Walt Lavender, 77, credits his good fortune during his military career to the good Lord and a faithful, loving wife, “who took such good care of me,” he said. While serving in the Navy, he weathered a super typhoon, endured life in the Vietnam trenches, and continually evolved his medical skills into a lifetime career.
Lavender, a Lorena resident, was born in Oklahoma but moved to Texas and grew up in Kamay and Holliday. His mother worked at the state hospital in nearby Wichita Falls, a fact Lavender said influenced his career.
With boxing and football scholarships to Cisco Junior College, Lavender went for a year and transferred to Midwestern State University. While there, he worked at the state hospital, but didn’t complete his degree then. Instead, he joined the U.S. Navy on April 11, 1961.
“The date is burned in my mind,” he said. “It’s just a different world.”
Lavender attended the Corps School at Balboa Naval Hospital, training to be a medic. His first duty station was Guam in the Mariana Islands, via Hawaii, where Lavender saw Connie Francis sing “Where the Boys Are.”
Initially, Lavender was seasick but once it passed, it never bothered him again. When he arrived on Guam, he worked in various jobs at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Agana, including in labor, delivery, orthopedics and general medicine, among others.
First encounter with danger
His first brush with danger came in the form of Super Typhoon Karen, which slammed Guam on Nov. 12, 1962. Some estimates clocked winds at 185 mph; the destruction was so strong it took out the Fleet Weather System and “blew an ocean-going tugboat five miles inland,” Lavender said. Lavender was busy moving patients to keep them dry; he was up for 36 straight hours.
When Lavender returned from a two-year tour, he was reassigned to Camp Del Mar, Field Medical Fleet Training, where he was to attend X-ray school at Camp Margarita with the 5th Marines. But he was sent instead to the 7th Marines at Camp Las Pulgas for immediate deployment to Vietnam. It would be the first of two such tours.
Attached to the Marine Corps as a medic in Vietnam, Lavender went where they went, serving as a medic in the Qui Nhon area. He lived in foxholes, ate rations and once spent about four months on Hill 384 with the Marines.
They once came upon a booby-trapped cow tied in the middle of the road; as a truck came around the curve, it was too late to avoid it. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.
Another time, he was dropped off by helicopter on a main road where he joined the 7th Marines in a 10-mile trek to Chu Lai. “We set up a perimeter around Chu Lai base,” he said. “We had more people killed by his own troops,” he said, because of failure to properly identify themselves.
Also, the men once were watching a movie when bullets started bouncing off the screen. “Everybody hit the ground,” said Lavender. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Lavender cared for the Marines and sometimes the local natives; not surprisingly, there were plenty of foot problems to go around. Vietnam had leeches, poisonous snakes, and more with which to contend. In addition, troops were sometimes injured by sharp Punji stakes covered with feces.
Despite it all, Lavender said he felt safe with the Marines around. He also went on R & R to Bangkok, a time he especially enjoyed despite the chicken dish that still had the head and comb on it.
He spent six months in Vietnam and would return in 1970 for a second tour on a helicopter carrier, where he never stepped ashore.
“I was so glad to see it in my rear-view mirror,” he said.
Lavender had additional education, went on other cruises, and served on a variety of ships during his 22-year career, including the USS Iwo Jima, the USS Dewey and the USS Ward. His last duty station was the Marine Corps Reserve here in Waco, where he headed the medical department. He retired from the Navy in 1983 as an E-8, senior chief hospital corpsman.
In 1967, Lavender married Sharon McShane after a short courtship; she joined him later in the Philippines, where he was serving duty.
After the service, Lavender returned to MSU and earned a bachelor’s degree in radiology. He moved to Lorena and worked for several area hospitals and the Gatesville prison. He retired from Scott & White in Temple in 2014.
Today, he and his wife have been married 50 years; they have two children and four grandchildren.
As far as Vietnam goes, Lavender feels “very fortunate,” despite the danger. “The guy who took my place was killed within two months,” he said. “The good Lord must have had other plans for me.”