Martin Burns - Vietnam War Memorial: Names

Remembering Vietnam, 50 Years Later: One Dentist’s Story

by Fred Quarnstrom, D.D.S.

It is Veterans Day again and is the 50th anniversary year of my time in Vietnam.

I joined the Naval Reserves while in dental school in 1960. I would have a job the day I graduated. I could use the officer’s club where drinks were a quarter and it was an impressive place to take a date. The Navy did not pay any tuition, books or expenses, nor was there any monthly pay. There were no monthly meetings. There was no war in Vietnam. 

One month prior to graduation I got orders to the Fleet Marine Force at Camp Pendleton. I had no hint that the Navy provided dentists to the Marines. I had assumed that the worst that could happen to me was to be a dentist on a very large ship. This was April 1964. I reported for duty and did dentistry on the Marines in advanced combat training and the staff at Camp Pendleton. I never went to the field or did any military training.

After 9 months I got transferred to a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion NMCB-10, a Seabee Battalion. I turned in my Marine greens and boots. I went to the Seabees and picked up my Seabee greens and boots. I was now in a battalion and went where the battalion went. The next week I was back at Camp Pendleton, but I was now in the field learning how to fire machine guns and bazookas, and throw hand grenades.

We next flew to Okinawa where the battalion was scheduled to do public works projects, hangars, water systems, etcetera. At this time, had you asked me where Vietnam was I would have had trouble placing it on a map. We had heard of the expulsion of the French a few years earlier after their fall at Dien Bien Phu. There were a few American advisers that made the news every so often assisting the South Vietnamese Army.

The battalion was about 600 men 12 of which were officers. There were a variety of skills from the building trades, truck drivers, dozer and crane operators along with mechanics, medical types, clerks, engineers, etcetera.

Six weeks later we loaded our battalion onto four ships and left for Chu Lai, Vietnam. On May 5th, 1965 we made the first across the beach amphibious assault into Vietnam at Chu Lai. We went ashore with three battalions of Marines who were to secure the area. My dental clinic was a tent. A foot treadle powered my drill. I had no suction or compressed air. We used large ear syringes to suck saliva and blow chips. I had no x-ray. About all I could do were extractions and root canals, guessing at how long the root was.

Our first job was to build an airfield to be used in case the airfield in Da Nang was overrun. It was the only airfield for about 200 miles and was surrounded by mountains and Vietcong. Three weeks and three days after going ashore, we had an operating airfield. A-4 fighter-bombers would land using arresting gear and take off with the rocket assist of JATO. Often by the time they had retracted their landing gear they were going into a bomb run. The Vietcong were within six miles of the field.

As a dentist I was pressed into a number of jobs. I was the photographic officer. We had monthly reports that had to include photos of the progress on the airfield that had to be sent back to Hawaii and the Command of the Seabees. I went with a squad of Marines and our medical personnel and did people-to-people dentistry and medicine in villages within about 15 miles of our camp, well outside of our defensive perimeter. This was very primitive. I could only do extractions, often with no local anesthesia. We could only be in a village for 60 to 90 minutes. It took about that long for the Vietcong to know we were there. We did this every couple of weeks. I was the only dentist they would ever see. The next closest was 200 miles away. Most Vietnamese were born lived and died within maybe a 20-mile radius.

I got involved in several medical evacuation flights of wounded Marines. This was well outside of my training as a dentist, but you did what you had to.

I was a staff officer of a construction battalion as opposed to a line officer in the Navy. I was classed as a noncombatant but that did not keep us from coming under attack a couple of times. The Seabee Battalion was there to support the Marine effort by building an airfield and eventually hardback tents and helicopter pads, fuel farms, water systems, etcetera.

However, when in a combat area, you are always armed just in case. We were not in any way at as much risk as the Marine squads that went into the jungles and rice paddies on patrols. We were support forces. We were in a forward combat situation, but admittedly in a safer position than many of the Marines.

When we came home, the war was starting to become very unpopular. We were told to not wear our uniforms when traveling. Prior to leaving we could fly space available on most airlines for half price if we were in uniform. Suddenly we were told to not wear them. I was told once I was in my dental practice it would be wise to not tell patients I had been in Vietnam. The ribbons and medals that I earned never caught up to me. Forty-five years later I wrote the Navy and told them I would like to have them. I was told all the records had been burned during a St. Louis records center fire. I eventually wrote my senator and they managed to get them for me. Maybe my grandchildren will get a kick out of them some day.

Was I a hero? Absolutely not. I just did the job I was assigned. The heroes were the guys in day-to-day combat. The heroes were those who slogged through the jungle and rice paddies every day seeing their friends wounded or die. The heroes were the guys who did not come home. We were all advised it would be better to not tell people we had been there.

