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Winter Soldier

Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971

Sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc.

Part I

MODERATOR. This panel is concerned with medical aspects, medical affirmation of problems in Vietnam. My name is Jon Bjornson. I was formerly a Major, U.S. Army Medical Corps. I have my DD-214 right here, which is an honorable discharge form. I was a psychiatry-neurology consultant in Vietnam through 1964-1965. I also functioned for five months as a Flight Surgeon in the Mekong Delta and was Deputy Surgeon, United States Support Command at the time. I must admit that I wasn't happy with our policy in Vietnam before I went there, even in 1964, just after the overthrow of Diem. When I came back I was extremely disgusted and I resigned my commission. I'd like each of the panel members to introduce themselves, if they would. Why don't we start with you, Mike?

ERARD. My name is Michael Erard. I served as a Medic with the 173rd, 3rd/503rd.

GROSSO. My name is Joseph Grosso. I was a General Medical Officer for the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam.

GALICIA. My name is David Galicia. I served as a psychiatrist, 3rd Field Hospital, Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.

DUBROW. My name is Jeff Dubrow. I was a Hospital Corpsman on the U.S.S. Sanctuary in Da Nang.

FORTIN. My name is Dave Fortin and I served as the driver for the 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri.

STEIGER. My name is Gary Steiger and I served as a Medic in the 366th USAF Dispensary at Da Nang.

MODERATOR. Thank you. The first thing we will try to demonstrate is the variance of treatment, which was not medically sound, in terms of preference for patients. That is, Americans got the best treatment. If an ARVN had the same type of problem, wound, what have you, he got the second best. Prisoners got the worse by far. And we're going to take it by subjects. Mike, why don't you start off with something about how prisoners were treated by our medical people?

ERARD. We had a policy whereby prisoners were given just the basic treatment. In other words, maybe just a bandage or field dressing was put on a wound. We were instructed--and this was battalion SOP--that we were to expend no medical supplies on them. In other words, specifically we carried a small bottle of serum albumin, 500 cc, to be used for people who were in shock or had serious wounds. When we went out in the field we were told this costs $25. It's never to be used on a gook, meaning both Vietnamese and prisoners.

MODERATOR. Anybody else want to comment on it? Dave, what about you? What have you seen happen with prisoners?

FORTIN. Basically, in regard to this, a lot of various instances. But I can relate one specifically to you. A prisoner would be brought into triage, which is where they get their basic medical treatment before they go on to their specific needs like operations which had to be performed directly by a doctor. Well, in triage, a prisoner would be interrogated. They'd come down with ITT, which is Intelligence Translations people, and they'd try to get information from the prisoners. If the prisoner wouldn't give information out to the questions they asked, they'd use various ways of torture. They'd poke at his wounds. I've seen them stand a prisoner up who had a stomach wound; his shoulder was torn up. They generally harassed the prisoner until they could get information out of him. I don't even think he could speak. He was in pretty bad shape. They took him to an operating room and in the operating room he wasn't treated by a doctor, such as Americans were. I know sterile conditions were less than normal in this case. Rather than having a doctor who would work on an American, they'd have Corpsmen who were practicing or getting experience from working on the prisoners, treat them. He was in pretty bad shape. They had very little regard, whatsoever, for the concern of him once they got him out of the operating room. Their attitude was like, okay, we got to do it so we're going to do it, you know,. But, like, who cares whether he lives or dies. It's just something that has to be done. There was one doctor present. Other than that, the Corpsmen did all the major work. They set bones, very sloppily. If you set a bone sloppily, it's going to come out crooked. They don't care. You've heard all this through the testimony. You're dehumanized and yellow people are not even human. You have no regard for them, so you don't care what happens to them. And the prisoners more so than anyone else. Instances like this go on all the time. This is just one I could bring up. I don't know what happened to him once he left that operating room.

MODERATOR. David, you said there was an American doctor present when they tortured this guy?

