It was 1967 and I was a medical supply sergeant with the 3rd Tactical Dispensary, stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. Our facility had only six beds and a small medical staff. We took care of the minor illnesses and injuries of base personnel. The more serious medical problems were routed to larger medical facilities at Tan Son Nhut or Long Binh.
The dispensary commander saw that there was a medical need to help children who had been orphaned or injured in the war. His attention was focused on the Co Nhi Vien Ho Nai Orphanage in the town of Bien Hoa, and another unnamed orphanage on the outskirts of the town. His goal was to establish a medical team of volunteers that would seek out and correct unsanitary conditions, as well as conduct sick call to treat minor injuries and any illness the children might have contracted. The commander wanted the sick call to be on a Sunday, when most U.S. personnel were off duty, and during the daylight hours when it was safer to venture out from the security of the base. We soon had a team of eager volunteers who included a doctor, several medics, an ambulance driver and a sanitary engineer. I handled the medical supplies.
On our first visit to the orphanages, we found the sanitary conditions to be very bad. The children looked healthy enough, except for a few who showed signs of malnutrition. Their straw sleeping mats were loaded with lice. The latrine, which was nothing more than a hole in the floor of one of the buildings, offered no privacy and smelled horrible. There were no showers or tubs to bathe in. Nor could we find a sufficient supply of hand soap for the children to use.
We knew that as soon as we had conducted the sick call we would have to turn our attention to sanitation conditions and hygiene. It was urgent for us to do what we could to prevent the spread of disease. High on our priority list were fumigating the mats and then coming up with some idea for a new latrine. Luckily, a few fellows in the team knew how to use a hammer and saw. We quickly constructed an outhouse out of plywood, which not only looked great, but met with the approval of our sanitary engineer and the nuns who operated the orphanages. Everyone was eager to start using it.
The nuns welcomed us with open arms, and always had bottles of cool Coca-Cola to pass around to our team. We had no idea where they got them, and we never asked. It was common knowledge that all the shipments of Coca-Cola and American beer arriving by ship were hijacked as soon as they were deposited on the docks. The black market in the area had plenty of the sodas to sell on the Saigon streets, while for a long time the military bases had none. So we were delighted to find some to quench our thirst on those hot days when we visited the orphanages. When Bien Hoa finally started getting both beverages on base, the lines were unbelievable. But that’s another story.
The nuns spoke French and very little English. Again, luck would have it that we had a medic on the team who was from Canada and spoke just enough French to get us by. At our first encounter with the children, we found them to be a bit shy, but they warmed up quickly when we started passing out American candy. Later we brought in soap to clean up the children, but it wasn’t enough to keep them supplied for very long.
We thought it would be a good idea to get our families back in the States interested in a project to help the children in the orphanages. Perhaps through a church function, items such as hand soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste could be collected and sent to us. I wrote to my wife and asked her to present our needs to her church. The congregation responded by sending cases of items the children needed on a continuing basis. We sent pictures back to the church congregation to show them how they were helping the children at the orphanages.
After the soap and toothpaste started arriving from the States, we procured a large tub and set out to wash the children and show them how to keep themselves clean. Each week we alternated between the two orphanages and conducted bath call first, then sick call. We always had time to play some baseball afterwards. The kids loved the game and beat us most of the time because they could run faster. Later we came across some angle iron from a scrap heap on the base, and we used that junk to build a snazzy looking swing set.
One of the sick calls fell on Easter Sunday. This particular Sunday we visited the unnamed orphanage in the boondocks. Usually we felt safe in venturing out beyond the base, but we always took a few M-16s with us as a precaution. My wife had sent egg coloring kits because I had mentioned that we were thinking of doing an Easter egg hunt to see what the results would be. We colored the eggs, and the Easter egg hunt was a tremendous hit. I can’t remember a more enjoyable Easter. At first they thought it was strange that we were hiding all those pretty eggs. But they soon caught on that it was a game.
While we were conducting sick call that day, the sisters suddenly started rounding up the children and frantically herding them into the main building. “What the heck is going on?” we wondered as we grabbed our M-16s and followed. We peeked through the window, and off in the distance we spotted a column of tanks in a cloud of dust heading our way.
Fear gripped us as we shouted to each other, “Who are they?” We didn’t know what kind of fight or flight we were in for. We were definitely not equipped to take on enemy tanks. As they drew closer, they stopped short of our makeshift playground. The hatches opened, and the crewmen started waving. “What a relief,” we sighed as we wiped the sweat off our foreheads. It turned out that they were the good guys of the South Vietnamese army.
From this experience with the 3rd Tactical Dispensary in Vietnam, I learned that a good life isn’t based on one large, heroic deed, but many small acts of kindness. My unit’s greatest reward was seeing the smiling faces of healthier, happier children and the satisfaction of knowing that our off-duty time was well spent. Drinking a cool soda before heading back to the base was a small but much appreciated reward, too.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.