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It Can Only Happen in Vietnam
Posted by Dr. Willis
I love getting to know my patients. I’m lucky to provide dental care to a number of truly remarkable individuals and families. I’m humbled when I learn about the accomplishments of many of them. I want to share a glimpse into the life of two such members of our patient family, Doug
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“IT COULD ONLY HAPPEN IN VIETNAM”
By Douglas Moore
Those of us who served in Vietnam will remember an old saying “It could only happen in Vietnam.” That either meant something good or it could mean something went terribly wrong. Let me tell you a recent It Could Only Happen in Vietnam story and you can draw your own conclusions about the outcome.
Forty six years ago, or 1968-69, I commanded a Dust Off medevac unit at Cu Chi supporting the 25th Infantry Division. We were extremely busy that year, evacuating far too many critically wounded and dead American soldiers and lots of Vietnamese, both soldiers and civilians.
In early January 1969, a friend commanding a sister unit at Soc Trang called. We had been in the same unit during our first tour in Vietnam, so when he said he needed a favor, I replied “for you, anything.”
He went on to tell me there were two Army Special Services women at Soc Trang who ran their Recreation Center. There was no special housing built for women, so his unit created space in their pilots’ hootch to accommodate them. He said they had been adopted like sisters, but can you imagine two women living with a bunch of pilots?
Ed told me one of them was being transferred to my location at u Chi, some 130 miles to the North. He had intended to fly her there himself, but a large operation kicked off in the Delta, so he asked whether I could pick her up. I told him I was checking out a newly arrived pilot and would swing by and get her. When I got to Soc Trang, I found a beautiful, young woman named Debby Alexander from California waiting.
On the way back to Cu Chi, I tried to explain the differences between Soc Trang, where there were two women and 400 Americans on a tiny airfield, and the 25th Infantry Division which was located on three enormous base camps with nearly 25,000 Americans. I told her there were two brigades at Cu Chi where my unit was located; there was a brigade at Dau Tieng, some 30 miles to the northeast; and another at Tay Ninh, about 40 miles to the northwest.
I told her members of the Division Staff, Special Services women, and Red Cross Donut Dollies needed to go to the outlying brigades on a regular basis, and I tried to help by giving them rides. I kept an aircraft on 24 hour standby at all three locations rotating Dau Tieng and Tay Ninh crews on alternate days. Nearly every morning, we’d find people at our helipad trying to hitch a ride; Debby took advantage of that opportunity many times.
As I got to know her better, I found she had an amazing ability to interact with young soldiers. When she talked with someone, it was almost as if they were the only person in the world and the soldiers adored her. I also learned she loved the people of Vietnam and was constantly going “outside the wire” with the civic action teams that provided medical and dental care in the villages and orphanages. My pilots and I warned her that was dangerous and she could get herself killed, but she never paid any attention to us.
Debby’s six months at Cu Chi passed quickly, and she left in July 1969. What I didn’t know until many years later was she had a two-year commitment to Army Special Services and was supposed to go to Korea to complete that obligation, but while home in California, she volunteered to return for a second year in Vietnam.
When she got back, she found her Army Special Services leaders aware of some of the crazy things she had been doing: flying all over the place in helicopters, going out with pathfinders to witness an ARVN combat assault, and visiting the local villages and orphanages. Her supervisor said “I’m not going to be responsible for you getting hurt or killed, so I’m sending you someplace where there are no helicopters and I want you to stay out of the villages.” Debby was then assigned to a ground transportation brigade near Quin Nhon, but several months later managed to get reassigned back to the delta at Dong Tam where she was back with her beloved helicopters.
I thought about Debby across the years as you do about people you care about, like the pilots and crewmen I flew with. It was easy keeping up with the guys because we tended to keep in touch. I knew one of our pilots went to medical school, another flew for a major airline, and another became an assistant police chief in Seattle. The enlisted men did equally as well, but none of us knew what happened to Debby.
