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Interview with Larry Schwab [09/10/2003]

Melissa Nethken:

It is the 10th of Sept 2003, we are in the home of Dr. Larry Schwab born on Sept 12, 1940. The address is [address redacted]. In attendance we have Graduate Student Kimberly Walker, Professor Mary Anne Reed, Graduate Student Clint Wilhelm, Undergraduate Student David Means, and myself, Melissa Nethken, the interviewer. Dr. Schwab could you go ahead and state for the camera the war that you were in?

Larry Schwab:

I served in the American Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Melissa Nethken:

And your branch.

Larry Schwab:

My branch of service was the United States Army

Melissa Nethken:

And your rank?

Larry Schwab:

My rank was captain in the medical corps

Melissa Nethken:

And where in Vietnam did you serve?

Larry Schwab:

I actually had two assignments. My first assignment was at a small surgical hospital called MUST unit. Mobile Unit Surgical Transportable hospital, and that was located near a community called Xuan Loc, in the republic of South Vietnam in three corp. I was about sixty miles east-northeast of Saigon, and that was attached, the 7th Surgical Hospital was attached to the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment base camp, and I was there for seven months and then I was transferred to the 25th infantry division. Then I was garrisoned to the base camp at the 1st Brigade of the 25th Division at Tay Ninh. I was attached to the medical section of headquarters company or headquarters battery of the 7th/l1th artillery of the 25th Infantry Division 1st Brigade

Melissa Nethken:

Were you drafted for Vietnam or did you enlist?

Larry Schwab:

No, I was drafted. I was... I finished medical school and I was doing general a rotating internship in New Orleans, LA at charity hospital, and toward the end of the internship when I had secured an assignment with the public health service to do research in Herbaviology with ?Telford? work at the CDC in Atlanta. I was then disqualified from that and drafted as a non-combatant by the United States Army. I was opposed to the war on philosophical grounds and conscientious grounds, but I was nevertheless conscripted/and was trained in the medical corps service school at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas and then sent to Vietnam.

Melissa Nethken:

At the point that you were draft, before you found out that you were going with the draft, what were your plans for the future?

Larry Schwab:

That plan with the public health service to work with virus transmission and the migratory bird population with the CDC. And I had been accepted for commission in the public health service. That was the first option. And if that hadn't materialized then the next option was to work with the Peace Corps and do small pox eradication attached to the World Health Organization in Somalia. But as it turned out neither of those two plans ever materialize because of my status as a medical officer in general medicine. I was eligible for conscription. So that's how that occurred.

Melissa Nethken:

So when you founded out you were drafted, do you remember what went through your head when you found out you had to do that?

Larry Schwab:

You know it's so shocking to think that from a civilian position when you're already in a service profession and you have other plans to do other types of service, and to have those plans radically changed by an international action of which you didn't approve. I think for a time I was just numb. I couldn't really believe that this was happening, although I knew a lot of people being conscripted at the time and being forced against their will. But my choices were very limited. I could have gone to Canada or to Sweden and escaped the draft. I could have refused to be conscripted and I had acquaintances who were going to prison, going to jail for that. Or the other option was to go to Vietnam. And I thought long and hard about it. So I talked it over with some people, including my wife. We had no children at the time. So I went to Vietnam a noncombatant to serve in the Medical Corp; thinking that I could justify it conscientiously to serve in the Medical Corps as someone who didn't carry a weapon and had not been trained to kill.

Melissa Nethken:

You said that your training - when you were drafted, you received training for five weeks - what was that like just coming out of medical school and going in to this training for the military this five weeks. What was that transition like?

