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Richard Bergstrom, of Fort Dodge

Bergstrom applies lessons in the TRMC operating room

November 7, 2012
By HANS MADSEN, , Messenger News

When orthopedic surgeon Richard Bergstrom operates on a patient at Trinity Regional Medical Center the background noise is a lot quieter and much more peaceful than what he got to listen to during his tour of duty as an Army surgeon in Vietnam.

"They had a 105 mm artillery battery 500 yards away," he said. "It sounded like a train going through the roof."

Like many other things, it just became part of the day.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Dr. Richard Bergstrom, an Orthopeadic surgeon practicing at Trinty Regional Medical Center, poses with a model of the human skeleton. Bergstrom served as a surgeon in Vietnam from December 1968 to September 1969.

"You got used to it," he said.

Bergstrom's journey to the 22nd Surgical Hospital at Phu Bai began with ROTC training while a student at Iowa State.

"I wanted to have a backup in case I didn't make it to medical school," he said.

He went to medical school at the University of Iowa and then served an internship in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He got his orders for Vietnam on Aug. 1, 1968.

"I got one month of basic medical officers training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas," he said, "Then 14 weeks of OTJ - on the job training - at Brook Army Medical Center."

He left for Vietnam on Dec. 21, 1968.

Each leg of the journey found him on less and less comfortable means of transportation. He started out on commercial airliners, the last leg of his journey was a ride hitched on a truck.

He spent Christmas Eve with a friend.

"I ran into a guy I knew from my internship," he said. "We watched fireworks and artillery in the bay. It didn't seem like Christmas at all."

He arrived at the 22nd Surgical Hospital on Dec. 26.

"I was assigned a hooch," he said. "It's a house with plywood shutters and walls."

He said that troops would often personalize the buildings with homemade signs. They also built up sandbags against the walls and on the roof to protect against frequent mortar attacks.

The hooches were also home to uninvited roommates. Rats were a common problem.

To this day, Bergstrom can tell exactly what he did on any given day, he still has several volumes of his carefully kept diaries from the time.

While no two days were ever the same, they all seemed busy.

"Saw seven patients before dinner, debrided a wound on a 3-year-old baby, debrided a leg wound, saw six patients, went to dinner, debrided a gunshot wound." would all be typical entries.

Some were memories of a chance to escape for a bit.

"Moe showed some skin flicks," read one entry.

Many who served in Vietnam developed a fatalistic response to it. Bergstrom observed this himself.

"Everybody would say it don't mean nothing or there it is," he said. "It could be we were out of chow or you lost your leg, all of it was don't mean nothing."

Bergstrom saw a lot of the carnage that resulted from combat.

"John Wayne died in three of his movies," he said. "It's a clean instant death in them."

What he worked on was anything but.

"It was a terrible price for our young people to pay," he said.

In June he was reassigned to the hospital ship Repose. In August, the 85th Evacuation Hospital.

"Everyone counted their time," he said. "Whenever you met somebody the first two questions were where are you from and how long have you been in country."

He said the 300-day and the 200-day marks were always noted. Once a soldier got below 100 they got a new nickname.

"You were a two-digit midget," he said.

While he was able to call home, he preferred instead to write letters.

"It exaggerated how far away you were," he said.

While at the 85th, he took care of Marines and members of the First Airborne.

He remembers one case sadly.

"We had a young Marine who was going on R and R staying with us," he said. "A rocket hit his hooch."

He said it became a triple amputee case with a chest wound.

"He died on the table," he said. "His wife was already in Honolulu. Some officer had to tell her."

Bergstrom's time in Vietnam was cut short by bad news from home.

"I had a telegram," he said, "Father in hospital. Not expected to make it."

They got him home quickly.

"I was literally huddled onto a plane," he said. "I threw all my stuff into an AWOL bag."

He finished his tour at Fort Riley, Kan..

Years after his time in the service, a medical student asked him how he could justify his service.

"I was never ashamed of what I did or being there," he said. "I was taking care of people who had little choice."

Bergstrom, now 71, still practices orthopedic surgery.

He said that his combat experience still helps him. He's able to deal with extreme trauma on a calm level and he does appreciate the change in the type of cases seen.

"In normal life you don't have a high percentage of gunshot and artillery wounds," he said.



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