Served in Vietnam: November 1966 to December 1967
I became a CRNA in 1959, five years before going to Vietnam. I graduated from Northwestern Hospital School of Nurse Anesthesia, in Minneapolis, Minn., on March 17, 1958.
Most of the time before going to Vietnam I worked in large hospitals (Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., 3,000+ beds, and in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. D.C.). So I was used to giving anesthesia for trauma surgery. After Vietnam I worked in Army field-and-station hospitals in Nürnberg and Munich for three years and then in Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, for a year. My experience didn’t really change until I came to Maine to work in a 50-bed hospital.
At the time of my deployment I was a student at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. Our course there was cancelled when all five of us students received orders for Vietnam.
I looked upon the time in Vietnam as an adventure, but my wife was much more upset than I was. My first impression of Vietnam was of how hot and dirty the country was and of how friendly the people were.
My first deployment was to the 12th Evacuation Hospital in CuChi, about 30 miles north of Saigon. As it was a brand new hospital, another male CRNA, Ken Hickman, and I set up the anesthesia department, ordering equipment and drugs. Being the ranking CRNA, I became and remained department head for the six months I was there. The CuChi location was later found to be heavily tunneled (right under our hospital), and was the location of a Viet Cong hospital. Our hospital laundry used an opening in the ground to discharge wastewater and it never filled up.
After six months I requested and was transferred to the 101st Airborne Division, along the coast, where I became chief CRNA for the 1st Brigade.
What was unique about serving as a military CRNA was learning how the medical service operated in a war zone. We did not specialize in any particular form of surgery other than acute trauma. I believe my experience with trauma patients before deploying to Vietnam was of great benefit to me, psychologically, as well as experience in handling patients. In that sense, we were better prepared than the majority of the infantry.
While there I traveled to another surgical hospital for a day to observe their operation. They were more of a MASH (inflatable) unit closer to Cambodia. The commanding officer of that hospital was a head and neck surgeon I used to work with at Walter Reed. He was later killed during a mortar attack at that hospital.
When with the 101st Brigade, I had several opportunities to go to nearby hospitals to work and give their CRNAs some relief. Most of my work there was evacuating patients by helicopter from our forward unit back to fixed hospitals. I also served for 12 missions on a Dustoff helicopter as a door gunner.
I also led several teams of personnel out to surrounding villages to do MEDCAP work. The only tricky moment was landing one time near a known Viet Cong village and our infantry protection was some minutes late arriving!
My experience at the 101st was not primarily as an anesthetist, as we didn’t have operating rooms. Our function was to transport injured soldiers to hospitals where they could receive the best care. We would resuscitate and stabilize the injured, and then get them to a hospital. It was felt that an anesthetist was better prepared than most RNs to do this, and that is why there was a position for one in the personnel roster for the Division. Our patients came from the area in which the Division was operating. We had all kinds of injuries secondary to trauma.
At the 12th Evac, we had three operating rooms (ORs), two major and one minor. The OR, in a Quonset hut, was one among a number of Quonset huts in a row.
We used small Ohio Heidbrink machines attached to large gas supply cylinders. At first, all we had to use as gas vaporizers were the #8 Ether vaporizers (without wicks) which were part of the machine. With these, the only non-flammable agent we could use was Penthrane, not a first choice for trauma patients. Later we were able to get Fluotec vaporizers from which to give Halothane, a better choice. I believe we were as fully stocked as was practical. Of course this was before EKGs in every room. Also, no SaO2 or CO2 monitors. It was mainly blood pressure and stethoscope monitoring. We always seemed to have adequate blood supplies. I remember there was an on-call roster for fresh blood donations, but I don’t recall it ever being used. We had almost unlimited blood supplies. I remember one patient I had who was shot in the heart and received 50 units of blood. We often had blood running in all four extremities. We never seemed to run out of drugs or supplies as I remember.
Our work days and nights were assigned on a rotating basis but, as there was no place to go, we were always available to work. So, often during large military operations (Attleboro, Iron Triangle), we were all busy. Later on as we got more staff, the burden was not as great. We eventually even got an anesthesiologist.
Usually there was a schedule of daytime surgery. Most of the electives were DPCs (delayed primary closure), done before shipping the patient to Saigon or the Philippines.
We didn’t operate on any Vietnamese civilians, but occasionally operated on a Viet Cong soldier. That was rare during this time. When I was with the 101st Airborne we had a captured North Vietnamese Army surgeon who only spoke Vietnamese and French. It was interesting to hear about his experience. He was not intimidating at all. I remember he quickly became friends with us all. We wanted to use him as a volunteer surgeon, but the higher-ups forbade this. He trained in Paris as I recall. We came into possession of North Vietnamese surgical instruments. While we were with the 101st, we did several operations on Vietnamese children with cleft palates and harelips.
The 12th Evac was mortared regularly and occasionally rocketed. No injuries to my knowledge. During enemy fire, we were instructed to stay as low as possible while working. Our OR was sandbagged to about chest level on the outside of the Quonset hut.
I saw Bob Hope’s Christmas program in Cu Chi December 25th, 1966. I took two R&R trips, the first to Hawaii to meet my wife, and the second to Japan.
I saw General Westmoreland, head of the Army in the Republic of (South) Vietnam (RVN), while with the 101st, which at the time was part of the Americal Division. General Westmoreland was the Americal’s commander. I heard him speak later at Bate’s College in Lewiston, Maine, which is a short distance from my home.
We got our news from Armed Forces Radio. I got regular letters from home and in addition to sending letters, I also sent three-inch audio tapes through the mail to my family. No problem getting mail but I was never able to telephone home.
Recreation was mainly volleyball. A court was set up right outside the OR, so we were close when we needed to go to work. There was the Officer’s Club for off-duty time.
When I returned to the U.S., I wore my uniform from Vietnam to SeaTac (the Seattle-Tacoma airport). There I threw away my combat fatigue uniform and flew the rest of the way to New York in civilian clothes. This is what we were advised to do. I received no harassment of any kind. It was at this time that I was promoted to Major.
I had no psychological problems upon returning home. I deployed within a few days to Germany so I never talked about the war in general with civilians.
I was more depressed upon returning to the States from Germany than I was from Vietnam; I was disturbed by the level of materialism here that I noted upon returning. If offered the opportunity, I would have remained in the Army for 20 years if I could have done my time in Germany. Everyone in my family felt the same way. I certainly would have gone back for another assignment (as happened to many of my CRNA friends) if I had not resigned my commission in 1972.
Most of all I missed my wife and two daughters while I was in Vietnam. My younger daughter learned to walk and talk while I was gone. That was hard.
I don’t remember my first meals or any other meal upon returning. I never spoke in schools about my experiences, although I did speak to one of the civic clubs here in Maine once I started working in a civilian hospital in 1972.
In 1990, I reenlisted in the Army Reserve and served for several years (including two months in Honduras) before being separated for age. I did attain a promotion to Lt. Colonel during this period. I was never able to earn enough years to qualify for a pension.
All in all, my time in the Army was rewarding, including my year in Vietnam.