Ted Debiak was alone in a hospital unit in Vietnam, beginning his recovery from an artillery attack on his unit that cost him his left arm. From his bed, the 12th one on one side of that unit, he saw two Army officers walk in.

“They looked at me, [but they] didn’t say a word to me,” the 79-year-old West Mifflin resident recalled this week. “I thought, ‘What trouble am I in now?’ They dropped it [a Purple Heart medal] on my bed and left in five seconds.”

Checking his Army discharge DD-214 papers later in more detail, Debiak did not see that medal listed among other honors. With no witnesses, he “didn’t know what that was all about.”  Many years later, he thought he knew why: The artillery attack came from “friendly fire.”

The Veterans Breakfast Club and the Heinz History Center will make up for it this Friday — National Vietnam Vietnam War Veterans Day — recognizing him for his service at a Vietnam Veterans Day 50th Commemoration and Recognition event at the museum from 6-8 p.m. as a special honoree at the ceremony. The event will also be streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.

Todd DePastino, VBC executive director, said 700 people have registered for the event; 400 will attend in person and 300 online. Of those, 450 are Vietnam veterans.

The 50th anniversary is ongoing because the dates of the Vietnam War are fluid, depending on how they are marked, DePastino said. The final end date for it is April 30, 1975. He wrote an article explaining this, available on the VBC website.

Pennsylvania Army National Guard Brig. Gen. John Pippy will present Debiak with his Purple Heart at the event. Other speakers will include Linh Nguyen, who escaped Saigon in April 1975, and Judge Michael McCarthy, who served in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee from 1970-71. The event will include the presentation of colors by the Vietnam Veterans Inc. Color Guard and recognition and pinning of Vietnam-era veterans.

Debiak recalled this week that the chaotic conditions surrounding him after the friendly fire artillery attack, including transfers to a number of hospitals, prevented him from asking questions. When he finally came back home after surgeries and rehabilitation, the combat medic tried to find out exactly what happened. He searched The New York Times and Pittsburgh newspapers and found no reports.

In 2022, he requested that his record be corrected and have the Purple Heart officially noted on it. But that’s getting ahead of his story.

Debiak had graduated from Penn State with a Bachelor of Science degree in general science in 1966. He had just started work as an Allegheny County Health Department chemist when he received his draft notice. He thought it was odd because he had some deferments because of his studies. No one else he knew from West Mifflin North High School with similar deferments were drafted. Worse, the draft notice came on his 22nd birthday.

As he explains in a 2016 VBC video, he tried to join the Air Force — he always wanted to be a pilot — but because he had had an Army physical, that could not happen. So off he went to basic training in Fort Gordon, now Fort Eisenhower, in Georgia. Next, he finished medical corpsman training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and was stationed at Nike Battery C, near Travis Air Force Base in California.

“I was offered a chance to apply for OCS [Officer Candidate School], and I asked my brother, Ken, who had enlisted and was serving in the Army in Germany about it. He said he would disown me if I did. He had no respect for officers,” he said.

Ted Debiak during his time in Vietnam as a combat medic. (Courtesy of Veterans Breakfast Club)

Debiak came to share that disdain. He arrived in Vietnam in August 1967 with the 35th Infantry 25th Infantry Division — now the 4th — at Cam Rah Bay. In the video he explains that his division went out on search and destroy missions seven days a week. They’d leave at dawn and not come back until sunset. He was one of four medics.

At the time, the soldiers had instructions not to salute their officers. Debiak said they were told the NVA — North Vietnamese Army — aimed for officers first, machine gunners second, medics third and then the rest of the soldiers.

He told of one harrowing mission on an overnight ambush where nearly everyone — including him — were asleep. They awoke to about 30 NVA traveling close to them but deciding not to shoot. Another time officers ordered the soldiers to shoot; they found the dead were children, not soldiers.

Stepping on booby traps became his biggest fear on the missions. “That was my nightmare,” he said. Debiak had two horrible encounters with soldiers he had to administer aid to: One was killed instantly and the other lost three limbs and died in the evacuation helicopter. He was instructed to just try his best to stop their bleeding.

For himself, Debiak said he took the attitude while he was serving was “If I am killed, well, I am not going to know. I just had to go there, do my job.”

His injury came two hours after a Christmas Day ceasefire had ended. He and two buddies were in a tent reading a comic book, Debiak said, when the artillery shell hit. He was knocked over and wound up covered with dirt. He didn’t lose consciousness; he could see his two buddies who had splotches of blood on them.

Debiak knew he was hit, but the odd thing was all he really felt was discomfort. It was dark, and he checked himself for injuries. He had been hit with shrapnel in the mouth, throat and stomach. “I thought I can’t be so badly injured,” Debiak said. Then he couldn’t feel his left arm at all and realized only a piece of skin connected his shoulder it. His left shoulder had sustained a disarticulation.

“I was feeling phantom pain,” Debiak said.

He also lost 15 teeth, and his jaw was broken. His hearing was damaged, too.

He was loaded onto a helicopter, not even covered with a blanket, and he had to shiver to keep from going into shock. He was headed first to a field hospital in Quang Ngai Province, near the Da Nang Air Force Base and not far from the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.

Three people were killed in the friendly fire attack, including a platoon leader, and 15 injured, Debiak found out later.

