The Tennessean accurately described the Vietnam War as occurring in the most tumultuous period in American history. More than the war, to some of us, it was the “drugs, sex and rock-and-roll” which defined the era. Racial tensions were boiling over. The assassination of our beloved president, John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King,, the rioting in Watts (L.A.) and Detroit, added chaos to even the most prosperous cities.
Your description of Vietnam as an immoral war blemishes the memory of all the brave, patriotic Americans who fought and died there. America may have been “immoral.” But its troops were certainly not. I should know a little bit about this ... I was there.
Selfridge AFB, a 30-minute drive from downtown Detroit, was a fighter interceptor base and I was one of the 7 USAF dentists stationed in this military hospital. We weren't exactly like the sitcom “MASH,” but we came pretty close. Fresh out of dental school and given the rank of captain, my biggest "problem" was not root canals or complex fillings, but who in the world was I supposed to salute.
And then, Selfridge’s calm, idealistic setting was broken by the news of the rioting, looting and destruction of one of America’s premier cities. Detroit was the center of the world's biggest automobile industry, with its tens of thousands of highly paid executives and factory workers. Luxurious suburban towns like Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills housed the rich and famous. The Pistons, Lions and Tigers made Detroit the sports capital of the world.
And then they arrived. A division of the 101st and 82nd Airborne landed at our base and we all realized that this was indeed much more serious than the public was told. Rumors spread that the rioters were even heading toward our base. All of a sudden, heavily armed APs surrounded our perimeter. We were on high alert.
I had never seen anything like it. Combat troops in full gear with all their weapons and support team. Our biggest problem? They set up camp on our gorgeous, well-manicured officer's golf course. What nerve. Well. Back to my role in all this. Coincidentally, I was the "dentist on call" that week. This usually meant nothing, except when some colonel's kid had a wisdom tooth problem. So it was really unusual when I got a call at 10 o’clock at night from our NCOIC (sgt. in charge), as close to a Sgt. Bilko character as you'd ever want to meet. He could "arrange" anything. "Sorry to bother you, Capt. Morris, but I think it would be best to return to the base." "Are you kidding Sarge?" "No sir, we have a few "toothaches" here." "A few?" I said. "How many?" "27." Yup, 27!
I drove back in and was ushered into his office and was told the following: "These guys are the toughest troops in the Army, each with 1 or 2 tours in Vietnam. They are not stupid. They survived Vietnam and they didn't want to get killed in downtown Detroit, where there was a full-fledged war going on.” "Please exam them and just write the following on their chart: "toothache #16 (or any tooth number you want), confined to barracks, refer for treatment when they return to Fort Benning."
I was certainly not a Vietnam hero. But it was an honor and privilege to threat the real ones who were there. I will never forget these patriots.
Dr. Stephen Morris, DDS
(Capt. USAF 1966-1968)