The Orange Tree
A Military Doctor's Choice
by Summer Nguyen
Figure 1. Nguyễn Tiến Dỵ (left) and his wife, Phạm Minh Trang (right), posing in front of a military hospital in Phan Rang, Vietnam, next to sand bags used for shelter, 1968.
Millions of people fled Vietnam to the United States immediately following the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. As one of the most significant humanitarian crises and refugee resettlements in history, the Vietnamese exodus after the communist government was established remains a fresh wound to diasporic populations until today, even for those born after the conflict. Though many histories of Vietnam War veterans from America have been explored, the traumas of South Vietnamese soldiers have been suppressed in American culture and post-war Vietnam propaganda. To uncover these untold stories from a domestic perspective, this project chronicles the life of my grandfather Nguyễn Tiến Dỵ, a frontline surgeon in The Republic of Vietnam Military Forces through interview transcriptions and narrations. His story unveils a military doctor’s perspective on the war itself as well as life in America after the Fall. While a series of interviews discloses Nguyen’s personal perspectives on his experiences with triage in combat conditions and rebuilding a life in America, I include personal reflections to his story as a second-generation immigrant. I relay my thoughts and reactions to his traumas in the form of poems and short passages to represent not only his emotions and words manifested in the interviewing process, but also to imagine the gaps he did not make explicit, as well as to explore any personal or sociocultural motivations for such omissions. Combining oral history and poetics to navigate Nguyen’s experiences and my personal thoughts, I seek to not only investigate but heal trans-generational relationships through a witness lens on war medicine.
Last night I had a dream,
Freely walking the sticky streets I call homeland,
She was lovely, and I was serene.
The blistering rays caressed my skin agleam,
Sodden breeze softened my broken hands,
Last night I had a dream.
Mischievous children and haggling vendors teemed,
Seas of fuming motos make my city grand;
She was lovely, and I was serene.
Sweet longan and ripe mangosteen,
Oily dumplings and slimy wontons in hand,
Last night I had a dream.
Locals loitered, chatting as their sweat steamed,
Entertainers danced in the greasy Paris land;
She was lovely, and I was serene.
As I listen to the stillness I am aware,
The rips are tearing apart the seams,
In truth today I had a nightmare
We were serene, then hiding, then seen.
“In 1966, when I came out of military medical school, when I graduated, I had to become a military surgeon in the South Vietnamese Army. I was assigned to work in four provinces of South Vietnam. They are all coastal provinces. The provinces in Vietnamese are called Khánh Hòa is the first one where I work, I came in 1966. And after I was in Ninh Thuận, another coastal province in central Vietnam. And then I was transferred to Lâm Đồng. It's a province in the mountains. And finally I was in Tuyên Đức. It’s another province in the mountains. I was there for, for three years as a military surgeon and frontline physician for combat units based in that province.
And so my job there is to take care of the wounded soldiers from the frontline when there was fighting between our forces and the communists. And so my title at that time is commander of a clearance company. Clearance company has about 100 personnel, including doctors, and first aid people and soldiers. And our job is to see the wounded soldier coming from the frontline and do the triage. Do the first aid and send them back to the military hospitals for definitive treatment and for definitive surgery. And if we were not able to evacuate them because of the ongoing fighting or because of the lack of helicopters, we must be able to do surgery on them to help them survive their wounds until they are evacuated.
Each province, there's only two or three military surgeons to cover the whole area. Sure sometimes we were very busy, at times we were not, depending on the intensity of the fighting. And most of the time we could arrange for the evacuation, to the nearest military hospitals, but several times, we had to do surgery on them on the spot. So we had an anesthesia team, we had the facility for them to stay. We had a facility for blood transfusion, everything, all, we had a facility for X-ray everything. So we could function as a mobile hospital if it was needed. But most of the time, air evacuation, ambulance evacuation were possible. So they were sent, we had to do triage on them. We had to make them stable for the transportation to the back.
As a frontline doctor, I have to make a decision. Almost every day. Who to be treated? Who not to be treated? At times, we are not able to treat all of them at one time. Because there were too many of them coming from the front line at one time. All of a sudden, you can receive 100 soldiers from the front line. So at times, we were overwhelmed. And as well as we have to do the triage to choose who is going to be treated first and who is not going to be treated because they're too gravely wounded. And who should not receive just a minor treatment? And to be sent back to their unit?
You had to do quick thinking about doing a triage, when to say which one would need immediate attention. Which one would not need any attention because they're hopeless, and which one will have just very minor thing they don't need attention at all. And so you have to be quick. Because sometimes, most of the time when the fight is going on, you may be overwhelmed because the number of people brought back to your battalion aid station to take care of.
