ROBERT E. SPRINGER
Captain | Army Nurse Corps
When a humble veteran is thanked or recognized for his service, he often dismisses it stating he was just doing his job. For a young officer in relative safety behind the line, Bob Springer was far removed from combat where many young men were maimed. However, he was witness to the results of not just the damage battle could do to a human, but the suffering wrought on the Vietnamese people. These are the memories tucked away and summed up by simply saying that he was just doing his job – a constant, demanding year-long job of fixing the broken and at times witnessing terrible loss. He knows too well what each name on the wall is for.
One of the customers along Bob’s paper route as an adolescent was a man whose career he found fascinating, as the man was always enjoying a book on his front porch when Bob rode by on his bicycle. The man was the sole Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist at the hospital at which Bob’s father was the administrator, and it seemed like good work to Bob. After his junior year in highschool, he realized he needed a plan as he saw during that time that boys either went to college or joined the Army – Bob proposed to his parents that he attend nurse’s training school as a step to reach anesthesia school. They welcomed the idea and in fall of 1963, he headed to Springfield Memorial Hospital as one of three male students in his class. With the war in Vietnam looming, it was likely that all three would be taken by the draft. Bob saw the Army as an opportunity to achieve his goals and earn decent pay, some of which he promptly spent on a 1965 Mustang and an engagement ring.
After basic training, Bob applied for six months of schooling as a basic operating room nurse at Fort Benning where, as he understood it, a tour in Vietnam was an almost guaranteed graduation present. His wife had another year in nursing school herself, so the year overseas would put him back in the United States by the time she graduated.
After landing in the Republic of Vietnam in July 1967, Springer spent a night at the 91st Replacement Company before receiving orders to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. The hospital campus was several Quonset huts arranged around a dusty red courtyard. The hospital did not have the appearances of a high class and sanitary establishment, but it was the best in country with capabilities for neuro, vascular, general, ophthalmology, orthopedic, maxillofacial and also had the only gynecologist in Vietnam.
The first five months consisted of twelve-hour shifts as an operating room nurse for six to seven days a week. Patients presented with a variety of wounds and injuries – multiple fragment wounds, gunshots, traumatic wounds requiring amputation, head and facial wounds and any other combination. Improvised bombs filled with anything destructive, sometimes covered in feces, posed a problem for infections. A soldier with an unexploded RPG round in his face required the premises to be evacuated and both surgeons and ordnance experts in the OR. The unexpected and foolish injuries were among those most bothersome to Bob – a gunshot wound to the abdomen that occurred in an Australian enlisted men’s club; two other patients who shot each other in a western style duel in the streets of Bien Hoa; another result of extremely poor judgement was when two men arrived after playing the equivalent of hot potato with a white phosphorus grenade; a nurse whose leg required amputation after a jeep accident while returning from a nearby post. The staff nurses treated all cases with utmost professionalism, leaving impressions that Sergeant Leon Rodriguez reflected on. “[Among] the Staff Nurses I am most impressed with [is] Bob Springer – a male nurse that can and will do it all, from the dirtiest, bloodiest, and most challenging surgery. Bob is a good man."
Some more humorous cases did come through, as humor always finds a way to surface even in the darkest of circumstances. A sergeant using the bathroom dropped a cigarette butt into the old 55-gallon gasoline barrel that now served as the toilet. The residual gasoline ignited and burned his back side enough to require an admission to the hospital. A similar case came from an engineering sergeant with a fractured arm after the latrine he was using was ‘accidentally’ tipped by a bulldozer. He had obviously irritated some of his men and while they may not have intended to injure him, he certainly needed a shower on presenting to the 24th Evac.
The deadliest year of the war opened with Tet of 1968 and wounded came frequently and danger neared closer than ever. The ammunition dump a mile away at Long Binh was burned over the next few days. Ordnance that could not be recovered exploded in the blaze and forced Springer and the others of the 24th into their bunkers for the duration. The hospital helipad was commandeered and used as a staging zone with a steady rotation of Chinooks unloading rations and other supplies for line troops. The amount of provisions was staggering and Springer reallocated some government property that would not be missed to satisfy a need for extra snacks by the 24th’s staff. When the first blows of the Tet Offensive cooled down and the amount of wounded slowed to a trickle, the 24th Evac took on caring for enemy wounded. There was a hospital for prisoners of war next door and they called for the 24th’s CRNA to provide anesthesia for three leg amputations. Springer had made it clear throughout the first several months of his tour that to be a CRNA was his only goal, to which he had taken note. He asked Springer to accompany and give the anesthetics with his guidance, and Springer gleefully accepted his first three anesthesia cases as an O.R. nurse.