I have dental patients who were in heavy combat who are still having nightmares 40 years later. They are still seeing psychiatrists at the VA because of their PTSD. They have had their VA benefits cut several times in austerity moves by various administrations.

In my old age, I have become somewhat militant. Yes, I was there and I did what was asked of me. I am not a hero, but I am proud of serving. I do not believe we had a valid reason for getting involved in Vietnam – nor should we be in Iraq or Afghanistan. You need to have a very good reason to squander a country’s resources and its youth.

The draft was fair in Vietnam. All young men had an equal chance of having to serve. There were exceptions; attending college could get you deferred. If you got into the reserves you would not go. Many left and went to Canada. You only had to be in Vietnam for one 1-year tour.

The present system puts the bulk of the burden to serve on the poor who volunteer often because they can find no other job. The reserves are no longer a safe exception. Our forces are going back on multiple deployments. Many are on their fourth or fifth deployment. Many end up with brain pathology not unlike what is seen in boxers and professional football players. This leads to early dementia, an Alzheimer’s-type affliction. This comes from the IEDs and stun grenade concussions. These shocks to the brain result in the formation of knots of cell that form around the neurons. The troops come home and are unable to do simple tasks like balancing checkbooks or having interpersonal relationships. There is no known cure for this change.

From a paper by Lt Col George Goodson, USMC (Ret): “A veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America’ for an amount of up to and including his or her life. That is HONOR, and there are too many people in this country who did not, nor no longer understand that.”

Fred Quarnstrom graduated from the University of Washington Dental School in 1964 and started his dental career as a dental officer in the United States Naval reserves for 6 years including 2 years on active duty. He was attached to the Marine Corps making the first opposed amphibious assault at Chu Lai Vietnam in 1965 with MCB-10 that build a functioning airfield in 3 weeks. As a dental officer, he treated American forces, Vietnamese villagers and serving on several medical evacuations of wounded Marines. He has been a private practice general dental practitioner on Beacon Hill in Seattle for the last 49 years.

Featured image: “Vietnam War Memorial: Names” by Martin Burns, CC License

4 thoughts on “Remembering Vietnam, 50 Years Later: One Dentist’s Story”

  1. With due respect for our tremendous sacrifices and remembering and mourning the thousands and thousands of dead and wounded Americans, I fear that history will find that the ones we should have been supporting instead of fighting were the Vietnamese on the other side trying to free their country from foreign domination as America did when she broke her ties to England. Sadly in the 1960s and 1970s the American troops in Vietnam and in the South China Sea were tragic pawns cruelly thrown into combat for no noble cause. History could have been quite different with honest politicians on the American side: Eisenhower and Dulles made a choice to put the French back into ‘Indochina’ instead of supporting our Vietnamese allies who fought against the Imperial Japanese army. Those we supported were Vichy French who remained loyal to Vichy France during WWII and collaborated with Nazis Germany. How ironic that in our fight for independence in 1776 it was Lafayette from France who came to support us, while we in Vietnam, were on the opposite side.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I agree with much of what you stated. I did a presentation at the Museum of Flight that included a lot of the history of Vietnam back several thousand years. It included a discussion of the 1920s to the 1970s, how we orchestrated the post WW2 history and where we dropped that ball and our rather clumsy efforts to influence the country. Our entry in 1965 was inevitable. Our exit from Vietnam and the America we troops came home to was at best rude. How civilians could become targets? It was the TV war; we saw combat every night on the evening news. When our troops came home they were not well received.

      I was asked by a foreign friend if it did not bother me to see the protests of the war I had been in. My answer was no. It was proof that our Constitution was still in effect, freedom of speech existed. I had sworn to protect and defend that Constitution.

      PTSD still exists for many of those vets. These guys put their lives on the line and their life on hold for several years. It was possible to avoid the war and many did just that. It is just in the last 10 years that they have received the care they deserved by the VA system.

      If you wish to see the presentation, it is on youtube. The video is bad but you can hear my comments. goto https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghrQOpbBiX8&feature=youtu.be

      The study of the history of this part of the would could take years and probably lead to a PhD it is a very complex area.

  2. Thanks for your note. I watched your presentation on Youtube, however, I think we are talking past each other: for example, in your talk you mention that you think you and other Americans stationed in the armed forces in Vietnam were defending the Americans back home. Actually that is not the case; the Vietnamese never represented a threat of any kind to Americans. On one point of fact: the American government under Eisenhower and Dulles broke international agreements in aborting the national Vietnamese elections agreed to in Geneva. Had those elections been supported by the US as the US government had signed agreements to support, think of the lives lost and disruption that would have been avoided. I think as Americans we all really need to be honest in our assessment of this history or we will never learn from it. Can’t you and I agree that the US intervention was wrong, not just a mistake, but wrong?