Saturday, May 23, 2020

"Bugle Notes" - The Helicopter

You are a 19 year old kid. You are critically wounded and dying in the jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.  It’s November 14, 1965. Your unit is outnumbered 2:1 and the enemy fire is so intense from 100 yards away, that your commanding officer has ordered the Med Evac helicopters to stop coming in. You’re lying there, listening to the enemy machine guns and you know you are not going to get out. Your family is around the world, 12,000 miles away, and you will never see them again.

As the world starts to fade in and out, you know this is the day. Then over the machine gun noise you faintly hear the sound of a helicopter. You look up to see a Huey coming in. But…it doesn’t seem real because no Med Evac markings are on it. Captain Ed Freeman is coming in for you. He’s not a Med Evac, so it’s not his job, but he heard the radio call and decided he’s flying his Huey down into the machine gun fire anyway.

Even after the Med Evacs were ordered not to come, he’s still coming. He drops in and sits there in the machine gun fire, as they load 3 of you at a time on board. Then he flies you up and through the gunfire to the doctors and nurses and safety. And he keeps coming back, 13 more times. Until all the wounded were out. No one knew until the mission was over that he had been hit 4 times in the legs and the left arm. He took 29 of you and your buddies out that day. Some would not have made it without him and his Huey. For gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, Captain Ed “Too Tall” Freeman was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

My father was an Airborne, Ranger Infantry Officer. He knew Ed Freeman. He too, like “Too Tall” Freeman, and all those involved in what was the first major battle of the Vietnam war, the battle of Ia Drang, were members of the 1st Cavalry Division. They deployed to Vietnam in the summer of 1965. This battle is immortalized in the book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” and the movie years later. I remember the time well. I was 10 years old living in Ft. Benning, GA. During this time a new concept of battle was developed called air assault – bringing soldiers directly into combat by helicopter.

It was a hard time for my mother, alone with 4 children under the age of 12, the youngest less than 3 months. She cried often especially when she received word that the husband of another friend had been killed. In our neighborhood during 1965-66, there was not a man around. They were all in Vietnam. At the age of 10, all I knew was that my father was fighting a war in Vietnam. I never seriously thought he would be killed. Why should I? He was invincible in my eyes. Every night, as a family, we ate dinner on TV trays. We watched the iconic Walter Cronkite as he talked about the latest action in Vietnam, the black and white, days old film footage flashing before us. We watched, hoping beyond hope, for a glimpse of my father, our eyes glued to the screen. We thought we saw him once.

As I reflected on this story, I wonder if I could have done what “Too Tall” did? What caused him, or for that matter, anyone, to do such selfless acts of bravery at incredible risks to themselves? I began to see a connection between what he did and what each of you do as physicians. The connection is a special bond that exists between those who have experienced shared hardships in pursuit of a common purpose – in our case, years of arduous preparation in medical school, followed by more years of demanding residency training. There are few things that bond people more closely than shared hardships for a common cause. I experienced this at West Point, during my residency, and during the first Gulf War while deployed on the Iraqi border in support of the 101st Air Assault Division. This bond also results from being part of something bigger than yourself. For “Too Tall” and my father, it was the identity they had with the 1st Cav Division and the resulting sense of duty to their fellow soldiers and their country. There is an unwritten code among soldiers – NO ONE left behind! From these bonds, relationships are made, strengthened, and invariably trust grows.

 I believe the most important part of being a physician (or any health care provider) is not the clinical acumen possessed (as important as that is) rather the relationships developed and the surrounding influences and qualities produced by those relationships. A culture built on such relationships is one of trust, respect, and caring. This is a culture which allows the best in every person to be realized. In medicine, it translates to every patient getting the best care possible, every time. Thank you for being willing to be part of something bigger than yourself through which you can do even greater things and make a bigger difference.

Andy Lamb, MD

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