Larry Schwab:

Well... the training was at Ft. Sam Houston and Ft. Sam Houston, they have a medical field service school. And I was taken from a position in my medical training where I was free to use logic and data and facts to make decisions on caring for patients and I was put in, really put into a box, in a very structured, rigid environment, quite contrary to anything that I had every experienced. There was no questioning of what I was taught. There was only one way to do things. There was a joke we had, in fact, among the draftees - there were 704 or 5 of us in that class, it was one of the largest medical classes that had even been taken at Ft. Sam Houston - and we used to say there were three way to things: There was a right way, a wrong way, and the Army way. But it was not particularly pleasant because there was no room for variation in the way people were thinking. It was extremely structured! I actually enjoyed the physical part of it at camp Bullas where we had some field training/here we stayed over night for a couple of nights on a weekend. There's where I was surprised to find that half of the doctors I was with had never spent a night in a sleeping bag. So there was pretty good humor associated with that. But all in all it was quite contrary to anything that I had experienced. We were not trained in combat arms, but we were trained in the traditional way that the army triages and handles casualties. We were told the armies protocols and algorithms for first aid and in treating certain disease processes, and then we were given a short course in Army bureaucracy and a lot of information on uniforms and brass pins and ribbons and what it meant to the Army. But it was quite different from anything that I had experienced in my twenty-six years up to that point.

Melissa Nethken:

Personally, how did you deal with that transition?

Larry Schwab:

Well, my wife and I had been married for a little over a year when I was drafted, and went to Ft. Sam Houston. So she went with me to medical field service school in San Antonio. And together we survived it. We spent the weekends out hiking and visiting the South Texas coast and trying to think what it would be like to have a year of separation of after having just a little more than a year of marriage. But I think when you are forced to do something you really don't want to do, particularly when you think violence might be involved in your future ... it's a process that mentally you have to work through in your own private way to justify it. The only way to escape it at that point would have been not to show up, and I would have been in violation of military protocol and I would have been viewed by the army as a deserter. I'm not sure anyone in our class did that. But there were a lot of very unhappy doctors in the class, because several people had been drafted out of active practice. Including one man who was a paraplegic who was a radiologist and even though he wasn't sent to Vietnam, he was sent to Ft. Carson, in Colorado to read x-rays at the Army hospital there. So it was a very disruptive feature for professional people at the time, even physicians into their early and mid thirties who were drafted because branches of service where short of medical people.

Melissa Nethken:

With the way you felt and the struggle that you kind of had during all your training, how did you feel towards your instructors, and those that were teaching you?

Larry Schwab:

At Ft. Sam Houston in Medical Field Service School?

Melissa Nethken:

Yes.

Larry Schwab:

I think it was more of a feeling of ambivalence. I didn't feel the great respect that I had for the teachers that I had up to that time. Because I was forced to do this, it was not a choice. It was something I did not choose. Something I did not want. And people all are better in academic pursuits if they want to do this. There were probably a few physicians who volunteered for this and were in that class and they may have been stars. But for most of, us the bulk of us, the large proportion that had been drafted, I can't say that it was a real positive academic experience. I didn't feel hostility toward the teachers, but I did at times question how and why they could arrive at such a position as a teacher in training others including the techniques and philosophy of armed conflict, even though we were noncombatants.

Melissa Nethken:

Once you completed your training you were preparing to leave and go overseas. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and going over to Vietnam?

Larry Schwab:

I was drafted and reported in early September and army field service school lasted approximately five weeks. And after that time I think we had eight or ten days of ordinary leave. So my wife and I drove back from San Antonio to Morgantown, [WV] and I spent that short one week or less time with my family and then I simply got on a plane and flew to San Francisco, and reported at Oakland Army base and waited for four days until there was a commercial aircraft that took us to Vietnam. But it was a wrench to leave everything that you had come to expect and to be forced by my country, my nation, my culture to enter a conflict which was violating what I thought were basic human principles. So it was a difficult transition. And especially when you are thrust into the maul, into the unknown and you know that people are dying and being maimed in that conflict already. And you wonder about your own safety. And of course when you get on a plane and leave American soil to fly there, you wonder if you'll come back alive or if you arrive in a steel box like a lot of the soldiers that I served beside did. Or they may have gone home through a system maimed without limbs or with serious injuries through medical evacuation system through Southeast Asia or Japan. So those questions are always on your mind when you enter such a violent event as the American Vietnam War turned out to be.

