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AFMS looks at role on National Vietnam War Veterans Day

  • Published
  • By Dr. Joseph Frechette, Ph.D.
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
Each year on March 29 the nation honors the service and sacrifices of Vietnam War veterans for National Vietnam War Veterans Day. This date marks the day the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam, on March 29, 1973.

While more than 58,000 Americans paid the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam, Air Force Medical Service improvements in aeromedical evacuation helped ensure that wounded service members had a better chance for survival than ever before.

Following the large-scale commitment of American troops in 1965, the AFMS presence peaked at roughly 1,900 medics in 1968 - roughly five percent of the total strength of the AFMS - with more than a dozen dispensaries, four casualty staging units, and the large 12th USAF Hospital at Cam Rahn Bay Airbase backstopped by hospitals in Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan.

Initially, the AFMS commitment in Vietnam was modest. The first in country military treatment facility, a dispensary at Tan Son Nhut, opened in May 1962. By 1965 there was a network of eight Class-B and two Class-A dispensaries backstopped by hospitals in the Philippines and Japan. The 9th Aeromedical Squadron included Vietnam in its portfolios to provide aeromedical evacuation support to the entire Pacific Theater, while Military Airlift Command was responsible for flights back to CONUS.

This growth was facilitated by development of modular air transportable hospitals and the knowledgeable presence of graduates of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine Residency in Aerospace Medicine. The RAMs proved their worth staffing these newly minted medical treatment facilities, typically serving as the senior flight surgeons.

As the network of facilities grew, so did the aeromedical evacuation organization. In July 1966 the 9th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron grew into a group with its 903rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron headquartered in country at Tan Son Nhut. Although Army “Dustoff” helicopters handled almost all evacuation from forward areas, further aerial movement was an Air Force responsibility.

As the scale and intensity of fighting grew, the 903d instituted a system of specifically scheduled and configured evacuation flights rather than the traditional ad hoc method of using the return backhaul capability of assault airlift flights. This was less disruptive of both delivery of cargo and passengers, and the MTFs and patients awaiting pickup. Additionally it obviated the need to reconfigure aircraft for litter patients in hazardous situations such as at the siege of Khe Sanh.

An additional lesson learned by the 903rd involved the full use of all of the nurses at its disposal. Until August 1967, when the first three women were assigned to the 903rd, it had worked exclusively with male flight nurses. Fortunately, the 903rd expanded its nursing manpower when it did. Only a few months later, in the run up to and during the Tet Offensive, the 903rd evacuated more than 33,000 people despite intense weather and ground fire. The Air Force recognized the gallantry of the 903d with the Presidential Unit Citation, the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross to all assigned.

Ultimately, the Vietnam War provided Air Force Medicine with another chance to evaluate itself and make adjustments in order to provide the best care, anywhere.