV and what it stands for. RIP Rick." - Richard Marbes
"One of the Best NSO's I've had the privilege to work with." - Dan Stack
"Our hearts are with you, the kids, and grandkids Linda. Rick was an incredibly special man and will be greatly missed by all who knew him." - Barry, Jenny, Weston, and Connor Jesinoski
"Rarely are we blessed to have a special person fill many roles in our lives. Rick was a boss, a mentor, a man of wisdom and knowledge, a fierce advocate for his fellow veterans, but most of all he was a friend. I will miss Rick so very much." - Marc Burgess
"My deepest sympathy for your loss. He was loved by many!" - Dennis Nixon
"It was an honor to work with Rick. My deepest sympathy to Linda and his entire family." - Leslie Thomas