Melissa Nethken:

When you arrived in Vietnam and you first got there, what was your first impression when you first took everything in

Larry Schwab:

Melissa, my first impression, getting off the airplane... We flew commercially on a Boeing 707 and I think it was United Aircraft as I recall, but there were commercial airhostesses and it was not a military transport and we were served regular meals, and we were in khaki uniforms and we were fresh and scrubbed and we had landed in Honolulu and refueled and then we'd gone to Guam. And then we had arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. When we taxied into position we were warned by the flight crew that there was a possibility of mortars or rockets landing on the air field and if we heard loud explosions that we should to seek cover or lie down flat on the aircraft or if we happened to be on the ground then we should lie down flight. And when we deplaned, we walked down the gangway and at the foot of the gangway there was a sentry there was an American solider in a grungy green uniform and jungle fatigues / with and M-16 rifle, unsmiling, and he had what we learned later to call the 1,000 yard stare. Just had a very vacant and hollow look/And then when we passed him and we entered the staging area where we got orders and transport to go to the next station where we were to be processed in the other half of the room were approximately 90 or 100 soldiers in various states of dress - some in jungle fatigues, some in khakis - and they were waiting to board the plane on the same gangway to go back to the US. And I realized that it was ironic that the only thing that separated me from two or three feet away where I could be boarding that plane to go back was one year-- 'cause the tour of duty was a year, if you were able to survive a year, that's all that was required. And you were then released to go home, unless you happened to like it, then you could reup, have some leave and go back again. But very few people did.

Melissa Nethken:

At that point when you arrived there, what job were you assigned? What was your specific task?

Larry Schwab:

Well, the first position I had with the 7th Surgical Hospital in Xuan Loc with the 11th Armored Cav, which was attached, was as a general medical officer. And my responsibilities as a GMO were to assist the specialist doctors including the general surgeons and the orthopedic surgeons who were at this small unit and the internists. And there were two of us, there were two General Medical Officers, two GMOs. So we took sick call for the hospital area and the other units around us. We took referrals and saw general medical conditions that came from the base camp of the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. And then we assisted on ward rounds and admitted patients that had various types of infections including malaria and other tropical infections. And then when there was a big flap and if there was combat action and soldiers were brought in wounded by helicopter. There was landing pad just outside the hospital. Then we assisted in triage, in sorting out the casualties for surgery. The ones that were brought... and this could be very intense... it might go on for eight or ten hours after a big contact with the enemy. So we assisted with triage and did what we could to assist. And went to the operating room with the surgeons. And in the triage we were responsible in assisting the general surgeons or yourself examining the patients to determine which ones that would likely not live, and the one that could be saved and salvaged. And the ones that had serious head injuries who were comatose or who were not likely to survive were not given priority treatment, because we needed to concentrate our resources and energies on the people that could be saved with traumatic amputations or gunshot wounds to the chest or the abdomen or who were sanguinating and loosing blood, and so that group was put into another area to help to stabilize them and then when the appropriate time came we took them to the operating room and did the necessary repair. Some of the surgeries I was able to do myself, and assist the simpler things, although I had not been trained in general surgery. We also assisted the general surgeons then on the more complicated and more complex cases. We also treated, in addition to the US Soldiers, US civilians. We also treated the Vietnamese civilians. We treated Vietnamese soldiers, the ARVNs, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. We treated them. We also treated the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese Army. And there was a priority. If there were a lot of casualties, US service people, in a causality situation, were treated first. Then US civilians. Then Republic of South Vietnam soldiers. Then South Vietnam civilians. And lastly, the Viet Cong or if there happened to be any regular North Vietnamese Army soldiers that had been brought in wounded they were last in the triage and treatment. But they nevertheless were treated and managed as best we could do. So that was my first job. Then that went on for about seven months.

Melissa Nethken:

What was your relationship like that you developed with the people that you were working with?

Larry Schwab:

In medicine you have a... really you develop a bond with your other practitioners because you're there... in your training you learn a certain way to work with others. That was unchanged from working in an American or western type medical situations. I had excellent relations, personal relationships and developed a number of close friendships while I was there with the physicians. We had very little contact with the soldiers in the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. They were separated, they had their own areas where they lived when they were in base camp, but there were in the field much of the time. They were out on field operations. So there was really no good way to get to know them. So we were very isolated. We had the hospital compound. There were nurses there. The nurses were protected and sequestered. They were very much sheltered. Although we mixed socially, they had their very own quarters on the compound. You got to know everyone as an individual and worked with them as colleagues, much the same as you would here, and in any situation, as in any other situation working closely with people you develop certain bonds and friendships.

