Vietnam Era Veteran Leonard Corso doesn’t know what his life would’ve been like if he hadn’t served as a Green Beret medic in the military. What he does know, though, is how much his service taught him, and for that, he’ll forever be grateful.
Corso grew up in Logansport, Indiana. Right out of high school, he tried to give college a go, but he had never been the best student – he had poor study habits and mostly earned C’s. Corso felt like he wasn’t ready for school and wasn’t sure what to do. Everything changed, though, when the draft came.
“I saw that the draft was going to get me, so I made the decision to join for three years in the United States Army so I could choose my occupation. I had a tremendous interest in science and medicine, so I decided if I'm going to go, I’m going to become a medic,” said Corso.
Corso enlisted and went off to do his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He breezed through his training and even won the basic training physical fitness trophy. Afterward, he went on to do advanced individual training to become a combat medic at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
One day while Corso was at Fort Sam receiving his training, he and about 500 other medics were brought together in a room. They were told how quickly the military was losing medics in Vietnam and were encouraged to join the special forces. Anyone interested in aiding the cause by furthering their medical training was instructed to go to the back of the room. Without thinking, Corso stood.
“I still to this day cannot tell you why I got up out of that soft cushion theater seat, in the air conditioning, and walked to the back of the theater. Out of the 500, there were 35 of us that went back there, and I'd say out of those 35 only five of us made it through all of the training to earn our Green Berets. I remember that as I got up and walked to the back of the theater people told me I had a death wish and that I was nuts, but I looked at it as a challenge. I was a small guy – I was never a big athlete or anything like that – but I said I'm gonna try it. If I don’t make it, I don’t make it, but I’m going to give it a try,” said Corso.
Just like that, Corso began his next set of training. Most of it was similar to going to college – he attended classes that were taught by physicians and was able to hang out in the evening with his classmates. Other parts were more intense.
During his airborne paratrooper training, Corso had to jump out of a plane five times even though it was only his second time ever being in an airplane. He had to do prisoner-of-war (POW) training in which he was tested on how long he could make it without giving up secret information. He was waterboarded and exposed to all kinds of discomforting things such as excess heat, excess cold, and extremely loud music.
“It was pretty brutal training,” said Corso. “It all paid off in the end though."
Corso earned his Green Beret in July of 1968 and couldn’t have been prouder of himself.
“That was a very proud moment for me. My two Green Berets mean more to me than my three college degrees because I went through a little bit of hell to get them. So many people washed out of the training, and that's where I was getting my confidence because, as a smaller guy, I was watching these people who were big and brawny and couldn't take the mental harassment. By earning my Green Beret, I learned that I could go through a lot and make it, and that was such a turning point for me and my development as a person. I realized how much discomfort I can take,” said Corso.
After he earned his Green Berets, Corso started working and training at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam in Houston, which is where many of the burn patients were treated during Vietnam. This was a huge turning point in Corso’s life; for the first time, he was face-to-face with the ugliness of the war.
He saw soldiers with nearly 90% of their bodies covered in second and third-degree burns.
“I would have been right around 22 years old when I saw that, and it was very sobering for me. It was then that I realized that, when you’re learning, it’s not about getting an A or B – it's about obtaining the knowledge and knowing how to use that knowledge to help people,” said Corso.
After working at several different medical centers, Corso’s time in the military was about to come to an end. He was asked if he’d like to sign up for another three months and serve as a medic in Vietnam, but after what he’d seen in the hospitals, Corso knew his calling was somewhere else.
“I just wasn’t as gung ho as I once was. I saw that this was becoming a political war and one that we were not really trying to win and that it was hurting people, so I decided it was time to go back to college,” said Corso.
Corso was honorably discharged in December of 1969. With a new sense of maturity and self, Corso was ready to tackle college again. He headed off to Indiana State University where he fell in love with his future wife, Sandy, and earned his bachelor’s degree in health science.
Corso didn’t stop there, though. His time in the military had instilled a love of learning in him that had been missing before.
“I wasn't sitting in the back of the room anymore. I was in the front row, I was asking questions, and I was very dedicated,” said Corso.
He went on to earn his master's degree in physiology and health science from Ball State University and his medical certificate from the Indiana University School of Medicine as a physician assistant. After graduating, Corso worked as a physician assistant in occupational medicine for 10 years. He then went on to be a pharmaceutical representative for nearly 20 years.
Now retired, Corso teaches advanced human physiology classes at Ivy Tech College. He loves to spend as much time as he possibly can with his two daughters and his wife who he’s been married to for 50 years. He also spends a lot of time getting involved with the Valparaiso Kiwanis Club doing what he can to support his fellow veterans and the young kids serving today.
Looking back, Corso is grateful for his time in the military. Of course, some of his experiences were painful. Corso has three friends on the Vietnam Wall: his high school classmate, Tom Priesthoff, Green Beret Sgt. Major Carl Pilkington, and his medic classmate, Green Beret Howard "Howie" Hill. Despite this, Corso knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without his service and is proud to call himself a veteran.
“I owe so much to the military. I wouldn't have met my wife, I wouldn't have three college degrees, and it matured me so much. You can talk about maturity all you want, but until you actually experience it and you are held accountable and responsible for your mistakes, you don't understand. The military gave me that,” said Corso.