FORTIN. When the interrogation people came in, he was still in triage. He was laying on a stretcher. He was in really bad shape. ITT is intelligence. It's translations; it's getting information from prisoners and working a little bit with civilians. But they came in. There's a doctor present. The doctor's not concerned with intelligence. They had a captain in this case, who is a Marine officer, and two ARVN, South Vietnamese intelligence people. One of which was an officer, one of which was a staff officer, or staff sergeant. And they're the ones who interrogated him. The officer was present. He ignored the interrogation. As a matter of fact he almost went along with it. He didn't actually touch the prisoner, but he didn't say anything to stop the torture, or whatever you want to call it, that was going on.

MODERATOR. Jeff, what about treatment of ARVN or civilians?

DUBROW. I worked in the surgical unit on board the Sanctuary. And most of the minor surgical procedures that were done on the Sanctuary were done in the recovery room. Such as debridgment of wounds around minor suturing cases, things like that. An ARVN soldier came in one day. I set him up for his procedure. It was a debridgment of a wound and it's done under a local anesthesia, like xylocaine or novocaine. I set the tray out and I drew up 10 cc of xylocaine. The ARVN was pretty apprehensive about what was going to be happening to him. So we had the interpreter tell him what was going on and he calmed down. About five, ten minutes later he was screaming like crazy, you know. I ran over to see what was the matter and I noticed that the syringe hadn't been touched. And the doctor was performing this procedure without anesthesia. He had done this about ten times. I'd seen him do it. And he was a lieutenant commander, by the way, which is like a major, so he knew better. Also the same doctor claimed in some cases he was rushed, like from one case to another. Like in suturing cases, I've seen him perform suturing cases without the use of sterile technique. In other words, no gloves. And it only takes 15 seconds to put a glove on, you know. So there was no excuse for that. This is, like I said, done only on ARVN soldiers, not American soldiers. Another doctor, who was a lieutenant commander also, performed 27 out of 30 negative laparotomy cases. A laparotomy is cutting into the abdomen and exposing the intestines and repairing any tear or wound that would be in the intestines. The x-rays would come in with the patient from triage, or from x-ray, or wherever, and I put the x-rays up on the screen. So I saw every x-ray that came in on these patients. And you could see a metal fragment in the intestines. It stands out like a sore thumb. It's just like a big, you know, lump in the middle of nothing. You can really see it. If, let's say, an ARVN or Vietnamese civilian would come in with a fragment wound of the arm or leg, or something like that, he would automatically order a laparotomy to be set up on him. We can't question him because I'm only an E-4 and he was a lieutenant commander. So I had to do what I was told. So, he would do these cases that didn't have to be done and a laparotomy can be an easy case. If there's a frag there, he could take the frag out, repair the wound and that's it. Sometimes it can be a very bad case. There would be a lot of bleeding. I've seen fellows from a simple fragment of the stomach die in surgery. And he would do these cases and they wouldn't have to be done. And like I say, there was 27 out of 30 negative cases. That's about all I have to say.

MODERATOR. At an American hospital he would be kicked off any staff. Tell me, Jeff, you're pretty knowledgeable about medicine. How much training did you have?

DUBROW. I went to basic Hospital Corps School and orthopedic Technician School in Philadelphia, and OJT OR technician in Vietnam.

MODERATOR. And what are you doing now?

DUBROW. Nothing.


DUBROW. Civilian hospitals somehow think that Navy Corpsmen, Army Medics, or whatever, the only thing they're good for would be making beds and passing out bedpans. They think the training we have insufficient. And they won't give any ex-Medics a chance to prove themselves. So Medics won't work in a lot of civilian hospitals because after what they've done in Vietnam, or in the service, even if they haven't gone over there, they don't want to push bedpans around all day. They want to get down to the nitty-gritty and really get into some work. But they can't do this.

MODERATOR. You probably do most things a nurse can do, right?

DUBROW. Most things nurses can do. I can do probably more than a nurse can do. Nurses cannot suturize. I've sutured. I've debrided wounds where nurses can't.

MODERATOR. What about the triage? Gary, you want to explain what triage is? And how it worked in terms of Vietnamese Americans.

STEIGER. We worked six days a week in Vietnam in our dispensary. And you can get pretty bored on your days off because there really wasn't a heck of a lot to do. And there were, I think, six hospitals in the area including the ship that Jeff was on. Oftentimes the Air Force Medics would go to the Navy or Marine Hospital. I worked quite a bit in those places and triage is a system whereby the patients are divided into three main categories for treatment.