Now, fast forward 15 years. I was running a large conference in Denver and had the Army Chief of Staff and several other senior officers as speakers, so I was jumping to keep things on track. During a particularly hectic time, a major walked up to me and said, “Sir, Debby Alexander wanted me to say hello.” I stopped and he continued, “She wanted you to know she’s married, has two children, and lives in California, but fondly remembers the fun times she had flying with you and your guys and remembers you as being her biggest hero.”
At that point, one of my staff interrupted because of a problem involving one of our speakers, so I stepped away to handle that situation and when I returned to talk with the major, he was gone. I was disappointed because I wanted to get Debby’s telephone number or address, but couldn’t find him anywhere.
Now, fast forward another 30 years or 45 since we last saw Debby. On Veterans Day 2013, I was asked to speak at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial where I had an opportunity to pay tribute to the hardworking and courageous military nurses I saw during two tours in Vietnam and during the two years I spent in Japan between those combat tours.
I had just finished speaking and was standing off to the side talking with Diane Carlson-Evans, founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “Hi Major Moore, I’m Debby Alexander, do you remember me?” I turned and found the same beautiful person I had known forty-five years earlier.
I asked what she was doing in DC and learned she had come from her home in Bend, Oregon to attend a ceremony honoring one of the legends in Army Special Services who had died at the age of 96. At a luncheon the previous day, Debby saw a list of speakers for the Veterans Day activities and noticed one was retired Colonel Doug Moore, so she began wondering whether it was me. Although she was planning to leave town that afternoon, she changed her schedule arriving at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial just before I spoke. She said she looked through the crowd, but couldn’t find me and assumed it must be someone else with the same name. When I was introduced and walked up to the podium, she said I appeared to be a lot taller than she remembered, but as I have reminded her since then, I was sitting in a helicopter most of the time when she saw me. When I began speaking, Debby told a friend accompanying her, “That’s Major Moore, so I’ve got to say hello to him.” Unfortunately, I was already late for another event, so I apologized for having to leave quickly, but we exchanged email addresses with the promise we would catch each other up on the 45 years since we had last seen each other.
The following week, I sent a note telling her where all I had been since 1969, and she responded a few days later. In her note, she said she didn’t recall being introduced to my wife at the ceremony and whether she was there. I told her my wife had died a couple of years earlier after a long illness and then Debby told me she had been single for several years, so we continued emailing, but strictly as friends.
In early 2014, I was planning a trip to Vietnam with Colonel Don Price, USMC Ret, author of a book entitled “The First Marine Captured in Vietnam.” I was particularly interested in going with him to Binh Gia where one of the first major battles in Vietnam began in late December of 1964 and where three Americans: Marine Corps Captain Donald Cook, Army Staff Sergeant Harold Bennett, and Army PFC Charles Crafts were captured. Old timers from the 120th, 118th, A/501st, UTT, and the 57th Dust Off will remember those horrible few days when a number of helicopters were shot down and several pilots and crewmen were killed or wounded.
In one of my earlier emails, I asked Debby whether she had been back to Vietnam. She responded by saying she had not gone and would not go unless she was with someone who understood what she had experienced there. She said the last thing she wanted to do was to try to explain to a group of non-veterans, especially other women, why a young college graduate decided to go to a combat zone. She also felt some might question her motivation for going in the first place when all she wanted to do was serve her country and honor her father who had flown B-29s over Japan during WWII.
She also said she didn’t want to explain what is was like to be rocketed, mortared, and shot at like the men. Those of you who were at Soc Trang or Cu Chi during that time will remember that bad guys used us for target practice rather frequently. Some of you will remember February 1969, when a large enemy force penetrated our basecamp at Cu Chi, killed eleven Americans, and destroyed or damaged most all of the CH-47 helicopters belonging to the 242nd Mule-skinners. Later, it was confirmed some of the enemy had been on the roof of Debby’s Recreation Center prior to and during the attack.