Melissa Nethken:

You said that you guys devised forms of entertainment for yourselves, what kind of things did you do?

Larry Schwab:

Well, we played basketball. The climate was very hot. It was not the central highlands. There were two seasons, the wet and dry season. During the seven months I was there we experienced a bit of both. We devised a basketball court and played basketball. We took a lot of photographs of just things around the base camp and microphotography. We had slide shows. We managed to get a tape deck and scrounge some lumber from the 11th Armored Calvary Store and built a small club. Beer was .10 a can, soft drinks were .10 a can. And we managed to get a fridge so was had a place to hang out and listen to some music. And there were always cards and letters.

Melissa Nethken:

That's OK. What kept you from leaving at that time?

Larry Schwab:

Well, you felt bond of duty. I was taught growing up that your word is your bond. I agreed to do this, I expected to do it, and I wanted to assist. But I didn't want to carry a weapon. I didn't want to be in a situation where I was involved in active combat and I didn't want to be trained. But I will was willing to assist with the skills that I had learned as a physician, to assist those who had been maimed or who were ill because of war, or who were displaced including the refugees. But desertion in the Army is a criminal offence. There were deserters. There were individuals who didn't desert, but who inflicted wounds on themselves, what were called the million dollar wounds to get themselves out of the Theater of Action. They would not lose their life, but they might lose their hand or a foot or their toe. And they got Dishonorable Discharges, but they got home and they had their lives. It was also very impractical. It's very difficult in a wartime situation if you want to get home and you feel bound to do that and that is your goal to find the means to do it. And the moment any soldier does that he becomes criminal in the court... in the eyes of military justice. I really never did consider it seriously, but there were times when I really did want to be with my family and in a time of bereavement that is when I wanted to support my mother and my family that gathered at that time. But I think conscience and responsibility would have ever kept me from doing that. Although there were times when I wished I hadn't ever gotten involved in Vietnam because of some things that happened to us. And being so at risk of lives... Of losing my own life and the lives of many people in our battalion, when we were beaten up so badly several times in the field as a unit. Most soldiers probably think of it, at crunch time, when they really realize... when the mortars are coming down and the flashes are nearby and you're can't get your hands and neck protected even with your flack jacket and your metal pot, that you wish you were someplace else. You wish you were in the ground, but there's no hole to dig. That's when you really don't want to be there. It's the moment of extreme terror. When you really think that you somehow could have avoided the position that you're in. None of the physicians that I knew ever left their units or their hospitals or their stations... there was nobody ever absent from duty. In part I think it's the way that people are trained in medical school, because you share a sense or responsibility with those that you serve and you're duty bound to help, and you've also taken on the responsibility and the conscientious objective to serve with them.

Melissa Nethken:

You said that you spent some time in the field, as a noncombatant, what was that like for you, and what was your role?

Larry Schwab:

That was after the service at the 7th Surgical Hospital and I was transferred to the 25th Infantry Division, and I was assigned as a battalion surgeon, and the Army calls all the doctors assigned to it a surgeon. It's just a title they give them. My military rank was captain but I was a battalion surgeon, even though I had not trained in general surgery. I was attached to small medical unit with the 25th Infantry Division. And I moved with the unit when we were in the field. And there were some close calls and some very bad times that we experienced as a unit. And our responsibility as a medical section with the corpsmen or the medics, these were civilians that were trained as technical aides to help out to retrieve the wounded and to dress their wounds, to staunch the bleeding... to give morphine for pain and to bear litters, and I worked directly with them. And so we traveled with the artillery battalion.

Melissa Nethken:

Being so close to the unit with your second job, what was that like with your relationship toward the soldiers? The first job you seem to have been isolated from the soldiers. What was it like being so close? Your relationship?

