During the years of my medical training in the 1960’s, the United States was involved in very serious foreign engagements that could have escalated into global nuclear conflicts. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962 when I was a sophomore in medical school, and for 13 days the nation was on the brink of all-out war with Russia. We had advisory troops already in Viet Nam and the situation there escalated into a full military engagement before the end of that decade. The impact those engagements had on the medical profession was all able-bodied doctors just out of training were subject to drafting into active duty. It was much better for us to enlist in the military and complete our service requirement rather than begin a medical practice and wait to be drafted.
I enlisted in the US Air Force in 1960 when I was a freshman student in medical school, with the understanding that I would go on active duty when my medical training was completed. I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and the further I progressed in training, the Air Force promoted me in rank. At the completion of surgical training, I had been promoted to Captain, and when I finally received my orders to serve in 1969, I was promoted to the rank of Major. The promotions were made that quickly in the medical corps so the salaries offered by the military would be somewhat comparable to a physician entering private practice with that level of training. The photo above was taken during the week of orientation upon reporting for active duty. The serious and almost sinister look on my face should have been enough to scare all enemies of the state to surrender unconditionally! Perhaps through a military error the Vietnamese never saw this particular photo.
My initial military experience began at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas where I began a temporary assignment of 3 weeks training at the Medical Services School. Cathy was unable to accompany me because she was 4 months pregnant with our 2nd child (Mary Kay). She spent that time with her family in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There were 300 other doctors in my class, and the majority of them had no military experience. I had 2 years of ROTC in college, so at least I knew how to put the insignias on the uniform and knew the proper protocol for saluting a superior officer and returning the salute of a soldier with inferior rank.
Our training consisted of mostly classroom lectures on military history, military protocol and our particular military and medical responsibilities both in the US and in the war zone. Every morning before classes, we were taken to a practice ground and taught how to align and take marching orders. We practiced marching for at least an hour each day. My ROTC experience was most valuable for this part of our training.These 3 weeks occurred during the month of August, and the Texas sun made for a very hot hour of marching even though we began at 8 AM. The culmination of all of this training on the practice grounds was to occur on our last day, and was to be a grand march around the formal base parade grounds past an official reviewing stand of high-ranking officers of the base.
The parade and review was to begin at 9 AM and we were ordered to gather at 8:45 in order to get properly aligned and prepared. We were to align behind the official marching band of the base, which consisted of approximately 100 members. It was going to be an impressive show for the dignitaries of the base with the band of 100 followed by 300 marching doctors! The commander for our marching group was selected not for his marching skills, but because he was the tallest doctor among the Majors. There were approximately 75 Majors and the remainder were Captains. There was one Major taller than I, and I was greatly relieved he was 1 inch taller. He had no prior experience in commanding that many men except for a practice run the previous day.
Our commander was told when the band struck up their marching tune, he was to give the order “Forward march,” and we were to follow the band around the parade ground and past the reviewing stand. Sounded pretty simple and straight-forward. That morning the officers present on the stand included the Wing Commander who was a Brigadier General, the Base Commander who was a Colonel and a group of at least 4 other officers who were either Colonels or Lieutenant Colonels. They all seemed proud that this was the largest class of physicians to graduate from the Medical Services School at Sheppard AFB.
The program began promptly at 9 AM with the raising of the flag in the center of the field and playing the National Anthem while all saluted. That was enough to make this a memorable service. But the best was yet to come! A Master Sergeant who had been assisting us with our marching training, alerted our commander to “remember to follow the band.” With his eyes on his troops and listening to the band’s prompt, he waited for the music to begin. What he was not aware because he was not watching the band, was the band had an introductory phrase to their marching tune and at the end of that phrase, the band was to begin marching. When our commander heard that introductory phrase, he loudly gave the order to the medical corps, “Forward March!” With that order, approximately 1/2 of the marching doctors marched up into the midst of the band. I was in that 1/2 of the group within the band, so I saw what took place next. The trombone player’s slide caught the hat of the man ahead of me and knocked it off spinning between the legs of the band members. The astonished trombonist stopped playing while the hat-less doctor scrambled between legs to retrieve his hat which was rolling by this time. The band stopped playing and our commander screamed, “Stop;” losing all sense of military protocol. The commander then gave the order,”About face,” at the urging of the Master Sergeant. I was well-aware of the principle that when an order is given, it is to be obeyed whether one thinks it is the correct order or not. I am convinced the right thing was for the band to begin marching forward to untangle this mess. Approximately 1/2 the doctors thought the same and they didn’t move when the about-face order was given, but the other half obeyed the order. Now there is a situation where about 150 doctors are facing each other! The commander tried again and gave the order, “About Face,” which everyone then obeyed, and there are still doctors facing doctors! (and many still within the ranks of the band). In total exasperation, the commander screamed out, “Get the h–l back where you are supposed to be!” We quickly walked back to our original position and held still. I took a quick glance at the reviewing stand and saw all of the general officers either laughing or with their head bowed down into cupped hands. I feel certain they had never seen anything like this fiasco. The remainder of the marching review went without incident and was really very impressive and awe-inspiring.
That evening at a reception for the graduates hosted by the general staff, all of the generals and colonels were having a good time laughing and recounting the morning’s review. I overheard one of them remark, “Well, what more could you expect from 300 intelligent doctors without a lick of military sense!” I was just glad I was there to experience first hand a “Gomer Pyle” event.