by Jack L. Kennedy
Paul J. Pitlyk fought two wars, simultaneously.
One was in Vietnam, as a neurosurgeon in 1965. The other conflict was constantly within himself.
The stark tale that the young Missourian tells of his professional and personal pain and progress makes compelling reading in Blood on China Beach, My Story as a Brain Surgeon in Vietnam. (iUniverse) It is a gripping, graphic account of this St. Louis University Medical School graduate’s growth and hope. It is a reminder today that those who returned from Vietnam so many years ago often were broken both in body and spirit.
Doubts and questions had followed the Mayo Clinic resident since medical school and the beginning of a cushy practice in Milwaukee. Something in his promising young life at the age of 31 did not feel quite right to him. Memories of how much his St. Louis father thought of his brothers’ military service also haunted him. So he contacted naval medical personnel, and convinced them that he was sincere as he volunteered to serve as a naval officer surgeon in Vietnam.
It was the young, often frightened and insecure Dr. Pitlyk’s job under battlefield conditions to try to save those with the most critical cranial injuries. Moving from his first hospital, a tent city near Da Nang, to a marginally improved, plank-floored Quonset hut city was a major achievement.
Much of the internal conflict in this superb retelling of a sad slice of history comes from the tension the author re-experiences saving the life of a severely injured soul and sending him home-– and wondering if the soldier had survived, perhaps, in body but not in mind.
"The decade of heavy commitment to the war in Southeast Asia, which ended on 30 April 1975, cost the U.S. Navy dearly. Of the 1,842,000 Navy men and women who served in the combat theater, over 2,600 were killed in action and 10,000 were wounded. The navy also had to contend with serious morale, drug abuse, and disciplinary problems....."--Oxford Companion to US Military History: U.S. Naval Operations in the Vietnam War
One chapter, "Toil and Trouble," in an effort to describe some of his deepest emotions Pitlyk writes: “No sword or weapon of war could pierce a surgeon as deeply as the loss of a patient from an unsatisfactory operation. When I felt like I’d blown it, like I had let the man down and he died because of it, I folded up inside and hid in a dark place I still don’t like to think about."
Thankfully, these periods of depression were short-lived,” and Pitlyk gradually grew to see, to feel, that the good usually outweighed the bad.
"Blood on China Beach" is a war story. But it is also a human story, a story of young teenage navy enlisted men like "Bart," as an example, who was dedicated to work alongside Dr. Pitlyk, a captain,--to serve and often save the doctor's spirits.
It is the story of a naval doctor who outranked everyone at the primitive hospital in which he served but a doctor who cared enough to silently show his own artificial limb to a young recent amputee. It is a story of resourcefulness, of how people depend upon each other during difficult times, and even reveals touches of humor to help push a terrifying time along.
Pitlyk himself returned home safely. After completing a 40-year private practice, he is now retired in the San Francisco Bay area. But memories still haunt him as they do most Vietnam vets.
Consider "Blood on China Beach" a tale of hope, not just horror. It must be read.
Title - Blood on China Beach - My Story as a Brain Surgeon in Vietnam
Author: Paul J. Pitlyk
Publisher: iUniverse (Nov. 21, 2012/
$16.86/paperback/254 pp.; 3.03/Kindle/677kb;$26.96 hard copy at amazon.com
For "Vietnam War Fast Facts (July 2013, CNN Library) go here.