Whenever we have too many wounded soldiers from the front line, we always have to make a choice. The choice is who to be treated first to save their lives and their limbs. Who not to be treated because they are too seriously wounded, they will die anyway. And who will need just a very minor attention and to be sent back to their unit for recovery. It's a job of a triage. I stopped by and put them in a category, a different class so that we have to separate them into those who don't need to be treated. Those who need to be treated immediately to save lives and limbs and those who are in a hopeless position and shouldn't receive any medical attention. So we give them medicine to relieve the pain and we take care of them later on. As a frontline major surgeon I have to put them in three different categories every time.
And after the triage, we have to try to send them back to the military hospital in the back, and if we were not able to evacuate them to the hospital, we were forced to do surgery on them. Day and night to save them. To save their lives, to save their limbs. And so we had facilities to do surgery if needed on the spot.
So, I served the South Vietnamese army until 1974 as a frontline surgeon and doctor to take care of wounded soldiers. To do surgery on them, to make their evacuation to the back survive, to help them survive the trip by helicopters or by ambulance to the hospital in the back. And at times we couldn't evaluate them because of the intensity of the fighting. I had to do surgery on them. To save lives.”
“I left at the end of 73. 73 when they signed the Paris Agreement, to allow the American military to go back to the U.S. And there was a peace agreement, ceasefire at that time. So I was allowed to leave the military to do work for the minister of education as a teaching doctor at the Saigon teaching hospital. So that’s when I left the military, at the beginning of 1973.
In October 1974, I received a scholarship from the American International Aid, USAID, to come to the U.S. for one year, extra training in surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I left Vietnam. When I left, I did not ever think that the war would end anytime soon. I thought the war would keep on going, going for a long time.
My brother was killed two months before the end of the war. He was in a river boat on patrol for the navy and the whole boat was killed by mines. I was shocked, but something like that happens every day to people in the army? But our family had a pretty big loss. The five of us in the South Vietnamese armed forces. One was killed in action. Two were injured. Only two untouched.
I was four months from finishing my fellowship in the U.S. when South Vietnam collapsed in April 1975. So when South Vietnam collapsed, I was offered refugee status to stay in the U.S., and I took that offer and became a refugee in the U.S.
So I was supposed to go to the US for only one year. And I was supposed to come back to teach at Saigon Medical School. When I left, I didn't think for a moment that South Vietnam will be lost forever. Because we have been at war for a long, long time. And what started in 1956, I thought was going to go on and on. Forever. The last thing I expected was it to end in 1975. So when the war ended, it was a big surprise to me.
I was here in the U.S. and my family, my wife and my four children, were in Vietnam. But we lost communication. We couldn't talk. We couldn't have any communication whatsoever. From the U.S. to Vietnam at that time. For two months because of the fighting. I couldn't talk to my wife and my children at that time. And I don’t know where they were. I felt hopeless. But I had my clear plan, which is to go back to take care of my wife and my children, even if I have to stay under the communist regime. But I had a very clear decision that I had to go back.
I didn't know what's going on with them until I received a telephone call from my wife from Subic Bay. Luckily, they were evacuated before the collapse of Saigon. And they came to Subic Bay in the Philippines as a Vietnamese refugee. When they came to Subic Bay, my wife called me, and I was so happy knowing that they are safe after Vietnam falls. The 30th of April is the end of the Vietnam War, when the communists came to Saigon. But when they left on the 27th of April, they left by U.S. airplane from the Tân Sơn Nhất airport in Vietnam and they were flown to Subic Bay. So at that time, I realized that they were safe. And they will join me in the U.S. as a refugee.”
when the cosmos came to earth
i was the dark
and the darkness was all around me
let there be night
and its kingdom had no end
sound was black
sight was silent
stardust fenced me in
fenced them out
and the ocean became a star
i wondered if i was alone
into a fallen sky.
can you reach me?
.-- . .----. .-. . / ... .- ..-. .
“Every day, I feel that I was lucky to be in a safe position. And I feel lucky that I was able to help my fellow soldiers to survive their wounds. I always feel like I owe them something. Because thanks to them being in the front line, myself and my family is safe in the rear.
If I went back to Vietnam in 1975, I would have been in prison. A lot of doctor friends of mine were in a prison for years, usually around five years. Because being an ex officer in the South Vietnamese forces, all of us either spend years or decades in what they call a reeducation camp. But I didn't know about that at that time. But later on, they kept 1 million South Vietnamese government officials and South Vietnamese military officers in prison for many years, some of them 20 years.