He spent a day in a Philippines hospital, and his arm could not be saved. Debiak then was moved to a recovery hospital in Japan for about a month. Debiak said he was dizzy, with a persistent fever, which led officials to list him in critical condition. In addition to the skin graft needed on the wounded shoulder area, Debiak had to endure “penicillin four times a day in the gluteus maximus. Painful!”

After a month in Japan, Debiak was flown back to the U.S. He had a short stay at Walter Reed Hospital, then moved with others to a rehab facility in Valley Forge, where he recovered for eight months and was fitted for a prosthesis. His father would drive there to pick him up on weekend passes, returning him to the hospital on Sundays.

He was discharged honorably as a specialist 4, and when Debiak had a full exam at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Aspinwall, he learned about his hearing deficit, too. His 1968 discharge papers listed him as retired with a permanent 90% disability, he said.

Back home, Debiak had to figure out what to do at 24. Although Debiak said he never had nightmares or believes he suffered from PTSD, he had troubling visions. “I thought I’d end up selling pencils on a street corner Downtown,” he said.

A Valley Forge counselor had suggested grad school. He found out that he qualified not only for veterans benefits but also more help from a government vocational rehabilitation program. So his tuition and all fees be covered, and he was entitled to retirement benefits plus living expenses.

But where to go? He returned to the county Health Department and resumed work as a chemist. That prosthetic arm, which came with both a fist and a hook, served him well. He could use the hook to hold the test tubes he needed in his work. In fact that prosthesis lasted 25 years. So he said his injury ended up not holding him back at all.

Debiak took the counselor’s advice and applied for graduate school at Pitt, aiming for a January 1969 start, but he had received no response to his application. He chalked that up to his unremarkable grades coming out of Penn State.

Combat medic Ted Debiak with some Vietnamese children in 1967. (Courtesy of the Veterans Breakfast Club)

So one day he headed to campus and found a Mr. Tabor, an administrative assistant in the chemistry department there. After Debiak told him his story, Tabor called the head of the department and told him, “I have an applicant here who shows promise.” It worked.

He earned a doctorate in nuclear engineering in December 1973, then finished postdoctoral work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Debiak worked as a research scientist at Grumman Aerospace Corp. in New York from 1977-98, working on projects he says he still can’t talk much about. The company wanted to get into the space industry, and Debiak studied the effects of space radiation on semiconductors.

Debiak and his family came back to West Mifflin when his mother had a stroke and helped his brother and sister care for her. After three years as a database developer for a private company, he worked as science tutor and adjunct professor of math, physics and chemistry at Community College of Allegheny County from 2003-19.

In 2013, Debiak started researching his lack of an official Purple Heart. He found out that the platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Ronald Siengo, had received one, as had Spc. 4 Dan Jeter. Further, in Siengo’s Philadelphia Inquirer obituary, it listed the cause of his fatal injury as friendly fire.

He recognized Siengo’s name right away, and the memory was not a good one. “He was always all about us calling him sir and saluting him,” Debiak said. “He was all about military business and riding us.” Siengo was just 21.

Still, Debiak has never talked much about his Vietnam service. “I just went on with my life,” he said. Then he started going to VBC events and enjoyed them. “I got to hear about veterans who are the real heroes,” he said. He recorded that VBC interview for a veterans oral history project.  

DePastino encouraged him to apply to have his record corrected to officially include his Purple Heart. Debiak took his advice and filed the paperwork on Nov. 4, 2022. It took the Army a year to investigate his case and correct the error. In addition to the Purple Heart, he was also officially awarded the meritorious unit commendation, valorous unit award, a Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze star, and an expert badge with a rifle star.

The VBC executive director is pleased. “Ted is a wonderful, sensitive, gentle man thrown into war as a combat medic,” he said. “He saw the worst of the worst of war, and his job was to tend to the wounded and also the local people. He was traumatized by the war, and his story is a reminder of what we ask people when we order them into combat and how the scars of war never quite heal.”

Debiak believes many more people deserve Purple Hearts for their service. And he hopes more apply to receive them, just as he did.

DePastino agrees. “I believe our veterans community is filled with people whose valor in war — and I don’t use the word ‘valor’ lightly — was such that they should be wearing Medals of Honor, Silver Stars or other awards. Most acts of what we might call heroism, another word never to be used lightly, go unrecorded, perhaps even unnoticed. Acts of valor are, in large part, transpersonal; they happen almost instinctively, not by choice, so that those who commit them rarely think they deserve any recognition for it. They didn’t choose to throw themselves on a grenade or charge into fire to save someone. They just did it almost by reflex. Few, if any, heroes identify themselves as such. It is up to us to identify them.”

Pippy will pin the medal on Debiak, and his wife of nearly 55 years, Lenora, and his daughter, Catherine, and a close family friend will be there Friday to witness it.

“The pinning ceremony will mean a lot to me,” Debiak said. “But I know I am not alone in this.” 

Information on Friday’s event is available on the Veterans Breakfast Club’s website. This free event will honor and recognize all veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during the period of Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, regardless of duty location. All Vietnam veterans registered for this event will receive a gift bag as a token of gratitude for their service. For those who join virtually, the gift bag will be shipped to their homes.

The Steelers honored Ted Debiak on Nov. 13, 2022, during the third quarter of the Steelers-Saints game. (Courtesy of the Veterans Breakfast Club)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.