‘You learn to adjust’ – Army veteran served as medic during the Vietnam War

Buchta, pictured above in Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province in 1968, served as a medic with the 18th Surgical Hospital—a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) unit. Courtesy of Jeremy P. Ämick

Army veteran served as medic during the Vietnam War

By Jeremy P. Ämick

For nearly three decades, Roger Buchta enlightened young minds with lessons on world history and the German language while serving as a teacher at Russellville (Mo.) High School.

Vietnam War
Roger Buchta, a retired teacher from Russellville (Mo.) High School, served a year in Vietnam as a medic after he was drafted into the Army in 1966. Courtesy of Jeremy P. Ämick

As the former educator explains, the introduction of students to new cultures was not just a block of instruction extracted from textbooks, but founded in his experience of adapting to a new culture while serving in the U.S. Army.

Raised in the Lohman, Mo., area, Buchta began attending classes at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., after his graduation from Russellville High School in 1962.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science with a minor in German in 1966, and was soon thrust into foreign surroundings—a somewhat anticipated event.

“Everybody was going (to war) back then; there were so many being drafted,” said Buchta, 69, when speaking about the receipt of his draft letter. “It was something that I just expected to happen.”

Finishing his basic training at Ft. Hood, Texas, the young soldier was informed he would become a combat medic.

Having no previous medical background, Buchta jokingly remarked, “The only medical training I ever received was delivering calves, kittens and puppies on the farm growing up, once in awhile.”

In the spring of 1967, Buchta traveled to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, where he received his indoctrination into military medical care, which included classes on basic anatomy, physiology, the treatment of shock and administering an IV.

With his training complete, he remained at the hospital on Ft. Sam Houston performing nursing work until October 1967, at which time he received orders for deployment to Vietnam.

Vietnam War
Buchta, pictured above in Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province in 1968, served as a medic with the 18th Surgical Hospital—a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) unit. Courtesy of Jeremy P. Ämick

One year after receipt of his draft letter, the 22-year-old Buchta found himself in Vietnam as a member of the 18th Surgical Hospital, a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) unit comprised of doctors, medics and nurses.

“We had an inflatable-type hospital,” Buchta explained. “We would move wherever there was a lot of action at the time and set up.”

One of these assignments, the former soldier noted, was in the town of Cu Chi, located near Saigon.

“That was a very dangerous place to be,” he said. “They later discovered that there were all kinds of tunnels under the town … even under the base. I think it was the biggest network of underground tunnels in Vietnam.”

On a later occasion, the hospital relocated to a base situated in Lai Khe, which, as Buchta noted, was the sight of a Michelin rubber plantation , and fraught with its own collection of perils.

“We were there during the Tet Offensive and one evening we heard a lot of noise and commotion,” he recalled. “Flares were going up and lit the place up like daytime while (the hospital staff) was huddled down in a bunker.”

Buchta added: “I remember one of the sergeants saying, ‘Ok guys, this is it … lock and load!’ And all you could hear is clips going into the rifles.”

The next morning, hospital staff learned that the Army had killed nearly 30 Vietcong troops who attempted to breach the perimeter of the base.

During the many moves made around the country as the hospital followed combat episodes, Buchta and his fellow soldiers provided the level of care necessary to stabilize casualties.

Once stabilized, patients were transferred to Saigon to recover or, in the case of head wounds or more serious injury, to a hospital ship anchored in the harbor for more intensive levels of care.

But treatment was not limited to U.S. military personnel, as Buchta recalls attending to the injuries of wounded enemy troops and civilians.

“Lots of times they would bring in a kid who had been bitten by a rabid dog,” he said. “Rabies was a serious issue there, as were bites from bamboo vipers and centipedes. We had to deal with fungus from wading around in the swamps as well.”

In October 1968, he completed his overseas assignment, returned the United States, and was immediately discharged. The next year, with jobs difficult to find, he returned to Lincoln University on the GI Bill and, in 1971, earned his master’s degree in social science.

He was hired by Russellville High School in 1972, where he remained as a teacher until his retirement in 1999. Since then, he has enjoyed his retirement by embracing a range of hobbies from writing novels to outdoor activities such as hiking and canoeing.

With an assortment of unique and challenging experiences derived from the year he spent overseas, the most profound of these, the veteran asserts, was the education he received in learning to cope within a new environment.

“It’s a culture shock when you go into new situations and locations such as Vietnam,” he said. “You have to deal with many things—the customs, traditions, the smells of the big cities … and the fact that you can’t communicate.

“But you eventually become part of it all; you finally learn to communicate with others … you learn to adjust.”

Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America. 

Silver Star Families of America
Cell: (573) 230-7456

Jeremy Amick

Jeremy Amick is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE