By Capt. (ret.) Robert (Bob) Reed D.D.S.
In June of 1970, this fresh-faced transfer from the 7th Group arrived in Thailand to become the dentist for the 46th Special Forces Co. (Airborne). Before I left, I was told to call the Bangkok safe house as incoming personnel were sometimes skimmed off by other Thailand U.S. Army units. So I arrived and placed a call, which I remember because the phone system in Thailand made that more of a guessing game than a predictable event.
I spent the night at the safe house, was picked up in deuce and half by some SF guys, and we made our way about 60 miles to Lop Buri, our team headquarters north of Bangkok. I reported for duty to LTC. Paul Combs, my CO, checked into my clinic and was directed to live with others in a 4-room bungalow. My job was to take care of the Company, even though we had A teams spread all over Thailand. That meant I had to travel to the A teams either by air or rail to treat them on site rather than take them away for 3 days, one day back to Lop Buri, one day at Lop Buri, and one day back to their base of operations.
In September of 1970, I visited our A team at Nam Pung Dam, a site roughly 120 miles west of Nakhon Phanom (NKP), where we had a large Air Force base as well as an A Team. The A team at Nam Poong Dam had a training facility built on a peninsula that extended into the lake. The camp was surrounded by water on three sides, and the fourth side was cleared in case of unwanted visits. The Team commander told me their training drop zone, a few kilometers away from the base, had had some sniper fire during training jumps, so it was decided to have the drop zone on the air strip, a short takeoff landing (STOL) strip at the end of the peninsula. The Communist Thai were pretty active in Northeast Thailand at that time. That weekend, a Labor Day Sunday in 1970, an H34 Air America helicopter was obtained, and we had SF personnel from nearby A Teams show up for pay jumps, me included. Since I was the guest of the Team, I was chosen to be first out of the helicopter. We took off, the jump master said go, and the guy across from me went first instead of me. I was OK with that. The helicopter made a loop over the lake, came over the drop zone, and I led the second stick out of the helicopter.
Dentist to the Rescue
I landed about 10 feet from the lake, packed up my chute, and walked about 30–40 yards back to the marshalling area. When I arrived, I saw an SF Soldier lying on his back. He looked like a black soldier, and everyone was just standing around looking at him. I found out later that most of the 46 SFCo. troops came straight from the 5th Group and were used to seeing dead guys. I was not used to seeing dead troopers. The Team Medic had been sent for but was not there yet, so I immediately knelt down next to this soldier, stripped off his parachute harness, and began CPR. Soon his color changed from black to white, his heart started beating, but I still had to do mouth-to-mouth. Soon the medic showed up, and he started breathing on his own. At that point, we prepared to get him to NKP on the Air America helicopter.
I was very happy we had saved this guy’s life, the first time so far.
A little background is in order. This soldier went into the lake, still in his parachute, did not prepare for a water landing, and basically sank. There were two boats of Thai fishermen that were in the area to collect the parachutes of those jumpers who threw off their helmets and made a water landing, slipping out of their chutes into the water. The boats also picked up guys who needed help out of the water. I have no idea how long he was under the water, but I guess about 20 minutes as the fisherman dragged the chute with him behind it to the bank of the lake, and the water was warm. This creates a very low prognosis for survival and lack of brain damage. In fact, one of our guys shook off help from a boat and drowned that day. He was the first out of the helicopter instead of me.
On the way to NKP, we had the guy on oxygen, and the helicopter pilot had that thing bent over to go as fast as possible. The medic and I were next to the victim and saw he was turning blue. The oxygen tank was empty. So we saved his life again, #2 so far.
When we got to NKP, an Air Force jeep met us on the tarmac. The driver helped us get our victim in the back of the Jeep, and we headed to the hospital.
At the ER
We got our victim into the ER, and two Air Force physicians, both Majors, were present. They asked me to get him undressed. So, I tore off his blouse, tore his pants, and took them off. Then the two Majors decided to do a tracheotomy, basically slitting his throat to put a tube in his larynx. They decided to do this despite the fact he had been breathing on his own for over an hour, but I am a lowly Captain watching two Air Force Majors in their hospital do their thing. The problem was they cut a vein, and he started bleeding into his lungs, and they didn’t know how to intubate. Because of their incompetence, our guy was drowning in his own blood, and I had to accept the fact that he probably wasn’t going to survive. About this time, the Air America helicopter pilot told me he had to go, and so I left NKP thinking we had lost this guy after saving him twice.
After I left, an Air Force physician, this time a Captain, wandered into the ER officer’s club to see what was going on. He immediately intubated our guy, saving his life for the third time.
Back at Lop Buri
When I got back to Lop Buri in a few days, Col. Combs called me into his office to thank me for what I did and to tell me our guy was in Udorn, in an Air Force hospital, and would be sent to Ft. Campbell, KY, when stable. Based on this information, I went to MACThai in Bangkok, called the Ft. Campbell Hospital, talked to the physician in charge of our guy, and was told he was there because he had a head injury due to a motor vehicle accident. I told him he was mistaken. He said, “How do you know?” I told him the whole story, and he said he was surprised that his history was so screwed up. He told me our guy was unconscious for a few days in Udorn. When he came to, a nurse was leaning over him. He reached up, grabbed her breast, scared her to death, and then they decided he was stable.
Ltc. Combs called me into his office a week or so later and told me he had received a phone call from the CO at NKP. The NKP CO told Col. Combs that the two Air Force Majors asked him to charge the Air Force Captain with an Article 15 for being in the hospital ER with alcohol on his breath. The NKP Col. told Col. Combs he told them to get the hell out of his office, telling them if it had not been for the SF dentist and the Air Force Captain, the victim would not have survived. End of story? Not quite!
I stayed in touch with this guy, telling him and his wife what happened on that day and speaking at least every few years. I attended the 50th SF reunion at Ft. Bragg in 2012. Since I was already going that way, I met with our guy and his wife in Nashville before going to Ft. Bragg the next day. They entertained me for the day, showing me the sights and brought me back to my hotel room. The guy said his goodbyes, we shook hands, and he left. His wife said thanks for saving my husband’s life, gave me an unforgettable hug, and walked away.