When not manning a machine gun, Lyle Parker’s job was to keep the men of the 188th Assault Helicopter Company safe and sane.
LZ SALLY (Empire News, June 1968) — Lyle A. Parker has a guitar and enjoys strumming at the officers club tent. He plays a mean game of volleyball. He flies missions as a machine-gunner and is learning to be a pilot. All of which helps him in his job, for Captain Parker is a new breed of doctor, a helicopter flight surgeon.
Flying choppers is a rugged job and pilots who must daily slip their unwieldy machines into the very heart of the enemy are pressed to the limits of human courage and endurance. Unlike airplanes, choppers require constant attention, and the tension of flying on routine missions is physically and mentally straining. Add to that the dangers of “hot LZs,” where the enemy is mortaring the landing zones and firing automatic weapons at the aerial invaders and the stamina requirements reach beyond human limits.
It is not uncommon for pilots flying in Vietnam to put in 120 or more hours a month under this kind of combat strain. Parker’s job is to see that these chopper crews are ready for duty and to bring them medical help if they are hit in the field. He holds a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service during the Khe Sanh breakout in I Corps, about 20 miles from the DMZ, where he used old railroad rails and ties to build a temporary hospital for casualties during a mortar attack in March.
The Air Force has had flight surgeons for decades, doctors who understand the effects of anoxia at high altitude and the impact of G-forces on jet pilots. The Army, however, did not feel a need for medical experts in this field until it began developing its own aviation brand in the late 1950s. And not until the introduction of the chopper into the Vietnam conflict did the presence of a flight surgeon with each chopper company become vital.
Parker, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of California College of Medicine, is assigned to the 188th Assault Helicopter Company, now part of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). He holds forth at the sandbagged aid bunker at LZ Sally, a small chopper base north of Hue. But his work takes him strange places.
“My sick call is held in the [officers] club tent at night where the pilots unwind,” he admits. “It helps to be friends and to watch the men to see if—and when—they start to crack. I’m more like a company mascot.”
Strumming his guitar and chatting with the pilots, “Doc” Parker, as he is called, despite his youth, keeps a sharp eye for the unusual. “My job is more psychology than anything else. To give men support when needed. When a man needs help, I must be perceptive enough to see it.”
During a combat assault, the pilot is responsible for not only his own chopper load of troops and crew but also the success of the men who are being put on enemy ground. They depend on choppers for resupply, suppressive rocket and machine gun fire—and for extraction. Chopper formations are exactingly tight and planned. Timing is critical. Skittish choppers can ram others, go crazy in the vertigo blindness of swirls of dust stirred up by their propellers and put men into the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I was talking to one man in the club,” the young physician recalls, “and I noticed he was nervous. I drove him in my ambulance around the base so he could talk to me alone. He was emotionally uptight. He had just received divorce papers from his wife. I got him to cry for 20 minutes and he is OK now.”
His cases are not always so easy to solve.
Often he flies as a door gunner on a Slick (a troop-carrying chopper) and has flown on even more dangerous missions aboard assault gunships. He is learning to pilot choppers himself, having put in 75 hours behind the stick of a Huey at the time of this interview.
“I mainly go out flying for psychology reasons: to know what it is like. When I say a man should not fly because he is tired or sick, I can say it with assurance, because I know what flying the choppers is like. The men listen and respect my decision.”
(One surgeon found himself aboard a chopper where both the pilot and co-pilot were badly wounded. He was able to take the ship off the landing zone and get back to base, saving the ship and its men.)
Vertigo is the strange phenomenon that causes pilots to lose their sense of where level ground is. In a dusty landing near Kontum (in the central highlands of Vietnam) a pilot developed vertigo and, believing he was not level, banked sharply to his right. The result was a collision with another chopper, a gunner was killed and a pilot’s leg was sliced off by the chopper’s whirling blades.
Erratic flying behavior can be a sign that a pilot is tiring. He tends to not believe his instruments, reacts too late and becomes a menace. That’s when Parker steps in.
Originally desiring to be a paleontologist, Parker graduated from UCLA in 1962 with a major in zoology. But he decided to go for a career in medicine instead. He took his internship at St. Mary’s hospital in Long Beach, Calif., and now claims Long Beach as his home, although he was born in Altadena.
