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12, 20, & 5
A Doctor's Year in Vietnam
By John A. Parrish
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 John A. Parrish
All rights reserved.
Tho I walk thru the valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil—cuz I'm the toughest mutha' in the Valley.
The sign was hand printed beneath a picture of a rugged, unshaven, World War II, John Wayne-type marine with fixed bayonet and fixed stare. The poster was the focal point of a clean, simple, and functional room. The bayonet pointed past filing cabinets and chairs toward a vacant desk labeled "Officer of the Day." Three enlisted men draped over wooden chairs looked up with an absence of enthusiasm that told us that our arrival was not making their evening any less boring.
I was beginning my military career by checking in at Camp Pendleton, a marine training base in southern California being used primarily as a staging area for personnel en route to Vietnam. It had been over a year since I received some friendly advice from my government suggesting that I "volunteer" for a commission as a navy doctor. As added encouragement, the same letter reminded me that student deferment days were over and enclosed a date to report for an induction physical as a 1-A buck private candidate should I choose not to serve my country as an officer and a gentleman.
When I accepted my commission, the navy agreed to permit me to spend another year of internal medical residency training at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. About halfway through that additional year I found out that my first year in the navy would be spent with the marines in the Republic of South Vietnam. From that point on it was difficult to remain completely enthusiastic about the academic discussions on metabolic or renal rounds, and the collection of esoteric pearls from medical journals seemed somewhat less important.
The obvious good health of the yawning enlisted men scattered about the Officer of the Day's room was pleasant in itself. My last few weeks of civilian life had been spent in the hematology service where many of my patients were teenagers dying of leukemia. While investing much of my emotional energy in telling white lies of empty optimism, I had been the helpless observer of the waste and death of the young victims. I was fortunate that my work at the hospital had kept me extremely busy and left me little time for introspection and worry about the future.
During the ten-minute ride from the front gate to our checkpoint I was accompanied by a dentist and another doctor. We quickly sketched in our backgrounds and discussed our feelings about the impending 12,000-mile trip to South Vietnam. The dentist had become the father of his firstborn child three days earlier, and he seemed inappropriately brave, optimistic, and almost happy. The other doctor was an orthopedic surgeon and former football player who did not seem to mind the return to the physical life of an all-male atmosphere. Repairing broken bones and dismembered bodies would be excellent practice for him. Their confidence and excitement made me almost embarrassed about my anxieties over treating badly wounded people and my fears of personal physical injury.
We signed some forms in triplicate with a minimum of conversation. A sleepy marine threw our bags into a pickup truck, and we followed him to an old, two-story, white building. Inside we found thirty or more newly-arrived doctors and dentists in a state of partial undress staking claims on bunks and lockers and nervously making small talk. I found an empty lower bunk near the corner of the large room and began to unpack my new leather suitcase.
What sort of things does one take to a war on the other side of the world? Books? Stethoscope? Candy bars? Sneakers? Sports jacket? Tennis racket? Bathing suit? Jock strap? Camera? Aftershave? I looked over the information booklet about our two week basic training course and counted how many hours of sleep I would get before our orientation session the next morning. It had been dark for several hours, but the California August heat persisted. An upright, slightly dirty water fountain vibrated quietly in the hallway and cradled one hard ball of pink chewing gum in the drain. Four long rows of wooden, double-deck beds were evenly spaced along the worn, but well-polished wooden floor. The room was otherwise empty except for gray metal lockers, human forms, and suitcases.
I took a shower, listened to a few secondhand war stories, and made appropriate small talk with my new neighbors. A transient, slightly nauseating, nostalgic pain in my lower chest made me reach for a cigarette.
The guy in the next bed had the muscle tone of wet toilet paper. His skin was snow white, and his sweaty chest had no hair on it. He talked constantly.
"I don't know what the hell they want with me," he complained. "I just finished my internship, and I'm planning on going into obstetrics. What's your bag?"
My eyes were still scanning the room. "I'm about halfway through a residency in internal medicine, and I don't know exactly why I'm here either." There was no emotion in my voice.
"I volunteered to go," said a voice behind me.
I turned to see who Frank Meriwell was, and was surprised to find a reasonable-looking person. He proceeded to tell us at length about American boys getting sick and wounded and needing help. Although it wasn't a very impressive speech, it did cause me to think about the new job I had accepted with a corny little hand-raised oath. It looked as if I were really going through with it—I was going to war. Why? How could I justify taking a year from my life to go to a war on the other side of the world?