Larry Schwab:

Oh, I got know the soldiers in a way that I didn't know the soldiers with the first assignment with the 25th division the people attached to the artillery battalions. They were enlisted men, most of them were drafted, most of them were very young. Most were teenagers. Some of them were drafted out of college. Some had never gone to college, some had just finished high school. Some were high dropouts. But I got to know a number of them very well and bonded with several of them. But the relationship was quite different. There's also a phenomenon that occurs in war and close combat, that you tend to form close friendships with people you otherwise might not choose as friends, because of the whole milieu in which you're working. And when you are constantly at risk and being threatened by small arms fire or mortars and you don't know when it's going to come. There's a bond that's just naturally there to protect each other, and to work for each other's safety. And I felt that with them.

Melissa Nethken:

How did you deal with being on a personal level with these men and having to treat the medically? How did you separate your role as a friend and comrade from your role a doctor?

Larry Schwab:

Many of the soldiers in other batteries that were casualties or that we treated, I didn't know, and some I did. And I knew all the officers. They expected help from us, and they knew that if there was some way that they could get help from an infection, if they happened to be injured, we were there on the spot to help them. But the personal side of that, of the relationship with them was separated, the personal friendship from the professional side. And it was my responsibility to provide what I could and with very meager resources, because we had no high-tech equipment, to them. And they knew that first aid was available by a trained person, and the medics, that if they got into a bad situation and needed evacuations, that at least we could stabilize them as best we could until we got them to a hospital facility. But it was much like practicing medicine in the US. I treat my friends and my colleagues here as well. But again in medicine you're obligated to do that because of your training, and you learn to do it. You can separate treating an individual, the friendship reaches a certain point and after that there is the human side and there's the organic side. And there it's a different aspect. You have to be very objective about it, especially if somebody is very badly wounded in Vietnam. You just do what you can under the circumstances, but you don't think at that point about some personal friendship that has developed. Now in civilian life you kinda draw the line. There are certain things that I could never do with my family. Now when we lived in Africa all these past years before we came back in 1989 I did treat my kids with emergencies and sewed up their lacerations and took the fish hooks out of their hands and those things, but there was no one else around to do it. But you would never, for instance operate on a family member as an elective operation. So... is that what you were asking?

Melissa Nethken:

When you were in the middle of all this, after things would kind of calm down a little bit, what did you do to keep yourself grounded in that whole situation, and to make it through to the next day?

Larry Schwab:

My source of confidence was my family and my friends. We had our immediate friends there, within the unit. But I was in constant contact with my wife by letter. We wrote a letter to each other every day. I didn't have to get a letter from her and answer it. I sat down every day and wrote a three of four-page letter and she did the same. And after I came back, all the letters that I wrote to her she had bound and I have that collection of letters from that period. So you always look forward to mail call. There are these old sayings that the Army moves on its stomach... Food and mail call so important for morale. But you have to, when you're mortally threatened or in a crisis, you fall back on those things that are familiar to you, and those things to me were my personal relationships with my friends at home, with my family, my brothers and of course my wife. You also devise other forms of entertainment and recreation, as I already mentioned with your comrades, but it's not quite the same, that passes time. The real solid relationship with the family goes a long way in maintaining an individual in a situation apply like being separated because of war... And I think the same might go for someone who is imprisoned or captured... prisoners of war or prisoners of conscience that so many people around the world are... and Amnesty International, but that's a whole other aspect, we can't talk about that in this interview. But the family connection I think was the sustaining feature for me. Am I carrying these questions to long?

Melissa Nethken:

Where you awarded any medals?

Larry Schwab:

Yes, for the record there are the documentation that you have. I received for my year of service a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, and then there was a Bronze Star awarded for Heroism in Ground Combat Operations as a Noncombatant. Those were the two. And then the usual ribbons... the fruit salad, the things that are worn up here, the colored ribbons, all the Theater of Operations and that's all the stuff that decorate. Fruit salad is what's that called and you wear it on your uniform. I didn't wear it. But there were a couple of awards. One just for being a good soldier more or less, and one for action with the 25th Infantry Division.

Melissa Nethken:

The way that you felt about the war and about the Army the whole time you were in it, what did those medals mean to you?