Called in August of 1967 to serve his Army tour, he was sent to Fort Rucker, Ala., site of the Aviation Medical Center as well as the Army’s crew training facility for helicopter pilots heading to Vietnam.
Technically assigned to the 154th Medical Detachment, Doc Parker spends his time with the men of the 188th Assault Company, the “Black Widows.”
His bunker is made of sandbags and old ammunition boxes filled with dirt. Old railroad rails and ties form the roof. “The bunker can be used to treat wounded, if necessary, although most are flown direct to bigger hospitals. I have a microscope here I use for blood counts, malaria, VD, etc. I save time and paperwork by doing the lab work here.”
The youthful, blond doctor laughs about his “only operation.” The company dog, Web, was wounded in a mortar attack on the camp. Doc Parker operated and saved him. “I had no anesthesia so I used thorazine so he had no cares while [I was] holding him down.” Medical prognosis: “The dog is nuts.”
“Really, my main medical problems are the Rhea sisters— diarrhea, gonorrhea, and pyorrhea,” he jokes. He established a medical visit system (called Medcap) at a nearby Vietnamese army base and a local school for Vietnamese children.
The Black Widows were stationed at Dau Tieng, north of Saigon, when Parker joined them. They lived in a special forces camp there. “After Christmas , Dau Tieng was hit every day for 37 days by the Viet Cong with mortars, rockets. Some people got so used to it they wouldn’t even get out of bed; just slept through the attacks.” Parker received a mortar fragment in his nose during one of the attacks.
He was new and volunteered to go on combat missions as a door gunner. A friend was hit and lost an eye. Another of the company’s choppers was downed by VC .50-caliber machine gun fire. “Actually, we took few casualties for as much as we got shot at,” muses Parker. “I wonder how the VC can miss when they shoot so much?”
During one of the mortar attacks, a mortar round hit his chopper as it was lifting off from the Dau Tieng pad. “It went up about 70 feet,” Parker recalls, “but could not gain forward speed. The tail boom broke off and the ship slammed into the ground on its side.”
Parker recognized the danger: The chopper would probably burst into flames. Dashing from the cover of a bunker safely built amid some rubber trees, he pulled the pilot out of the wreckage. The pilot had a broken leg. For his bravery under mortar fire, Doc was awarded the Bronze Star with V device, for valor.
Parker’s wife, Sandra, whom he met during his internship when she was a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, visited him in Saigon—right at the time of the Tet (lunar New Year) attacks. She had come to Saigon on her own. “I hadn’t received any letters for 3½ weeks,” Parker said. “She called me to say she had arrived—and would not go home.” The next day, the Viet Cong opened their Tet assault on Saigon and 35 other major towns and cities. Parker managed to fly in from Dau Tieng, but it was the second day of the VC assault before he could borrow a jeep, flak jacket and helmet and get to where she was staying with the wife of another surgeon. He took her to Tan Son Nhut airbase, where she waited two weeks before a flight could evacuate her to safety in Bangkok, which naturally, Parker had chosen for his seven-day R&R leave.
Parker is proud of his pilots. “They’re more fun, more dynamic, more intelligent than most people,” he declares. “These kids—their average age is 21 and most have more than a thousand hours in the air—are powerhouses who can take a lot of punishment.”
And he keeps them on their toes. Originally the men got plenty of healthy exercise building bunkers, but now Parker has built them a volleyball court and he mixes it with the men in the daily rugged sets.
“We didn’t know how much a pilot could take,” declared the commander of the 1st Aviation Brigade, “but we’re finding out, thanks to men like Parker who are developing the specialized training needed for Army flight surgeons.”
And Parker has discovered that his men can take the roughest flying in the world—and beat the estimates, which only a few years ago said a pilot couldn’t stand more than 80 hours a month at stick, even in peacetime flying. Parker’s pilots hit 120 to 140 hours—and in combat.
The little guy with the guitar and the ribald songs at the club tent who occasionally rides the gunner’s seat in a Huey chopper is tough, too.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.