Fifty-three years ago I had been recently graduated from medical school in Memphis and had returned to my home town of Knoxville to serve in an internship prior to entering residency to specialize in internal medicine. While in Memphis I met the loveliest young woman I had ever encountered. She had agreed to share the rest of her life with me and following our marriage she transferred to nursing school in Knoxville. My life was filled with joy. I had finished medical school, the woman of my dreams was my wife, and my career lay ahead of me. Then I received a letter.
My local draft board had written to inform me that my friends and neighbors had selected me to represent our country in the Armed Forces. It was additionally explained that I had two choices: If I would volunteer to serve I would be commissioned as a captain in the Medical Corps. If I chose not to volunteer I would be drafted as a private with a random assignment of duty following basic training. The logical choice seem evident. However, since the Vietnam War was raging, the prospect of interrupting my medical training and leaving my new bride was dismal.
Of course, I “volunteered” and awaited notice of my fate from the Pentagon. To my delight, I was informed that I would be stationed at the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Nashville. I began service on July 1, and after indoctrination at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, I arrived in Nashville to begin my two years of service. My wife soon joined me there after completing nursing school and we were happily together again. The following March, I was informed that I would be transferred to the induction station in Roanoke, Virginia. Our first daughter joined us there in August.
While serving in the induction stations I encountered volunteers and potential draftees from all walks of life: poor and rich; rural and urban; high school drop outs and college graduates. As a side note, of all potential inductees I disqualified one-third for medical reasons. One-third were disqualified for criminal, moral, or intellectual reasons. Only one-third of the candidates were found qualified to enter military service. I became especially aware of one inequality. Many of the men I examined from poor rural areas had no records to confirm any disqualifying condition they may have had, such as asthma, which might not be present at the time of the induction physical; however many students in elite universities came armed with letters from their personal physician documenting various maladies guaranteed to have them disqualified for service.
Fast forward to 2001. At that time I had partially retired from full-time medical practice. Following the events of Sept. 11, I returned on a part-time basis as a contract physician to the induction station in Knoxville to assist in processing the many volunteers for military service. About 12 years ago, my wife and I were lured to Johnson City by the siren call of three grandchildren. An interesting note regarding retirement: While it frequently is a dream to cease working and pursue leisurely activities, I found it difficult just walk away from a lifetime spent in learning to be a physician.
Therefore, about eight years ago I became a contract physician to the Veterans Administration, providing examinations and opinions regarding veterans’ medical conditions who are applying for compensation and pensions for maladies resulting from their military service. About once a year, I encounter a veteran whom I examined 50 years ago. I have their record in front of me, so I have a little light interaction by saying, “You have changed since we met 50 years ago.” Then I explain how I knew we met long ago. I often wonder how many of the men and women I examined then did not return alive from Vietnam.
It has been my honor and privilege to interact with hundreds of veterans while performing these exams for the Veterans Administration. I have seen veterans from World War II — a man who was on Utah Beach on D-Day — Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf actions. I am awed by the stories they tell me of the hardships and misery they experienced in the service of our country. They have spoken of the bitter cold in Korea without adequate clothing; the jungle hell of Vietnam; the horrors of the Persian Gulf wars. I see the results of shrapnel injuries, gunshot wounds, back and knee injuries from parachute jumps, and I can sense the psychological trauma they continue to undergo from the horrific sights they can never forget.
I am proud to have served on active duty as an officer in the Armed Forces of our country. However, as I frequently say to the veterans I examine who have served in combat in these terrible conflicts, “You are the veterans whom I most respect for your service to our country.”
At this time of Memorial Day, please join me in thanking not only all who have served, but especially those veterans who put their lives on the line and either gave their lives or suffered terrible injury so that we might enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Jo Sweet of Johnson City is a semi-retired internal medicine physician who served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps.