Four decades after serving in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL, Maury Docton is still being called in to do the jobs nobody else can.
Last week at the Springfield Animal Hospital on North Limestone Street, Docton successfully removed a tumor from a schnauzer’s paw.
The Miami County resident, a consulting animal surgeon who drops into the local pet clinic several times a month, soon will join the truly elite ranks of Ohio’s vets.
Veterans, that is.
The 67-year-old Xenia native, whose unassuming nature contradicts the popular image of a SEAL as an untouchable warrior, will be inducted on May 3 into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.
The ceremony will be held at 11:30 a.m. on the eastside of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
Unlike the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame, which recognizes an individual’s post-military achievements, the Military Hall of Fame explicitly honors battlefield heroism. All nominees must have been awarded a medal for valor.
“The thing about decorations is that it’s all about being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” reasoned Docton, a recipient of two bronze stars and a Purple Heart.
But, after initially being spat on and rejected for VFW membership when he came home in 1972, Vietnam veterans like Docton are finally in the right place at the right time.
“As you get older, recognition gets more important than what it once was,” he said.
“There’s nothing heroic about war,” Docton added. “But there’s heroism within war. I don’t think I was a hero, but it’s nice that they’re recognizing that I would put my life on the line for someone else.”
Docton, who graduated from Xenia High School in 1963, didn’t have to serve. He could have skipped the draft by going to college and joining his father’s veterinary practice.
All of his high school friends, he said, were draft-deferred.
Even as an only child, he could have avoided combat altogether.
Instead, he volunteered. And he volunteered to be a SEAL at that.
“We were always outnumbered,” he recalled, describing combat as “boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror.”
“There are a lot of times I should’ve died,” he said matter-of-factly.
He described the one morning he woke up with an enemy grenade lying next to his head. It had failed to explode.
A 1969 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Docton initially was sent to the southernmost tip of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1971 to serve as an adviser to the South Vietnamese equivalent of the SEALs.
“The previous guy had been killed,” he said, “so you can imagine how excited I was.”
The missions were every bit as clandestine as you’d expect — often, the CIA would provide them with a list of targets to be captured or killed.
The Navy had only established the SEALs in 1962, so by the early 1970s, it still hadn’t been glamorized, he said.
His seemingly ragtag team included an Olympic silver-medalist swimmer and a couple of ex-Hells Angels.
“We were a bunch of cowboys,” Docton said. “Things weren’t well defined.”
A tour for a SEAL lasted six months due to its intense nature, and Docton served two tours in all.
“I was extremely lucky,” he explained. “It instills in you survivor guilt, which is a powerful thing.”
After getting out, he realized that family was more important than anything. While studying to be a veterinarian at Ohio State University, he befriended David Haeussler.
Haeussler, owner of Cincinnati-based Animal Care Centers, has operated the clinic in Springfield for about four years.
“Maury’s a real unique guy,” Haeussler said. “He’s very humble. He’s very quiet. He’s the sort of person that downplays everything.”
But, Haeussler added, “He’s a true American hero.
“He’s the kind of guy,” he said, “who allows you and I to have the freedoms that we do.”