Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Donald Everett Ballard was trained to keep the Marines he was tasked with protected and alive during the Vietnam War — even at the expense of his own life. Thanks to a lucky explosives malfunction, though, Ballard survived his mission. But his actions showed the lengths he was willing to go to perform his duties, and that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Ballard was born on Dec. 5, 1945, and raised around Kansas City, Missouri. He went to North Kansas City High School, where he was a member of the band and part of a co-operative work education program, according to the Kansas City Star newspaper.
Ballard worked in a dental laboratory after high school and said he wanted to attend college for dentistry, but he couldn’t get financial assistance to make it happen through scholarships or grants; so, he looked toward the military for educational benefits. Before joining, though, he got married and had a son and a daughter.
Ballard enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 27, 1965. Since he was interested in medicine, he became a hospital corpsman. He spent a few months working at a naval hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, before being sent to join a Marine unit at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in October 1966.
In December 1967, Ballard was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division and sent to Vietnam.
“I was told that since I had all this surgical training and surgical skills that they were going to send me to a ‘Charlie med battalion’ or some kind of fixed facility that had an operating room,” Ballard said in a Library of Congress interview. “But all of a sudden, they didn’t need that as much as they needed a frontline corpsman.”
During conflicts, hospital corpsmen are attached to Marine units to work as medics in battle. Once in Vietnam, that’s what Ballard’s role became as the Tet Offensive — vicious North Vietnamese attacks across South Vietnam — began.
On May 16, 1968, Ballard was attached to Company M as it moved to join more units from the 3rd Battalion, which were located near the demilitarized zone in Quang Tri Province. Ballard has just finished treating and evacuating two men suffering from heat-related issues. He was returning to his platoon from the helicopter’s landing zone when they were ambushed by a large North Vietnamese Army unit. Enemy automatic weapons and mortar blasts quickly took out a lot of men.
Ballard saw one injured Marine and ran through the heavy fire to help him. He then directed four other Marines to carry the injured man to relative safety. However, as they prepared to move out, an enemy soldier came into view, hurled a hand grenade at them and then opened fire.
Ballard shouted a quick warning to the Marines, then threw himself on top of the grenade in the hope of protecting his comrades from the blast. In doing so, Ballard surely knew he would be giving his life for the others. Amazingly, the explosive failed to detonate. When Ballard realized this, he calmly got up and continued treating the injured.
“I don’t feel like I did anything spectacular,” Ballard said later in life. “I was wanting to do the right thing, but in all honestly, I was scared. … I paid attention to my surroundings and to survival skills as best I could, and I just did my job.”
The battle they were engaged in lasted several days. During later conflicts, Ballard was wounded a few times and eventually evacuated to Okinawa, Japan, in July 1968. Two months later, he was sent back to the U.S. to work at the Memphis naval hospital again. He left active-duty service on February 26, 1970, and transferred into the Naval Reserve.
Ballard was initially recommended for the Navy Cross for his actions, but that was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He received the medal from President Richard M. Nixon during a White House ceremony on May 14, 1970, nearly two years to the day after he threw himself on top of that grenade. Eleven other service members were also awarded the military’s top honor that day.
In later years, Ballard continued to downplay the action that earned him the nation’s highest honor for valor.
“I wear this medal for all veterans that have ever served in uniform,” he said. “There were a lot of brave men out there, and most all of them earned a lot more decorations than they received. I can tell you that there’s a lot more deserving people out there than me who should have gotten the Medal of Honor.”
In late 1970, Ballard switched services to join the Kansas Army National Guard as an officer in the Medical Service Corps. He spent three decades in the Guard as an ambulance platoon leader and company commander. He served in several key positions, including starting a new medical detachment. He rose to the rank of colonel in 1998 and retired in 2000. He was inducted into the Kansas National Guard Hall of Fame in 2001.
As a civilian, Ballard earned an associate degree in police science from Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods, according to a 1977 article in the Kansas City Star, and he worked for the Kansas City police and fire departments.
At some point, Ballard divorced, remarried and had four more children with his current wife. One of those children, Adam, followed in his footsteps by joining the Marine Corps in 2015.
Ballard continues to highlight the legacy of military heroes by being a frequent speaker at veteran and military events. In 2013, he served as the treasurer of the Medal of Honor Society. Ballard owns two funeral homes and two cemeteries. He said his companies work with the families of veterans to either provide services at low cost or free of charge. Ballard also works to revitalize neighborhoods in his community and tries to help transitioning veterans and first responders find employment.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.