Larry Schwab:

There's a saying that I heard over and over and the first thing that came to mind when you asked me that question was what I heard when I, and several of us learned that we were going to be receiving citations, was with that medal and ten cents you could still buy a cup of coffee. The Meritorious Service Award, the Bronze Star was given out free, more or less for officers that had served reasonably well. It's an Army award for doing your duty. The second award of also doing my duty, but at a time on May 8th and 9th in the middle of the night when the world was so chaotic and exploding and dangerous that I thought all of us would die. As it turns out there were only 85 causalities instead of 240. There were 13 that died that night and 72 casualties and many maimed. The worst four hours of my life, that I'm still having nightmares about and combat dreams. But never once did anyone think that their doing this to get an award, or a medal. What you're trying to do is survive and in my case I was trying to take care of nineteen-year-old kids that had been maimed and were missing limbs and had 90% second and third degree bums and the soldiers aren't thinking of country and the flag at that time either. They wanted something for pain, and they wanted water and they wanted their mothers. And the pathos of bombs and exploding rockets, and small arms fire, to nineteen-year-old kids; it pure pathos to think that I heard that, and I saw that, and but it wasn't country and liberty and freedom and democracy hear most of these kids die that they were there for. They weren't fighting for that. They were fighting to stay alive and to come home. And that's why I have real issue with that as a political slogan that these men died for their country. They didn't die for their country, they died for each other maybe, but they didn't want to die. But no soldier that I saw seriously injured or maimed or thought he might die, ever said the first thing about the flag or the country. They were thinking of their families. And the majority of the ones that I saw there in that situation were drafted. And it since you can consider extended that logic that our own culture and political system sent them off to their deaths unwillingly because they were conscripted and forced to serve and they put them in harms way.

Melissa Nethken:

Let's talk a little bit about whenever you found out you were coming home.

Larry Schwab:

Well I knew when I was coming, I thought I knew when I was coming home the day I arrived; and you had what is called a DEROS Date of Estimated Return of Over Seas Service, because Vietnam at that time was a one year tour of duty. It was unlike Korea and WWII where soldiers were put together as units and sent to Normandy or sent to the South Korean Peninsula as a unit and when the war was over they came home. You were there for one year and you were rotated in and out of units. And if you survive for a year, and you didn't want to come home earlier, because it meant that you didn't have part of your anatomy, or that you were seriously injured. So you wanted to make it to that time and you wanted to get a drop at the end, you wanted to get an early flight out. And maybe have it a year short, or close to a year. The Marines serve 13 months rather than 12. And the Navy personnel and Air Force and Army personnel served 12 months. So when I went on October 25th, 1967 and flew from Oakland to Tan Son Nhut Air base, when I arrived there, my DEROS was October 24th 1968. And sometime, nearly everyone who was there, who was not a career soldier, and who hadn't been there in a career position and some of them were crazy. But who wanted to stay and some people did stay longer, and some of them were crazy. But sometime after you were there you learned to count days until you came home. Most of us had short timers calendars, and on the short timers calendar, you had months that you would be there and everyday you marked off. And when you were getting real close to the time that you were to come home. And when you were getting real close to the time that you were to come home you were said to be short, meaning you had a short time in the country, and you tried to get a drop, meaning you could go on an earlier flight. And if you happen know someone who cut orders and you might be able to influence them to get an early out. It was a little anticlimactic to know this, because no one came into our bunker and said, you're going home next week, it didn't work like that.

Melissa Nethken:

Yeah, let's go ahead and back up just a little bit. You mentioned the two nights in May. Can you just go through as much as you're comfortable with telling us either factually or your perspective of what happened that night?

Larry Schwab:

Well I can tell you the facts as I know them and my perspective and this is documented in a letter that I wrote to Laura Palmer who is the author of Shrapnel in the and who has a connection with the department of journalism and who appeared here last year with another number of women writers from that era of Vietnam.

Melissa Nethken:

Let's go ahead and talk about when you arrived back in the US. You said a little bit about the reaction of society to Vietnam soldiers. What was your reaction?