I asked Debby if she wanted to go on that particular trip with me, but she couldn’t because of recent surgery. I told her I would go and then fill her in on how the country had changed when I returned. Perhaps she could find someone to go with her later on.
Was it chance or destiny? A short time later, my April trip was cancelled. The tour company began planning another trip in late August and promised they would make special accommodation if I would go by taking me to Binh Gia and to a jungle clearing on the Cambodian Border where I picked up three American Prisoners of War on New Year’s Day of 1969 in a highly classified and sensitive mission.
I called Debby and she agreed to go if the tour company could find her a female companion to share a room. Fortunately, they found the wife of a retired colonel in North Carolina.
Our tour group met initially in Los Angeles and the tour director asked us to his hotel room that evening for a Show and Tell to share information about ourselves and to explain why we wanted to go to Vietnam. He asked me to lead off, so I explained a little about my military background and mentioned that Debby and I had served together in Vietnam 45 years earlier and hadn’t seen each other since then.
While talking, I was looking at Debby who was sitting across the coffee table from me and something magical happened. I quickly cautioned myself I was too old to become interested in another woman, but when Debby talked, she seemed to be focused on me. As we rose to leave the meeting, I put my arm around her shoulder to guide her through the door and we became inseparable for the next two weeks.
Fortunately, our tour group consisted of some of the nicest people I have ever met who seemed intrigued with Debby and me. They kept asking questions about how we had met and seemed so happy and supportive. In fact, I believe they encouraged us.
It all culminated several days later when we went to the jungle clearing where I picked up three American POWs being released by the North Vietnamese on New Year’s Day 1969. The tour company allegedly had approval from Hanoi to go inside the restricted zone along the Cambodian border where drug smuggling and human trafficking are huge problems, but apparently no one told the local Vietnamese Border Police.
After traveling along the border on a dirt road for several miles, we stopped at the place where I had landed 45 years earlier and the tour director asked me to describe what happened that day. I told the group about departing from Tay Ninh and flying towards the Cambodian Border for several miles over a jungle area that we knew back then as the “Saw Tooth Woods.” Finally, we spotted a North Vietnamese flag flying in a small clearing. We landed by the flag and, several minutes later, eight heavily-armed North Vietnamese soldiers marched out of the jungle with their AK-47s at port arms and surrounded our aircraft. We sat there for several more minutes before the POWs were finally brought out.
As I was finishing my explanation of that day’s events to our tour group, a border police vehicle roared up and ordered our bus driver to follow them to a miserably hot and filthy police station about five miles away. After reaching there, we were ordered to empty our pockets and purses; then the authorities began interrogating the bus driver, the Vietnamese interpreter, the US tour director, and, finally, me. After finishing with me, I was escorted to a tiny, foul-smelling room where the remainder of our group was waiting and sat down alongside Debby.
Then something totally unexpected happened! One of the members of our tour group was a retired school teacher from Salina, Kansas who had become our group philosopher. No sooner than I sat down alongside Debby, Leah spoke up and said rather loudly to the group, “Doug, I’ve been thinking about you and Debby ever since we first met in Los Angeles. Yours is a wonderful story and it’s obvious that you care a great deal for each other.”
She paused for a second as I began wondering where she was headed with her commentary. She then continued, “I don’t think all of these things that have happened to both of you across the years were by accident or chance. In fact, I think the stars have lined up properly and that you and Debby were destined for each other all along. Doug, in my opinion and, perhaps it’s my opinion only, but I think you ought to ask Debby to marry you!”
At first, I was speechless, but finally managed to respond by saying, “Leah, that sounds like a great idea to me!” I then turned and said, “Debby, would you marry me?” She looked shocked and then said “Huh? Yes!”
