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Memories of Vietnam from a military physician who treated all

“I had no illusions about my military role in the Special Forces,” writes Captain Lanny Hunter in “Exit Wounds: A Vietnam Elegy” (Blackstone). “I was not a two-fisted, grenade-heaving, knife-fighting, tunnel-blasting, cliff-rappelling, bush-busting, snake-eating, steely-eyed warrior. 

“I was supposed to be able to keep up. I was supposed to be where they needed me and provide first-line medical care.” 

Hunter not only documents his own boots-on-the-floor experiences as a doctor in the Vietnam War in 1965-66, but he also revisits the scene of some of his most harrowing moments.

As the company physician, it was Hunter’s job to tend to the wounded — and sort those who might be saved from the dying and the dead. 

Hunter treated anyone and everyone caught in the crossfire, including members of the enemy, the Viet Cong.

“Gunshot wounds, mines, booby traps, burns, and knife slashes,” he writes. “I was also confronted by the sick, the weak, the maimed, the ruined, the orphaned, and the lost.”

Hunter also finds humor in the darkest moments, especially via Armed Forces Radio, which gave regular tips on foot care (“Your feet might save your life”) and often played inappropriate music when the battle was raging.

Once, Hunter heard Tony Bennett playing.

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’” he writes. “It could make you weep.”

In 1997, 22 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Hunter returned to Vietnam to help the local man, Y-Kre Mlo, who had started out as his interpreter.

Over the course of the conflict, he became his friend and his protégé.

After a decade in a Communist re-education camp, Y-Kre had written to Hunter, asking for help, and Hunter was only too happy to oblige.

Despite Y-Kre’s poverty and what Hunter calls “the brutalizing weight of his past, his bleak present, and his longing for a better future” his colleague’s love and loyalty remained undimmed.

As Hunter, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his work, explains, the two men’s lives would always be inextricably linked.

“I felt afresh the wonder of being there with Y-Kre,” he writes.

“Comrades and Christian brothers together again, but different men, different cultures, different stories.”