If you have a person coming in who is really badly wounded, he may have a limb or two missing, or multiple shrapnel wounds or whatever, and they expect him to die, he's placed in a category "expectant." Right after those people come the guys that if they weren't treated immediately would possibly die. In the "expectant" category, the chances are they wouldn't make it even with surgery. And the third category is a delay in which the guys come in, maybe have minor wounds, or things like this. When patients came in, not only to the Navy hospitals and others, but when they came in to our casualty staging flight where I worked, these patients would usually be the ones that were treated last. You could have an American come in in an expectant category and there was no way that he was going to make it. And the doctors would oftentimes treat him before they would treat an ARVN soldier or NLF soldier, or whatever, in a lower category who had a really good chance of making it if he was taken care of. Most of the time the Corpsmen would give him basic first aid and that was it. You weren't supposed to use any more of your supplies on them than was absolutely necessary to get them out of your facility and into a Vietnamese hospital. Now the prisoners that I saw that we handled were taken into our hospitals where they didn't receive treatment. I mean, it's, it's no way to...I lose the words. I mean they were lower than worms as far as these people were concerned. I mean you don't treat worms and you don't treat ARVN. It was about the same thing. We'd bring them in on a medivac. The Air Force flies cargo planes. They're hooked up for carrying litters and they carry wounded personnel and so forth on them. A C-130 would come in which could maybe carry 60 American wounded, and it would have over 100 Vietnamese on it. Well over 100. Stacked on top of each other and everything else. These people'd get off. They'd be taken off the plane. You'd have a man who's say in a body cast--you know, cast from his neck to his knees--and he'd be walking down the ramp and somebody would trip. This guy would fall three feet. He'd maybe had half the bones in his body broken and the doctor'd spent hours in or working on him, and they'd drop him from three feet. They'd put them into buses, and they were tossed into the buses more than put. They would take them down to the ARVN hospitals instead of taking them to a place where they could be treated. They'd be taken there and even if the ARVN didn't have the facilities--which they don't have--to treat these patients, we'd leave them anyway. The prisoners were transferred. There's several hospitals where they take care of these. One was where John was at, one at Vung Tau, and there's one at Chu Lai. And it was common knowledge amongst the people that were working on the flight line transferring these prisoners that they were turned over to the Koreans. It was a standing joke that in the Korean hospital if you had a patient who was really bad off, and you were sending someone down there who wasn't quite so bad off, and they didn't have the beds, the one in the bed that was going to die anyway would either be shot, or something else done to them, so they'd have room. And this happened all the time. The patients that we got in our casualty staging flight would set up in the end of the ward; if you were lucky, you could give them some water. It wasn't worth your time to treat them. That's the way I saw it. Unless we can realize that those people are human beings, that we're killing human beings over there, that they are the same flesh and blood of which we are...I don't know. We're just not human beings ourselves.

MODERATOR. I'm going to kind of throw this open to you, as I'm sure you've all had experience with it. There's a program in Vietnam which probably was the first major attempt at "pacification" called the Medical Civil Action Project. This was begun about six moths before I got there under MACV and then later all the medical units were, to some extent, rewarded, reinforced, encouraged to become involved in Medical Civil Action, which the press built up. Joe, why don't you start off on MedCap. What's it all about?

GROSSO. Well, in general, it was an attempt to use the practice of medicine as a propaganda device. Essentially it consisted of bringing into a village personnel and equipment to give the impression that some kind of a treatment facility was being provided for people. That, itself, was well- meaning, but the program involves the sporadic and often the inadvertent distribution of antibiotics of all kinds; both oral antibiotics and injectable antibiotics. This in itself is a very dangerous procedure and one which can ultimately disturb the normal bacterial flow which these people have carried for so many thousands of years. Now, while I was in Vietnam, of course, the Surgeon General's office issued a proclamation stating that no tuberculous disease would be treated. However, it was obvious at the time that the Medical Civic Action Program personnel had been attempting to treat tuberculosis in the villages with inadequate doses of antibiotic and this certainly is a practice which is detrimental, both to the people who have tuberculosis and to the other people in the village. Most of the other practices that were common in the MedCap program I believe to be contrary to what I had been taught in medical school. I believe most of us, even the lay public, is aware that to treat someone inadequately with antibiotics is a dangerous process. However, this is something that went on all the time in the villages. And it wasn't the fault of any of the medics who distributed the antibiotics because they certainly couldn't be responsible for a command policy which allowed a jeep with medical supplies to go into a village. Oftentimes the jeep would go into the village and the villagers themselves would procure the medicine from the jeep; would just take the medication right from the jeep. The medical personnel there were not able to control two or three hundred villagers picking at a medical chest filled with outdated, surplus medicinals. And I should add that more often than not, the medications that we used in the medical program were out of date, were surplus, were things that we had no use for in our medical operations for the military.