Immature wanderlust? A search for manhood and excitement? Did I want to be a hero? This war seemed to have no heroes. Was I patriotic? Regardless of my feelings about this war, it was true that American boys were getting sick and wounded. And there must be someone to take care of them. That someone might as well be me. Was my reason for going simply to have gone? To have done it? To experience war? To live through it? To flirt with death and win? Or, perhaps more importantly, to rob death and disease of their victims? Maybe this was my reason for becoming a doctor in the first place. And now I was going to be the doctor in his most trying and finest hour.
Maybe I believed that going to war was the right thing to do. I had been asked to go. It was expected of me. As a child I had learned that being good meant doing what was expected of me; at first by my parents, then by teachers and society. Then by the more mobile but sometimes less flexible superego or God they created for, or passed onto, me.
Living up to expectations was an unusually important part of my life. I was the son of a Baptist minister and a sacrificial, upright, full-time mother. My older brother had died when I was seven, making me the eldest of the remaining three children. My first society beyond the home had been the church. Much was expected of me and I had always made it my business to deliver.
I was a good boy. I silently sublimated away my youth being the quiet achiever. Fair play. Good grades. Nice guy. Hard work. And now war?
Maybe I was still competing. My childhood in Miami with its close, patriarchal family and the comfortable answers provided by religion had been challenged by an interest in science and biology and exposure to a wider range of outlooks at Duke University. My late-blooming ego was threatened. Small successes in the academic world reinforced escape into long nights and weekends of study. The time-limited, goal-oriented, tested, conquest of knowledge and identity seemed to lead logically into competing for a place in a good medical school, and the idea of being a doctor served a reasonable combination of independence and academic life yet leaving room to fulfill the need to serve my fellowman. Yale Medical School had been tough, interesting, and had required almost a full-time effort. Maybe war was another course, a graduate school, an even tougher test. I could compete and achieve and surpass expectations.
Or maybe I accepted going because I felt that for an American doctor, Vietnam was where the single greatest need existed. It was in Ann Arbor, Michigan as an intern and resident in internal medicine that I learned what being a doctor was all about. Medical school had been a prep school, a playground for my mind with no responsibility except to myself and my desire to learn. It was as an intern that I learned to be involved, to be responsible, to be completely immersed and irreversibly connected to the care of the sick. It was there that I learned to concentrate all my thinking, time, and emotional and physical energy into the one patient that I happened to be taking care of at any one particular time. For two years my own fatigue, interests, problems, life, wife, and babies were completely subjected to the every call of my ward full of very sick people. I became conditioned to the point that there was never any decision to make as to whether I worked or didn't work. If one of my patients needed me, I was there. The response was automatic, unheroic, undramatic, nonphilosophical, nonpious, and quick. It was expected. Maybe my response now, when called to go to war, was just another automatic appearance at the bedside when needed.
On the other hand, maybe I needed to go to war for the same reason I had lifted weights when I was a teen-ager. The same reason I ran distance races at Miami High School as a second best miler. The same reason I worked construction jobs every summer. Maybe I didn't like being the tall, skinny, good, serious scholar with glasses. I wanted to be a professional football player. This war was my chance at travel, excitement, foreign ports, women, booze, danger, evil, and manhood. Besides, I was sick and tired of study and hard work.
Anyway, I had to go. It was too late to volunteer for the Public Health Service, too late to trump up a research project for the National Institute of Health, too late even to claim conscientious objection to the war. The alternatives were clear—jail for three years, Canada for life, or Vietnam for one year. The best choice seemed to be the gamble of surviving a year at war. The stakes were high, but the odds for a doctor were good. I did not realize then that physical survival was only a part of winning the gamble.
Since my residency training had been much too encompassing to allow any interest in politics, I did not have a clear picture of why this particular war was necessary. As best I could tell, some dictator in Saigon had taken advantage of the confusion of an exploding nationalism and the American fear of spreading "communism," and had enlisted our financial and military support in keeping a Vietnamese national hero from finishing off his revolution. To someone in the United States government, finishing a revolution seemed too bloody, too unstable, and too "un-American." And, furthermore, North Vietnam was becoming too closely aligned with her "Red Communist" neighbor.