Debby and I continued our fairy tale by getting married in April 2015, some 46 years after meeting in Vietnam. We then purchased a home in Haymarket, Virginia and it was our great luck to have the recent VHPA Reunion in nearby DC. It was a wonderful affair and we got to see some old friends and met dozens of others with whom we shared common hardships and fun times in Vietnam. It was a great start for our still young marriage and we want to thank all of you who listened to our story and made us feel so good at the reunion.
And as we used to say many years ago, “It could only happen in Vietnam!
Posted by Dr. Willis
One of our very thoughtful patients attends St. Peter’s in the Woods Episcopal Church. Recently she and her church family provided shelter to the homeless to help protect against the harsh cold of night. There are countless ways of showing love toward our fellow man. In a time of so much turmoil and division, it’s refreshing to know that people still care about each other. We at Burke Dental were happy to provide dental hygiene products for the cause. We can all do our part to make life just a little more pleasant for those around us.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Posted by Dr. Willis
With Mother’s Day fast-approaching, we are tickled pink to give a rose to every mother who comes in for an appointment with us this week. A mother’s love and support is priceless and we are so proud of all the mothers who are part of our patient family.
We hope that every mother will feel special on Mother’s Day, no matter the physical distance between mother and child. Happy Mother’s Day, you deserve to be celebrated!
An Author in the Burke Dental Family!
Posted by Dr. Willis
A patient and friend, John Ratliff, recently told me he has written a book about his family’s fascinating history. I asked him for information I could share with all of you, and he wrote me the note below. Summer may be over, but there’s always time for a great read. So enjoy!
Dear Dr. Willis,
My wife Diane and I worked on this book about my great grandfather and his family for seven years. It was finally published on July 15, 2014. Below is information about the book, also on the amazon.com page. As you will see, my great grandfather was quite a character and his gunfight at the courthouse and subsequent trial for murder attracted a lot of national attention.
The William Pinkney Ratliff Family Saga 1847-1988: The Lives of William Pinkney and Cornelia Mitchell Ratliff and Their Eleven Children
By John Barton Ratliff III – Click here to find this book at Amazon!
A family history comes to life in John Barton Ratliff III’s impressive true story, The William Pinkney Ratliff Family Saga 1847-1988. Meet William Pinkney Ratliff. Born in 1847, he lived a remarkable life as a farmer, preacher, merchant, Confederate soldier, newspaper editor, and politician—in addition to being a dedicated husband and father to eleven children.
Conveyed in meticulous detail by his great-grandson, Ratliff’s life was one of triumph, tragedy, and everything in between. Covering the years spanning from his birth to the death of the last of his children, this saga reveals the man behind the legend that so many in his community got to know and love. An abundance of photos throughout the book help to bring this memorable family’s story to life.
Ratliff’s life was marked by sporadic violence, heartache, and deception as he strived to maintain the life he had built for himself and his family. Ratliff’s shootout with a political opponent at the Attala County Courthouse that resulted in two people dead, a murder trial, and endless newspaper coverage throughout the country is recounted in dramatic detail, unfolding from the escalating tension before the shooting to the jury’s verdict three weeks later.
But Ratliff’s story does not end with him. Each of his eleven children has a story to tell. Learn the truth behind his daughter’s grief and decline into mental illness, and his son’s trial for murder that eerily echoes his own father’s courthouse drama long ago.
He’s Some Act to Follow!
Posted by Dr. Willis
I love nothing more than to get together with my wonderful friend Dr. Richard Brigleb. I am so grateful to him for passing his practice on to me, and will do everything in my power to live up to the standards he set. Thank you for your support and friendship!
You Needed to Floss More, George…
Posted by Dr. Willis
Apparently the British were the least of the challenges that George Washington faced. Bob Weidner sent along a photo (viewed here), which he took at Mount Vernon of an actual pair of dentures worn by the Father of Our Country. This grisly set was made from animal and human teeth, lead and ivory.
It seems that George had horrible tooth problems beginning in his 20s. By the time of his inauguration, he had only one of his real teeth left. Let that be a lesson to all of us: Tooth decay spares no one!