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Santa Clarita Valley doctors, nurse share stories about Vietnam War

Veterans, medical professionals to be honored today

Posted: September 28, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 28, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital physicians who served in the Vietnam War, from top left, Sum Tran, Douglas Gadowski, George Charnock, Bill Sickler, bottom row left, Karl Stein, John Cocco, Art Vatz and Allen Karz.

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Eight men in suit jackets and pressed shirts, and one in navy scrubs, gathered on the front lawn at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.

They chuckled and jostled a bit as they fell into form — two lines of four — some of them a bit hesitant, some with surgeries awaiting them inside.

About 8 a.m. Tuesday, the morning was as crisp as the folds in the men’s shirts, and by the third or fourth flash of the camera, they were relaxed and back to the familiar antics of taking playful shots at one another and starting casual conversations about the war.

All the men, either practicing or retired doctors and a nurse, had at least two things in common: They all served in the Vietnam War, and at some point life carried each of them to Santa Clarita to heal others at Henry Mayo.

About 13 doctors and nurses who served are being honored today at 5 p.m. at the AVTT Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall at Westfield Valencia Town Center. Eight of them came to Henry Mayo on Tuesday to share their stories.

After the clicking of the camera quieted, the men — several reticent initially — began to share their stories.

Some gave voice to their experiences as they though they were ripping them from their pasts. Some spoke as though it was an act of defiance. One called the conversations cathartic.

“I served in the Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army,” said Douglas Gadowski, a cardiologist.

With all the men gathered around, Gadowski flashed through about 10 pages of black-and-white photos preserved in a floral-covered photo album.

One by one, the men encircled Gadowski, peering into the faces on the page.

“We did a lot of sick calls with (Vietnamese) civilians,” he said, pointing to faces of children with severe scalp conditions and cleft palates.

“We were flown be helicopter into a village after the area was secured to perform medical (care),” he said. “I felt like the president being flown in.”

Next he pointed to photos of vehicles with various markings, specifically noting a photo of a tank he rode in.
“There was a machine gunner in front of me — he was shot right in front of me,” Gadowski said, still speaking calmly and deliberately.

Pausing, he came to a finish and slowly closed the album. After a few short side conversations, Gadowski left.
Part of the group moved on to a cafeteria conference room where a meeting of Vietnam veterans and Henry Mayo health care workers was organized by Dr. Gene Dorio.

Dorio asked Dr. George Charnock how his daughter was.

Charnock served in the war and now his daughter, a pediatrician and Hart High School graduate, is being sent overseas to Afghanistan.

“We’re in a place where we shouldn’t be, and they’re sending over American pediatricians,” Charnock said, anger lacing his controlled tone.

Because medical school is so expensive, some students enlist, and the military helps pay for education — but the student then owes the military a certain number of years, said several of the men.

“I was out of a job,” said nurse Bill Sickler, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a young man. “I was a machinist. A red cross was like a bull’s eye. You didn’t want to be a medic.”

Wearing his scrubs and a hospital sweat shirt, Sickler left the group, exhausted at the end of his night shift.
Dr. John Cocco recalled nights from his service in the U.S. Air Force.

“The sky was light at night because of all the rockets coming in,” Cocco said, raising his hands from the table into the air, mimicking a growing orb of light.

Some of the men found ways to commit suicide while they were in combat, he said.

“One cut off his leg. One electrocuted himself,” Cocco said.

It was generally understood that it took about 30 consecutive days of full combat for a guy to crack, the men said. But most men didn’t survive 30 straight days of full combat.

“You have visions of what you saw and did in your head,” Cocco said. “One coping mechanism is denial.”

The three remaining veterans had never seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.; however, all the men expected to recognize names at the replica AVTT Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall at Westfield Valencia Town Center this weekend.

“For several doctors, (the wall) is allowing them to heal themselves,” Dorio said. “Doctors who came back to heal others can now begin to heal themselves.”

All three of the doctors remaining at the informal cafeteria gathering planned to visit the memorial.

“Vietnam was not a popular war,” Cocco said. “But I think (bringing the memorial to Santa Clarita) is a respectable gesture. It’s recognition and acknowledgement.”

The last to leave, Cocco paused at the cafeteria doorway.

“This,” he said, “is catharsis.”


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