View from the hospital: the Vietnam War comes home

During the Vietnam War, hospitals stateside saw an influx of injured G.I.s who made it off the battlefield and survived the overseas flight(s) required to get medical attention at home. Not surprisingly, a few PBS SoCal viewers shared stories with us about encounters at American hospitals.

Kelly AFB
Main gate of Kelly Air Force Base via the National Archives

“I was in Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas in the fall and winter of 1967. I had joined the National Guard before the government deployed the National Guard or Reserves so it was a legal form of draft dodging. Even then, I didn’t delude myself. By this time we had all heard about the booby traps and landmines and life-altering injuries, and the body count was multiplying every day. One weekend, we had light gardening duty near Kelly Air Force Base and its extensive medical facilities. While we were on our knees pulling weeds, we saw two groups of smiling patients out for a walk. They were apparently segregated by injury. The first group was made up of five kids our age who were all blind. The second group was missing hands and arms, but the guys were still ambulatory. The strong surge of guilt I felt was easily put down: who wanted to wind up like that? Yet it is a sight and moment that has haunted me all my life. Nobody who was gardening there commented about what we saw. Not a word.”

-Benjamin F.

Daniel Freeman Hospital
Daniel Freeman Hospital, Image via Inglewood Public Library

“I was working as a clerk in what we then called ‘Personnel’ at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood. One day a young man came into the office and asked to complete an employment application for an orderly position. The form asked for “Duties” and “Reason for Leaving”. He responded to the first question with “Killing people” and the second “Didn’t like killing people.” Up until that moment, the Vietnam War was a long way away, and I hadn’t really thought much about it. His simple and truthful statements gave me goosebumps then and still do as I write this. He brought the War home to me in California. We didn’t hire him, but I have often wondered what happened to him.”

-Sally A.

Photo of Naval Hospital Oakland (which opened in 1968 at the site of Oak Knoll). Image via militarymuseum.org

“At the height of the Viet Nam war I was a student at UC Berkeley and a member of a little sister organization to the NROTC on campus. One day they asked us to visit the patients at Oak Knoll hospital in the area. I was sitting by a young man’s bedside talking with him. He had dropped out of school and been drafted. All at once I noticed that he didn’t have legs under his sheet. I very quickly excused myself for a minute to get a drink of water as I thought my fainting wouldn’t help him a bit. I realized that for him the penalty of dropping out of school (he was 20 years old) meant a legless future.”

-Connie E.