When the Saigon dictator proved to be too unpopular with the Vietnamese people to survive—even with the United States' support—we switched allegiance to his successor. To keep the Vietnamese from killing one another and to make the countryside safe for the peasants, we moved in to bring peace and quiet. The fact that we now needed so many doctors to administer to broken bones and dismembered bodies suggested that our goals were not yet realized. It wasn't really a war in the legal sense. But somehow it was a really big league police action with bombing raids, napalm, search-and-destroy missions—the works. Involvement kept expanding just to maintain some dubious and illusionary American objective.
The whole scene was confusing. I only hoped that the political scientists and the politicians knew our best interests. The Southeast Asia experts told us that Southeast Asia mattered. Its 250 million people were entitled to free and independent development. The nations of Southeast Asia were threatened by the ambitions of North Vietnam and Communist China. America had "commitments" and had to demonstrate to the world that she would and could fulfill them. Finally, it would be nice to demonstrate that the communist technique of a "people's war of national liberation" could fail. We would try to make it fail. But, despite the opinions of the experts, I did not want to help stop a revolution, to get involved in a civil war, to stabilize an unpopular dictator, to fight "communism," or to provide free elections to an uneducated and unconcerned populace of farming peasants who could frankly care less as to who sat behind the oversized rosewood desk in the Saigon Governor's Palace. And the country was on the other side of the world! I did not want to leave home to force our brand of "freedom" on a distant, unfamiliar people. Despite our government's benevolent cries of freedom for the Asians, I could not help but think of my own freedom as well.
My free country was forcing me to leave home for an undeclared war in a distant country. To what lengths was I honor bound to serve my country? Pledge allegiance? Sure. Obey the law? Yes. Pay taxes? Okay. But go to an unpopular war? I was dubious. Where was my freedom of choice? Where were my rights as an enlightened citizen in an enlightened society?
My country had given me a lot. I remembered my years of education, my safe home, and my family. I enjoyed an abundance of food, television, and a General Motors car. The security and abundance of American life had not come easily. The price had been paid in past wars, and now my generation was paying once again. But was this war too expensive for what we were asking from it? Maybe war is overpayment. Is war necessary anymore? Maybe I would find out. Little did I realize, I was going to learn all about war.
Next morning I made it through breakfast, coffee, and defecation without a cigarette. Six of us rode to the classroom area with the orthopedic surgeon who had one of the few cars available. We spent the first third of the trip shaking hands in all kinds of awkward positions, the middle third in total silence, and the last few blocks all talking at once. Camp Pendleton by day was a flat land bounded by a highway, a few hills, an endless fence, and an ocean. It took about ten minutes to reach the classroom area. Barracks, storage buildings, parking lots, and roads were scattered everywhere. Automobiles outnumbered jeeps and helicopters, but military uniforms far outnumbered civilian clothes. The marines at the gates and intersections were sharply dressed, brightly polished, and impressively erect. They snapped off what looked like a nine-position salute with the right hand, and directed traffic with snappy, determined movements of the left. Elbows and hands were everywhere.
We went to our first class in civilian clothes and looked like a group transplanted directly from a Miami Beach hotel. In dress ranging from bermudas and T-shirts to three-piece suits, we filled out more forms in triplicate.
Our instructor was a tall, tanned, and well-built marine captain. Even in the classroom setting, it was obvious that he was in excellent physical condition. There was spring in his step. He totally disregarded the hundreds of subconsciously-dictated energy saving tricks that less fit humans employ in their everyday body movements. He had a very short military haircut and wore a freshly pressed short-sleeved khaki uniform. He was the only person in the room not perspiring. Having already completed a thirteen-month tour in Vietnam, he was considering going back after a year as instructor at Camp Pendleton. He ran for an hour at noon each day. He did not drink or smoke. He was a victim of rigid self-discipline. He actually seemed to believe in all the things he taught us. Consequently, I was not surprised when I saw him in Vietnam eight months later. By that time I was not surprised even by the wound in his neck and his lifeless body.
Several bored officers and enlisted men assisted the marine captain in giving a series of lectures designed to orient doctors to military life. Some used poor grammar out of ignorance—others on purpose for effect.
Excerpted from 12, 20, & 5 by John A. Parrish. Copyright © 1972 John A. Parrish. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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