The Brooklyn native, who lives in Aberdeen today, was 20 years old then. He’s 71 now, and the memory remains fresh. Some things, you don’t forget. You can’t.
“I remember feeling such rage — not that my life was threatened, but I just remember thinking, ‘The guy is half dead, and this is the guy you shoot?’” Fabian said. “All I had was a clip with eight bullets in it. I started working on this other guy and another (Viet Cong) came out of a bunker and started firing, so I eliminated him. The guy who I was working on survived, and I brought him back.”
During training, instructors used to pound a mantra into Army medics.
“Your job is to get them onto the helicopter breathing and we’ll do the rest,” Fabian recited. “Most of the people I put onto the helicopter were still breathing, but you usually don’t find out if they survived. You like to think that they did.”
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Doc treated at least 10 men that day, and most of them made it after a 90-minute fight that claimed the lives of 19 Americans. The next day, his commander told him he would be recommended for the Silver Star, the Armed Forces' third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat.
It took 51 years, but last month, Doc Fabian finally received the medal.
'It's really unusual'
Fabian, who was drafted into the Army, didn’t choose to be a medic. He was assigned the position with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and he never found out why. It’s a difficult job that he performed with distinction, earning two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and an Army Commendation Medal (ACM) with Valor.
“When you look at the accomplishments in your life you look at that and say to yourself, ‘That’s not bad; I guess I did OK,’” he said.
The first Silver Star was bestowed for his actions during an ambush on Jan. 11, 1969. He recalled responding to a fallen soldier who “had been burned all over, he had shrapnel all over, he had a punctured lung.”
It was a welcome-to-war moment.
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“I’m working on him, and I’m a 19-year-old from Brooklyn who six months ago was hanging out in front of a candy store,” Fabian said.
His commanding officer that day, 1st Lt. Harold Fritz, received the Medal of Honor. Reached by phone at his Illinois home, Fritz, now a retired colonel, praised Fabian’s gallantry.
“It’s really unusual for a medic to get a Silver Star, and in this case two Silver Stars. That’s unbelievable,” Fritz said. “The enemy’s object is to shoot as many medics as they can because it’s demoralizing, so there was a lot of fire directed at Doc.”
It was nerve-fraying duty, but Fabian never portrayed that in his letters home to Brooklyn.
“He would write things like, ‘Things aren’t bad here, it’s OK’” said brother Mark Fabian, who also served during Vietnam and now lives in Manalapan. “He’d send us a picture of him sunbathing alongside a tank. He didn’t want my mother to worry.”
'A genuine hero'
After the April 13 ambush, his second in the span of three months, Bart Fabian forgot about the second Silver Star he was promised.
“To be honest, I was just numb,” he said.
Why did Army brass never follow up? Unfortunately, Fritz said, these things sometimes fall through the cracks when there are changes in command.
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Only decades later, during Fabian’s reunions with fellow soldiers, did the subject of the promised medal come up. Everyone, including Col. Fritz, encouraged him to pursue it.
“I said, ‘Doc, you owe it to yourself, the men you saved, the men who died in that battle and to the nation, to show that there’s valor in those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces,’” Fritz said.
Word reached retired Brig. Gen. John Bahnsen, who helped see it through. So on July 18, during a ceremony in Freehold — where Fabian lived for many years while running a trucking company — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., presented him with the Silver Star.
“The record shows that Doc Fabian saved 10 U.S. soldiers, and stopped two enemy soldiers who were trying to kill wounded GIs,” said Smith, who helped get Fabian the med. “In an era when people admire fictional superheroes and Hollywood stars portraying heroes, Doc Fabian is a genuine uncontested hero.”
His brother agrees.
“This is something I always wanted for him,” Mark Fabian said. “It’s just incredible. Like the Congressman said, ‘This is what movies are made of.’”
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Recently, Col. Fritz said, he was advising a young Marine who was training to be a medic. One exemplar came to mind.
“I emphasized if you’re going to be a medic, you’re really going to be counted on by people to be there when they need you,” Fritz said. “I told them about Doc Fabian, how this is what happens, and this is how you react. You do the right thing.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues.