My favorite psychiatrist practices in a town called Normal. In 1969-70, Captain Douglas Bey was with the 1st Infantry Division, one of only six psychiatrists assigned to combat units in Vietnam. His radio call sign became the title of his memoir: Wizard 6: A Combat Psychiatrist in Vietnam. Four years ago I interviewed him for The San Diego Reader. The Catch-22 quality of his experiences seem particularly resonant at this moment in our history. Dr. M, for instance, wasn’t one of his patients. He was a colleague.
JJ: You were a young psychiatrist in 1968 when you were appointed a captain in the Army medical corps. You trained at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, along with other doctors, learning the barest rudiments of military deportment and skills, like how to about-face and fire a weapon. When ducks flew over the firing range, you docs started shooting. At your graduation ceremonies, you all sang the Mickey Mouse Club song. (The military band joined in.) The next year you were ordered to Vietnam, and the base camp of the 1st Infantry Division, where it was even wilder. You actually witnessed what I always thought was an apocryphal Vietnam story about an army dentist.
DB: Dr. M, yes. He was African American, a Guardsman, had finished school heavily in debt, rented his offices, bought all the equipment and then was activated and sent to Vietnam. Upsetting. He’d disassociated himself from the military. He wore only loud sports shirts, flip-flops, and shorts — usually boxers. And he danced all the time — bopped. In the monsoon rain, during inspections by generals — it didn’t matter. One day a nervous infantryman arrived in the dental area with a problem. In comes a black guy in a bright red short-sleeved tropical shirt and boxer shorts, who looks in his mouth and asks the corpsman assisting what he thinks is wrong. The corpsman says, ‘You’re the doctor, Doctor.’ Dr. M looks in the man’s mouth again and says, ‘I never should have left the motor pool. Looks like we’ll have to blast.’ He tears off a long piece of dental floss, anchors it in the guy’s teeth and lights the other end. Then retreats to a corner, crouches down, and plugs his ears with his fingers. The poor patient leaps out of the chair and runs, trailing smoke.
JJ: Most of your peers dodged service. What were you doing in the Army? In Vietnam?
DB: I was from the Midwest. My dad and uncle had served, my cousin did two tours as a Marine pilot, and I just kinda thought, “Well, everyone’s going.”
JJ: So there you are, a psychiatrist in Vietnam, handling 400 patients a month, among them soldiers with hysterical symptoms who have gone mute or blind or been paralyzed in combat from no apparent injury. You conduct sodium amytal interviews that sound amazing.
DB: They were a big deal in World War II. We did some. We’d tell the patient that after a little rest they were going to feel better. That they’d be able to walk, talk, hear, or see — whatever function their psyches had shut down to escape the conflict between their being in combat and the fear of being killed. We’d administer the drug, and that would do it. The GIs would awaken and recover and be fine, as long as you didn’t try to send them back. We had zero results with that: we couldn’t get anybody to go back.
JJ: You write that schizophrenic patients loved marching, loved drilling. How did you make that discovery?
DB: In the psychiatric unit at Ft. Knox, Sgt. DeLeon would line ’em up and march ’em. The ‘behavior disorders,’ trying to get out of the Army, bitched and moaned. The schizophrenic patients thought it was terrific. They felt part of the Army, loved the order of it. Then one GI was brought to us who was hearing voices, but it turned out he just had a tunnel underneath his tent.
JJ: It’s surprising how little knowledge the American side had of the enemy’s tunnel systems. They must have been tunneling for decades. You mention one of the VC tunnels was eight stories deep.
DB: Yeah. They had a big hospital installation in it. Two thousand beds, refrigeration for plasma, and all of this literally under the feet of a division [which had set up its huge base camp on top of this complex]. I don’t have a desire to go back, but I’d be curious to see what the tunnel complexes looked like in our area and what was actually going on there. Whenever there were B-52 strikes, the civilian workers would cry because their relatives were out there in the tunnels.
JJ: You write that one of the doctors you were most impressed with was Capt. John Hamilton.
DB: A tremendous guy. He was captain of his Florida A&M football team and is being inducted into their Hall of Fame this month. We’re going down there for the ceremony. Our company commander and his wife too.
JJ: He was one of the few black officers.
DB: Right. He tried to be a good model for the younger blacks. Over 13 percent of the soldiers were black, but only 3 percent of the Army officer corps and 1 percent of the Marine Corps officers were African Americans. Initially, there were a disproportionate number of blacks in combat, and they were pretty unhappy, holding meetings and scaring the hell out of young white officers. The officers had very little experience, much less with ghetto blacks who didn’t want to be there and were armed to the teeth.
