MATTOON, Ill. (WCIA) — He served in Vietnam as a combat medic, and almost died from a grenade.
Joel DuFrain came home with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. He was drafted at age 25, which is a little old for the draft.
Most of the people with him were 17, 18 and 19 years old. Even though he saw the worst of it, he thinks his more mature age helped him process what was happening.
“I could pray one time, I said ‘God, don’t leave me,’ and they kept shooting bullets around me,” DuFrain said. “So I peeked my head up and he stands up. He’s 20 yards from me, pulls his pin and he’s going to throw it at me, and I thought I’d had it.”
He was moments away from death.
“It went off, it made a big sound. So I peeked up,” DuFrain said. “It went off prematurely and it killed him. It blew him apart.”
A misfire saved his life, but in the moment, DuFrain was still reeling from what had happened earlier in ambush.
“Threw a couple of grenades in on us in our position, and it missed me and missed Fred. It got one of the radiomen really bad,” DuFrain said. “So, I started to work on him, and he says ‘No, no, no, go work on Brown.’ So I went to work on Brown and by the time I got back to [Brown], he died in my arms.”
And after that, things went quiet.
“The silence was, I say it was deafening, because everything went quiet,” DuFrain said. “It seemed like I was there an eternity, but we weren’t there about an hour-and-a-half, maybe two at the most.”
His bravery earned him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. It was a shock for the man who never imagined himself serving. He didn’t tell his wife what happened until he was on leave.
“So, when I met Carol in Hawaii, I brought it to her in a case and the paperwork, the orders for it, and I gave it to her then,” DuFrain said. “Because I didn’t want to tell her and have her worry about what was going on. I tried to paint as good of pictures as I could when I wrote letters home.”
The couple had been married for five years when DuFrain was drafted in 1968. At the time, he was working at a factory making ammunition.
He had no interest in serving, but didn’t back down when he was called up. He trained as a combat medic for a year, and when he arrived overseas, he was put right into the action.
“So, I didn’t think that was going to happen,” DuFrain said. “I thought I was going to be in an aid station, giving shots and taking temperatures and making beds.
DuFrain spent a year in Vietnam, then came home to his wife Carol. They settled into a life in Mattoon and raised two children. DuFrain spent his career working for UPS.
He’s humble about his time in the service, and when I asked him if he had any regrets, he told me no.
“It was a change of life for me and I don’t know if I’d have been brave enough to choose to do it, but I did it and got through it, so that’s always a good question” DuFrain said.