MODERATOR. Any more comments about MedCap?

STEIGER. Well, the Air Force also had a MedCap program and I participated a half dozen times in this program. It wasn't an officially sanctioned thing, but it was something that the people in our dispensary got together. I could back the doctor up on the fact that the only supplies we were ever allowed to use were the medicines that were outdated and the supplies for which we had no use. Things which had been sitting in Connexes, which are large steel storage boxes, since World War II. And there was no way that you could guarantee there was any kind of sterility, that any time these drugs would serve any purpose at all. We had no means, the majority of the time, to check out whether the people that we were treating were allergic to any of these drugs, and yet they were still given. They were given on a one-time basis. You know you can't treat some of these diseases on a one-time basis. You know you give people pills for two or three days and it's not effective at all. There were only one or two Vietnamese doctors in the province that would work with us. The rest of them refused.

MODERATOR. Where was that?


MODERATOR. That's one of largest Vietnamese hospitals in the country.

STEIGER. Sometimes, the patients would come through, get their pills and they'd go back into the lines. And the Vietnamese interpreter, which we had, was supposed to go through and make sure that these people didn't come back for additional dosages of their medicine. And, on occasion, people would be removed from the MedCap line because the interpreter said they were either VC sympathizers or they didn't need treatment or something like this. We had no way to verify whether they needed treatment or not because none of us spoke Vietnamese and the whole thing was really phony. It didn't serve any purpose at all except for propaganda.

MODERATOR. When I was in Vietnam they had both a polio epidemic at one point, and a cholera epidemic, very severe. Were there any immunization programs? Any of you in MedCap immunization programs?

GROSSO. There were no immunization programs. There was no organized preventive mental health program that had any central authority. Everything was on a village basis. It was an attempt to put a jeep with some kind of personnel into the village. There was no preventive medicine or vaccination programs, to my knowledge.

PANELIST. The way our MedCap program worked is we never hit the same village twice, so I don't think there could have been.

GROSSO. That was my experience, too. As a matter of fact the program was to hit as many different villages as possible. And not to hit the same village again and again. Evidently the propaganda impact could be best utilized by hitting a village once and then moving on to another village.

MODERATOR. Why did they do that? I don't understand.

GROSSO. I don't understand it either.

MODERATOR. Didn't you just say that you had to give in a list or something?

GROSSO. No, the only list was the list kept by the interpreter. The interpreter would make a list of names in a large book. A ledger, that would be submitted to the command when we returned from the village. And I was led to believe that at the end of the month the names registered in this book would be submitted to a higher command as some indication of our pacification work in that area. Whether the villager was treated or not, the mere fact that he had come up to the jeep and sought treatment allowed us to enter his name in the ledger. He then became recipient to American military medicine.

PANELIST. Well, all we did, we just kept the numbers--we didn't even keep a book--and the numbers we brought back to the dispensary were given to the hospital commander.

MODERATOR. What would you say, Joe, is the overall effect of MedCap as far as pacification or meeting the needs of the people?

GROSSO. The conversations that I was able to have with Vietnamese nurses who provided interpretation for us, was that the program had very little effect on community health. Actually, it's my belief that the program had a detrimental effect, because it usually would preclude the possibility of the village people going to the province hospital or some central diagnostic facility where a clear-cut indication for treatment could be obtained. Once the military physician had seen them and done anything, even if it involved the saying of a few words or the giving of an aspirin, the primitive Vietnamese would think that he had received treatment, that he had received the best the earth could offer and after that he wouldn't avail himself of any further help. So I would say that overall the program was detrimental to the community health--to the village health.

