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Gifts from a once-captive doctor

The Reporter's Notebook


Sometimes new friends can result in strange gifts.

I was in Vietnam just after the Tet offensive in 1968, partially to pry about the war and to visit parents of students I had met at the University of Washington.

I had visited one set of parents two days earlier, only to have them come to the hotel I was staying in to ask me to come to their house that evening. They said they had someone they wanted me to meet.

I went to their house and met a medical doctor who had been held captive by the Viet Cong for four years. He was finally able to escape his captors and return to Saigon and his medical practice.

He was captured and held in a number of jungle locations to tend to wounded soldiers.

He recounted that he had been well treated and had been somewhat content to be able to do what he was trained to do.

For the first couple of years, he said, he was well treated, but guarded. He stated that he couldn’t begin to count the number of communist soldiers he treated during the four years.

As time went on, his guard wasn’t nearly as tight and he had some freedom of movement.

That’s when he acquired the two gifts he presented me with that night.

One was a butterfly collection he made while captive, the other a 3-foot long stuffed alligator.

My first thought was how I was going to get these things on the plane and into the country upon my return.

I was taken by how philosophically he had viewed his capture. He held no malice towards his captors and even spoke well of them because he had been treated well.

The doctor said that his medical tent was hurriedly moved further into the jungle on many occasions.

The tree canopy hid the layout from the air, he said, because it was so thick. There were always more people to treat than there was time, and sometimes medical supplies were short.

Sometimes, he noted, the type of injuries he had to treat stretched his skills.

The individual butterflies had been collected when he had time to relax. They were presented pinned to a cardboard box. The small alligator he caught in a swamp in the jungle and he cleaned it and treated it. I still have both.

I was able to get on the plane carrying both items, and, after a lengthy discussion, I was allowed to bring them into the United States.

This was a critical time in Vietnam. The Viet Cong had almost taken over the city, and friendly forces were still eliminating them at the time.

I had asked the doctor if he was afraid that the Cong might retaliate against him; he said he had no fear of that.

He’d made his escape one day when everything was quiet; he just walked away and made his way to where he was picked up by friendly forces.

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