One begins to appreciate and view life from a different perspective not just from within the medical field, but especially experiencing a war. Of all the memories of a year in Vietnam, the most potent for Springer is that of the baby. A Vietnamese lady presented to the hospital visibly pregnant, but with no fetal heart sounds. The staff of the 24th reasoned a c-section necessary, but needed to wait eight hours before operating so she would be ‘nil per os’ and suitable to operate on. The surgeons quickly discovered that the woman was carrying twins and by the miracle of extraordinary corpsmen, both ‘dead’ babies were resuscitated. Despite being among the top hospitals in the country, the 24th was still only equipped for military needs and providing the necessary comforts for newborns required GI ingenuity. “Incubators were fashioned from cardboard boxes. Goose neck lights became infant warmers. Dixie cups became oxygen masks. Dippers were made from Army Battle Dressing pads. Mothering instincts poured from both male and female staff.” The mother abandoned both as soon as she could leave the hospital and one baby did not live past the third day. The other baby, however, did well and was well loved by the unit. The NCO in charge of the operating room, Sergeant Leon Rodriguez, was the most in love with the infant girl and went through great measures so he and his wife could adopt her and bring her back to the United States. Such a fragile life emerging from difficult circumstances, both in utero and during the war, was a great beacon of light among all else.
On a day off from usual duties, Springer enjoyed joining a MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program) to set up a small field clinic in local villages. The areas were extremely rural with small communities built of bamboo or wood that appeared scavenged with primitive floors, thatched, bamboo or corrugated roofs and rice and produce exposed or in large clay jars. A lot of children and elderly attended these sick calls. They were perhaps the greatest victims of the war in Vietnam. There is question as to whether or not the MEDCAP program – closely tied with winning hearts and minds – was successful or worthwhile, but for a young nurse who genuinely cared for others, Springer was simply altruistic in his motivation and did not question the value of the program. Not all missions were to rural areas, as one trip took Springer to Saigon with an ophthalmologist for cataract surgeries performed in a hotel lobby. Even on these medical trips a jeep mounted .50 caliber circling the area served to remind everyone that the war was ever present.
The year-long tour concluded in July 1968 and Springer was quickly swept away from Long Binh to San Francisco, with a brief moment of fear when a bomb threat occurred on the plane. Incredulously he thought, “I made it a year in RVN and it’s going to end like this!” An emergency landing in Salt Lake proved that it was a hoax and shortly after they were back on to Illinois. Springer continued his career in the Army and was accepted to Anesthesia School in May 1969. Halfway through the eighteen-month program, Springer was administering the anesthetic for a young man with a cerebral aneurysm – he died on the table. “After he was pronounced dead, the neurosurgeon came up to me and put his arm on my shoulder and made a point of telling me it wasn’t my fault. I have thought of the insight and kindness he demonstrated a few times when I have seen a doctor say ‘you killed that patient’ to someone. We all need to try to know what others are thinking and feeling.”
“In our everyday work stateside or in a war zone we are taught to contain and control our emotions for the sake of the mission. We do what is asked of us and we try to do our best, but the pain of what we have witnessed stays with us and at times comes to the surface of our lives.” Despite the best suppression, these memories can come unprovoked at any time. “I don’t always know what might trigger it, but when it does, it is not haunting me; it is helping me to maybe heal and to put it in a proper perspective. Healing can leave scars that our “mind’s eye” takes a look at when we least expect it.”
(1) Rodriguez, Leon. Bring Our Baby Home: My Memoirs of the Vietnam War. Authorhouse, 2012.
(2) Springer, Robert E. “RVN: My Vietnam Story.” 23 Apr. 2017.
(3) Wilensky, Robert J. “The Medical Civic Action Program in Vietnam: Success or Failure?” Military Medicine, vol. 166, no. 9, Sept. 2001, pp. 815–819., doi:10.1093/milmed/166.9.815.