PANELIST. Joe, another reason here. I just thought of this. Was the use of Vietnamese interpreters to help you make a diagnosis? Often a Vietnamese could come up and say something to the interpreter and point to his stomach and you would get back, from the interpreter, stomach ache. And that would be your only basis for making a decision on what kind of medication or anything. I mean there's a million things that can be wrong with the stomach and, you had to go on that judgment. You couldn't say to the Vietnamese, "You'll be all right." You had to give them something. Even, even if it was just an aspirin or something because they expected this from the Americans. And I got to a point if I couldn't make a positive diagnosis on something I'd give a shot of worm medicine so I figured I wasn't doing any harm and I might be doing a little good because most of them, especially the children, had worms. So they wouldn't feel slighted anyway. But, many times I couldn't, in conscience, give them something, especially an antibiotic, that might harm them--so I gave them worm medicine.

GALICIA. Insofar as medical coverage for Vietnamese in Saigon, Third Field Hospital, this was the only hospital in the Republic where the nurses wore whites. We had our hospital set up in what was an ex-school.

MODERATOR. Madam Nhu's School as I recall.

GALICIA. Yeah, that's right. It was altered many times over to affect a hospital. The hospital itself was good. It was a very sterile place and the type of treatment that was dished out there was of top-notch variety. I cannot fault the hospital, in that regard. We used to get ARVNs, VCs, sometimes VC prisoners, our own people and civilians. After all, Saigon is a city of three million people now because of the war. It's mushroomed from its 750,000 it was a few years ago because that's where they're coming, from the rural sections. Now these people knew it was a hospital and when they came in, they were actually refused treatment in the emergency room. They might get a cursory going over if they were brought in by our ambulance to the triage areas. The standing order was that if he was in such rough shape that he might die any moment, you just stuck a bottle of V5W, glucose water, in his arm. You use a plasmic spander or something so that then they can be taken to the ARVN hospitals. The standard word for the civilians was that they go to Choi Rhe hospital. I was in Choi Rhe hospital and I know why they didn't want to go there. There were two and three people to the beds.

MODERATOR. We have a picture. Can you show the slide?

GALICIA. The beds were full of cockroaches.

MODERATOR. This is a typical Vietnamese hospital.

GALICIA. Whatever care these people got in Choi Rhe was mostly what their family gave them because they would have the family stay with them. They were very shorthanded. After all, this is a backward country. We all know that. And the number of trained people there, the number of trained personnel is limited. And even when the facilities were available within our hospital that was the standing order. And I know this because I lived there daily.

MODERATOR. (First Slide) Here's a hospital in Ban Me Thout but almost every province hospital looks this way and some are worse and more crowded.

PANELIST. The one at Da Nang was a lot worse.

GALICIA. The one at Choi Rhe was a lot worse also. In contrast to this I'd like to go on to say that, however, where it concerned Vietnamese officials, we took care of the Prime Minister, his family and anybody who had any position or any authority within the Vietnamese government, this kind of thing. You'd know they were there because there were a dozen cars, there was all kinds of personnel to protect these people, and we actively treated these people. This was a time when you would finally see my commanding officer, whom I would prefer to leave nameless. This man was an internist. He was a fully qualified internist, but he never practiced a day of medicine when I was there. His rounds consisted of glad-handing all the VIPs that happened to be in the hospital at any one particular time.

Within the family of the hospital, itself, I remember one occasion in which I overheard one of my techs talking to a girl who worked within the hospital, hospital cleaning, and I heard him say something about me. And he said, "Well, why don't you talk to the Doc, he's a pretty straight guy, maybe he'll do something for you?" I learned that this girl's brother was ill. She lived out in the alley and after all she did work for us; this kind of made her part of the family. You would have thought that at least maybe these people would be treated. I went with this girl later on to her family's home, and I determined that this was a five year old boy who had pneumonia. I went back and I asked if he could be brought in. I was flat out told no. I then asked if I could have the medication to go out and treat him and I was again told no. So I stole the penicillin and went and treated him anyway.

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