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Air Force medical history of POWs; Operation Homecoming

  • Published
  • By Judith Taylor
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
The year 1973 saw the end of the Vietnam conflict. Securing the safe release of American Prisoners of War was a vital concern for U.S. leadership, as was the physical and mental well-being of those returning. In late 1972, the Air Force Medical Service began planning for the return of 591 Americans held by the North Vietnamese. When the release finally began in February of 1973, the medical service stood by to provide air evacuation and in-garrison medical care, including nutritional medicine and mental health services.

The first evacuation of former POWs took place on February 14, 1973. The U.S. government had no way of knowing the physical and mental condition of the returning POWs and so medics had to be ready for anything.

Dietitians carefully formulated menus to minimize ill effects on the malnourished men. Air Force medical leadership decided to augment AE crews with physicians in order to deal with any serious medical conditions that might arise. Nine Air Force, three Army, and six Navy flight doctors accompanied the servicemen on these freedom flights. Each team of two flight doctors, three flight nurses, and three medical technicians flew POWs out of Vietnam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines and from there, back to the United States.

At the Clark hospital, medical staff eagerly awaited the first arrivals. They had spent exhaustive hours planning every aspect of the operation from a complete medical evaluation, including history, physical and dental exams, laboratory work-ups, and X-rays. Within 72 hours, each patient underwent a complete physical exam and most were then on their way home. The mission of the medics at Clark was not to provide definitive care, but to do an initial assessment of health and then clear the beds for the next set of POWs released.

The 10th Air Evacuation Group out of Travis Air Force Base, California had the task of flying POWs back to the United States. Once home, the men went to hospitals near their home stations for further treatments and assessments, including psychological evaluations. Medical units involved with the endeavor included the 19th Aeromedical Staging Facility, 9th Aeromedical Evacuation Group, 10th Aeromedical Evacuation Group, and the USAF Hospital Clark.

Editor's note: Information for this article was adapted from portions of "100 Years of Excellence: The History of the Air Force Medical Service."