JJ: You say that John Hamilton was surprised by the xenophobia of the Vietnamese.
DB: I think he was shocked. He expected to be welcomed as a fellow person of color. And they were more prejudiced than we were.
JJ: They thought we were all mongrels with red hair and yellow hair and black hair and different skin tones.
DB: And long noses.
JJ: And body hair. They were appalled by that.
DB: I think odor too. Though they didn’t smell so good to us. Their sewage systems left something to be desired. And when we went on R&R, our clothes must have smelled terrible, because people were offended by our odor.
JJ: You encountered men who purported to like killing. What did you make of them?
DB: A couple were crazy. Some had medals and were responsible citizens. I think they got a high off it. There’s probably a genetic predisposition to being a risk-taker. If you have a loving family, you may go into a high-risk occupation, like the military, or be a racing-car driver or bullfighter. If you’re from a dysfunctional family, you may end up a homicidal killer.
JJ: Either way, you like your work.
DB: There were really not too many restraints over there. You could do just about whatever you wanted to. Some people killed and really got off on that.
JJ: And others cracked up.
DB: Yeah. I had a corpsman who’d been a combat medic. Usually you don’t carry weapons if you’re a medic, but he did. His unit went into a village and shot it up. He participated and killed people. It bothered him. He was raised in a Christian family and he has tremendous guilt about this. He calls me up every now and then, when he’s drunk or high on drugs, and talks about it.
JJ: There was a good deal of heroin use in Vietnam.
DB: Yes, there was plenty of it. It was incredibly pure, almost 100 percent, as opposed to the diluted heroin you got in the States. And sensationally cheap. Two or three dollars per dose. Opium cost a dollar; morphine, five bucks. Statistics said heroin users in Vietnam in 1970 exceeded the known users at home: 81,300 versus 68,000. A survey of two divisions indicated 11 to 14 percent of the men had used heroin since arriving in country. A survey four years later said 34 percent commonly used it. Meanwhile, the officers were living on cheap booze mostly.
JJ: Only officers and sergeants were allowed to buy hard liquor, theoretically. Though GIs bought mixed drinks at bars for a quarter, and beer in quantity. Drinking was subsidized and practically encouraged; drug use was preached against. You were asked to participate in that.
DB: The division surgeon, me, the psychiatrist, our chaplain, and a CID [Army investigator] were to address the enlisted men about the dangers. It was frigging ridiculous. I kept thinking, what if we appeared at the officers’ club and started showing a little board with martini glasses and shot glasses and lecturing how some of them drank out of this type of glass and some of them put cherries in it…? It was a farce, demonstrating drug paraphernalia. I made my views known and was not invited again.
JJ: A fifth of booze was a dollar and a half.
DB: Oh, yeah, it was dirt cheap. A beer was a dime. Everybody I knew was drunk most of the time.
JJ: The old sergeants especially seemed vulnerable to alcoholism.
DB: Yes, outfits would kind of pass them around. They’d cover up the man’s drinking and recommend him to another unit. It would take the new unit a few months to figure out that the guy was an alcoholic and then that command would pass him on the same way.
JJ: There seemed to be a number of suicides among that group.
DB: I was aware of one. It was pathetic. A division surgeon told the sergeant he would be kicked out of the Army and lose all his benefits if he took another drink. He did, of course; got drunk, thought he was ruined, and killed himself.
JJ: Have you seen a lot of vets in your practice?
DB: Some. I took care of a couple Special Forces guys, and they told their buddies.
JJ: You mention in the book that you were shocked to learn Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara already thought the war was unwinnable in 1965. Most of the 58,000 who eventually fell were still alive at that point. Yet it’s rolling forward.
DB: Yeah, I was ticked off. I didn’t realize I had that much feeling about it, actually, until I heard that. Because the war resulted in a lot of unnecessary loss of life, tremendous expense . . . and look at all the damage we did to the Vietnamese. We skewed their economy and corrupted a lot of the rural people. We bullied the Vietnamese and threw our money around. We went into Saigon and indulged ourselves at expensive French restaurants with white tablecloths and crystal and us wearing grubby fatigues. We must’ve looked like the Nazis did to the French. The Vietnamese women became bar girls, and the males were involved in illegal activities. We ruined their farmland with bombs and ordnance and defoliants. One of our Army trucks, I remember, ran over a child on the road. What looked like a pink football in the middle of the street were this kid’s brains that had squirted out of his head.
JJ: In the book you sound slightly surprised by how much of Vietnam you carried with you to civilian life.
DB: I was. The people at home have been able to forget. The vets haven’t.