The communist government took everything. Our houses, our belongings, everything. They took everything. When we came back to visit as U.S. citizens, they allowed us to come to our old house for a visit, but those houses don't belong to us anymore. Because they are the winners. We are the losers. The winner takes everything. We don’t take anything. They take our houses, our property, our land, our everything.
I'm glad myself and my family and my children were accepted and welcomed, was helped by the people of the United States to start a new life in this country. I feel very fortunate and very indebted to their kindness and their hospitality and their humane treatment of us during a desperate time of our life.”
The Orange Tree
I was sitting
at the orange tree
when the orange fell.
It was unripe.
Pale, premature, small, inanimate
when it broke its life-sustaining ties.
the ground beating him,
Leaving bruises irreparable.
He laid there, fresh juices
bleeding before the rotting began.
I was sitting.
“I entered military medical school in 1959. There was war at that time, but at a much smaller scale. Just very, very little fighting between the government forces and the insurgents, and very little fighting at that period of time. But by the time I came out of military medical school in 1966, the war is at a full scale. Everywhere. At a very high intensity.
I joined the South Vietnamese Army very early when I was 18 years old. I did not join the military medical school because of the need to be enlisted, but I joined out of my own volition to become a military doctor. Because I like it. I like military life. So I had one year of pre med and six years of medical school, and I graduated in 1966. After graduating from the military school for a physician, I was trained to become a military surgeon from 1959 until 1966. We train like civilian doctors, but you also train to become a frontline military surgeon to do triage, first aid, and to perform surgery on wounded soldiers. During that time, I had my military training every summer for two months. But I did not participate in any real frontline activity. No combat.”
Growing up as a second generation immigrant, I was always surrounded by Vietnam War stories. I would often hear of when and how certain relatives arrived in different countries such as Norway or the U.S. after barely escaping the communist regime. I knew from others that my grandfather was a surgeon in the South Vietnamese Army, but never personally spoke to him about it. After the interview, I realized the level of trauma and responsibility he undertook as a military surgeon, husband, father, and student.
Despite his obstacles during the war as a surgeon and after the war as an immigrant, my grandfather told his life stories with ease and no apparent distress. In his oral narrative, he chooses to forego emotional displays, avoiding topics of death and regret. He leaves out specific stories of wounded soldiers and briefly discusses his brother’s death with a sanguine expression. Even when describing triage on fatally wounded soldiers, he systematically recalls the protocol with unsentimental precision. Though emotional control often proves to be valuable in practicing medicine, and especially surgery, the intensities of war can make the distinction between calculated detachment and suppressing trauma challenging. He either intentionally or subconsciously leaves out these intimate details, possibly to avoid revisiting grief. Not remembering specific stories of soldiers could be a defensive mechanism, or he could very well remember and simply be protecting me, his granddaughter, from indirectly reliving his trauma. Regardless, it is clear to me that such memories are painful. He would not defensively forget them nor purposefully avoid them otherwise. Often, when he is telling battlefield stories, he stares out the backyard at an orange tree, as if averting any direct, pressuring gaze that could find any trace of his true feelings. Recalling my grandfather’s suspiciously brief account of having to choose which fatally wounded soldier to treat out of dozens, my last piece, “Orange Tree”, reflects on that orange tree as a metaphor for his tragic powerlessness.
I often hear other relatives speculate that if the U.S. kept their troops in Vietnam, then the South may have won the war. My grandfather showed no such animosity and instead focused on his gratitude for American hospitality. His fondness for American politics during the war parallels his steadfast commitment to his conservative views today. This loyalty to the U.S. may also be tied to the gaps in our conversations: narrative holes scattered throughout his interviews could be a way to keep his patriotic ideologies intact. As a way to close these emotional, possibly even revisionist omissions throughout his narrative, I used poetics to imagine his feelings and insert my reflections on his experiences. Navigating his story, envisioning his emotional memory, and seeking a new understanding of omission, my poems aspire to heal generational misunderstanding, redefining my relationship with my grandfather, the war surgeon. One day, when I finally have the courage, I’ll share these poems with him.
Figure 5. A family photo with my grandparents, Phạm (right), Nguyễn (center) and Summer Nguyen (left), 2006.
Figure 2. Nguyễn sitting in his office in 1990 during Desert Storm as the Chief of the Anesthesia Department at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Figure 3. Nguyễn standing in front of Reynolds Army Hospital in 1990 during Desert Storm as the Chief of the Anesthesia Department at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.