Larry Schwab:

I didn't experience it directly because as soon as I came back, I was assigned to another Army position as a general medical officer at Sandea base army hospital in Albuquerque, and we were very much protected within a military community there and there were not a lot of demonstrations and anti-war activism in Albuquerque. But at the end of my tour and when I was discharged in August 1969, I started my career in ophthalmology by taking a basic science course at Harvard University and at Boston Eye and Ear Infirmary in Massachusetts in ophthalmology and there, there was a lot of political activism and that's when I experienced it for the first time. I didn't personally experience any hostility upon returning because of the people I was with, but I did go to anti-war rallies and I spoke at some. I spoke with groups and opposed the war. But I didn't have any; personally I didn't have any experiences of encountering the hostile reaction. I know people who did, but I was not one of them.

Melissa Nethken:

And you said that you started to study ophthalmology at that point. Had that been your goal, you said prior to going into the service you were going to do some work with the CDC, is that correct?

Larry Schwab:

That's correct

Melissa Nethken:

And then you changed to ophthalmology after the war. What kind of influenced that transition?

Larry Schwab:

Well the work with the CDC was only in lieu of military service. I didn't want to serve in the Army, or the Air Force, or the Navy, but I was willing to serve our national government in a positive way with research that might help others, or to do smallpox eradication with the Peace Corps, but I was looking for a way to serve without being involved in armed violence. But I'd always been interested in ophthalmology and it had been my goal at the end of the military experience at some point to study ophthalmology, but the applications, when I realized Vietnam I was going, I was obligated to two years of service beyond internship, that's when I had arranged the possibility of working at the CDC in Atlanta in county commission for public health service and that application was stopped, all those applications were stopped, because a number of individuals in medical studies were attempting to enter public health service to avoid being drafted because they didn't want to see that hostile combat situation. But ophthalmology had been an interest of mine since medical school and I'd always planned for the previous probably three years to study ophthalmology.

Melissa Nethken:

So where did your career kind of go once you got back?

Larry Schwab:

Well, I did that basic science course and then I came back to Morgantown and did a residency for three years in clinical ophthalmology and then in 1972, went as a volunteer with the International Eye Foundation to Africa. At that point, I had two job offers. I could have worked as, doing standard kind of ophthalmic practice in Boulder, Colorado, a very nice place, or I could go with the International Eye Foundation as a volunteer to Ethiopia with my family. We had one son then, and I had already been to boulder. So we went to Ethiopia and stayed with the International Eye Foundation throughout the '70s when in the '70s we were in Ethiopia and Kenya until 1980 and then we were back in Morgantown for two and a half years and then we went back to Malawi in southern Africa and to the mid '80s and late '80s to Zimbabwe. So we lived in four African countries with the family assisting governments and private foundations in teaching and organizing eye care services for people of that country. It was a technical assistance kind of program. It was not missionary work. I enjoyed it very much. I thought it might have offered something to the people of those countries and to their healthcare systems, and it was a nice way to work, and I thought it was productive and something I enjoy doing and I finally came back to the US in '89 and we've been here since that time.

Melissa Nethken:

And after '89 is when you visited Vietnam again?

Larry Schwab:

That's right. After '89, all through these years, since the Vietnam experience, I have been bothered with combat dreams. A lot of them were I'm sure connected with the experience I have related to you, but there were other experiences too. Just getting shot at occasionally can do it. I think there's someone there with murder on their minds and you don't know who it might be. It could be friend or foe, and you're always so worried, tense, and worried. But we were in that convoy situation, we were mortared, we were rocketed at base camp, a rocket hit the mess hall once and two dozen guys were killed in the orderly room, so even in base camp, once the enemy came over the wire and invaded our garrison area, the B-52 strike just a few kilometers outside the base camp. So you're always when you're around-shooting and bombing, it affects you, and all these experiences taken together. Because of that I developed some kind of very innate and very deep-seeded fear of guns. We don't have any guns in this house in our home. I don't like guns. I don't shoot. I don't want to be around them. I don't own a weapon. I think that confrontational armed combat is wrong. It has no place in a civil society. It has no place as an instrument of national policy. It has no place in the role of diplomatic relations as a forceful tool, and my experiences because of being threatened for that year in Vietnam, because of that, I developed a number sequential combat dreams. They were almost daily for the first two or three years back - after I came back, and then they began to get less in frequency, but I was always bothered by them. They seemed to come when I was particularly fatigued, or I worked late, or I was worried about something, or there was some stressful event in my life, and this demon at night would visit me, and I would always awaken before I was terminally greased - before I was shot by the soldier with the automatic weapon, before I was attacked by the squad of soldiers and I was always unarmed.

