An ambulance marked with a red cross waits by an open field where a helicopter is landing.

Remembering Vietnam—Tom Berger

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is pleased to collaborate with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to present the panel discussion “Remembering Vietnam: Medics, Corpsmen, and Nurses” on April 26, 2018 at the McGowan Theater in Washington, DC, livestreamed and archived on YouTube, in association with the National Archives exhibition Remembering Vietnam. Panel members include Major General (Retired) Donna Barbisch, Colonel (Retired) Merle Snyder, Colonel (Retired) Don Hall, and Tom Berger, PhD. The discussion will be moderated by Dale Smith, PhD, Professor of History at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a member of NLM Board of Regents. Today we hear from Dr. Tom Berger, a Navy Corpsman with the 3rd Marine Corps Division 3rd Recon Battalion in Vietnam during 1966–68, including the siege at Khe Sanh. After decades in academia, Dr. Berger now serves with The Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself and your experiences in Vietnam.

An older man speaks at a podium in front of an american flag.
Tom Berger speaks at the National Press Club, 2010
Courtesy Mokie Porter, VVA

Tom Berger: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1945, the first son of two WWII vets (Mom was a Navy surgical nurse and Dad was a Pacific Marine wounded at Tarawa), but grew up in Chicago until 1958 when the family moved back to KC. I was drafted in 1965, but joined the U.S. Navy. After boot camp and hospital corps school at Great Lakes, Illinois, I was detailed to Norfolk, Virginia, where I received orders to join the 3rd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, going directly to 8404 Field Medical Service School (FMSS) for field training, before deployment to the Marine Corps 3rd Battalion 3rd Recon unit in South Vietnam.

CN: How did you become a Navy Corpsman?

TB: Prior to being drafted, I was a pre-med major in college. So on the day of my enlistment in the Navy, I ran into a high school buddy who was just separating from the service, having served as a Navy corpsman at Memphis Naval Air Station for two years. That sounded good to me, so I requested Hospital Corps school. Later that same day I learned that Navy corpsmen also serve with Marine combat units…

Two people in uniform sit in a field wither their backs to the camera, one has his arm around the other's shoulder.
Brothers Forever, 1970
Courtesy Bernie Edelman

CN: What kind of training did you receive in preparation for deployment to Vietnam? Did you feel adequately prepared when you arrived in country?

TB: FMSS provided specialized training in advanced emergency medicine and the fundamentals of Marine Corps life, while emphasizing physical conditioning, small arms familiarity, and basic battlefield tactics; in other words, training for the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) familiarizes Navy corpsmen with the Marines. However, many of the medical training films were World War II vintage, so I didn’t feel as adequately prepared as I would have liked.

CN: What unique challenges did you face as a corpsman in Vietnam, and how did you deal with them?

TB: The challenges depended on the mission at hand (i.e., recon mission or aid station duty). Treating wounded in the midst of a firefight was always a challenge, as was triage at an I-Corps battalion aid station under fire. In those challenging situations, I just put my mind on “auto pilot” and did what I had to do. Several missions stand out in my memory, including a “snoop and poop” mission into Laos where the recon team and the chopper inserting us had no identification (as if that would fool anyone on the other side), as well as the January 1968 rocket and artillery attack on Khe Sanh’s ammo dump—lots of flechettes flying around…

An ambulance marked with a red cross waits by an open field where a helicopter is landing.
Marine helicopter transporting wounded, 1966
National Library of Medicine #101405769

CN: How has your perspective on your Vietnam experience changed over the years since the war?

TB: I have become much more of a skeptical cynic regarding the use of our nation’s military.

CN: Please share any closing thoughts about the National Archives Remembering Vietnam exhibition and this event and the importance of remembering Vietnam as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in that war.

TB: Every one of the images in the exhibition hits me, both personally and professionally. I feel extremely proud to have been asked to participate in this National Archives event, especially with the other distinguished members of this panel, and in particular, to remember that 50 years ago this very month, almost to the day, I was medevac’d to the USS Sanctuary. In addition, It’s extremely important that we commemorate the 50th anniversary as a way to honor those who served in America’s most unpopular war.

A large ship, white, marked with a red cross, surrounded by military ships.
USS Sanctuary Hospital Ship in Wakayama Harbor, ca.1966
National Library of Medicine #101405477

Watch the panel discussion “Remembering Vietnam: Medics, Corpsmen, and Nurses” on April 26, 2018 live on YouTube.

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