Mary Anne Reed:

Sure.

Larry Schwab:

When I arrived in Hanoi, I was treated very well by the local officials and the senior ophthalmologist at the Institute of Ophthalmology, which was a very modest facility in Hanoi, asked what I would like to do and he assumed I would like to go to Hanoi and then go to DeNang and visit they and go to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon and stay in the cities, but what I said is what I'd like to do is go to the countryside because 80 percent of the Vietnamese lived in the rural areas and that's where most of the people are and I'd like to see what the do. So they agreed and they gave me a government interpreter and a vehicle and a driver. And we went about 100 kilometers, about 60 miles or so, out of Hanoi to a province called Hautai province, and when we arrived at this very modest district hospital, we were met by the district chairman who was a member of the Communist party of course and all the district officials and we had tea with the hospital administrator. It was a very humane welcome, very British in a way, but this is typical of gentle cultures, and above all the Vietnamese culture is a very gentle and considerate culture to guests and visitors.

Melissa Nethken:

One more thing that I've found whenever I was researching some information on you is that you're very active in legislation on banning landmines.

Larry Schwab:

That's right.

Melissa Nethken:

Would you like to talk a little bit about that?

Larry Schwab:

We saw many civilians and soldiers, both American and Vietnamese soldiers, Vietcong, North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietnamese civilians that had been maimed by landmines. When I went back to Vietnam, I knew it was a problem, but when I went back to Vietnam at the end of that trip in '95 with a visit to Cambodia. Cambodia has the highest rate of traumatic amputation from landmines than any other country in the world. They've been left by the Cammere Rouge, several insurgencies have been left by the US military, tens of thousands of butterfly mines which are distributed from aircraft, litter the landscape distributed by US forces in the invasion of Cambodia. They're still active, they're armed, children pick them up thinking they're toys. They lose hands, eyes, arms, legs, lives. When I saw the problem in (?Nau Pent?), they participated in a survey with a team of healthcare workers to define the rates of blindness in Cambodia from all causes. We discovered that the rates of blindness from landmines were the highest rates of blindness from trauma that had ever been reported in the world literature. And I'm beginning to think, this doesn't just take limbs and destroy families and lives, but it's a blindness prevention issue. And I got interested in this issue from the perspective of saving human eyesight. And when I came back from that trip, I was given a contact by a Mary Newell Priest with whom I worked in a Buddhist (Stupa) in (?Pena Perm?). He gave me the name of Jody Williams who was in Putney, Vermont at the time. That was '95, and she was 80, and as you may know she's a Nobel Peace Laureate for her active role in the landmine treaty and I telephoned her and she said her are your contacts. Contact these individuals and these organizations which I did, so I've been working actively since 1995 in the United States and at international meetings to ban this horrible, vicious, indiscriminate weapon that takes at least 20,000 victims a year, around the world, mostly in poor countries.

Melissa Nethken:

Let's go ahead and if you have any additional comments that you would like to make.

Larry Schwab:

The comment that I may have missed on that last tape was just the plea for people to work with the landmine campaign. Eliminate a weapon that doesn't discriminate between soldiers and civilians and a weapon that has taken out of production farm land, foot trails, traditional places where people gather, where they meet, where they build, taking out farmland as landmines move in monsoons. And if we all work together and look at this weapon as what it really is. It's a weapon of terror to control civilian populations as well as military, and to take the responsibility as responsible governments and societies and rid the world of these, then we will have done the planet a very great humanitarian service. I hope it happens, I think it can happen. A lot of progress in fact has been made by a lot of people who are committed to this issue.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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