The year was 1969 and a young orthopedic surgeon in the midst of his studies was ordered to go to Vietnam. Dr. Paul L. Brief, just two months away from completing his residency and looking forward to beginning his profession, suddenly found himself a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy.
War was not a new experience for him. Born in Romania during turbulent times, he journeyed with his family from one refugee camp to the next. Later, they were able to escape to France and eventually immigrated to the U.S. where brief pursued his medical studies.
In his newly published book, “Hootch 8: A Combat Surgeon Remembers Vietnam,” Brief shares a very personal drama depicting the cruel and horrific realities of wartime medicine. “It is a combination of blood, pain, and sadness interlaced with some humor,” said Brief in a recent interview.
|Dr. Paul Brief|
Brief describes what a “hootch” is early in the book. In Vietnam, it referred to officer lodgings; wooden structures built on posts, measuring about 20 by 30 feet. Hootches were typically set up in rows and had underground bunkers near the rear door in case of enemy attack. It was within the hootch that bonds of support and camaraderie developed, enabling survival during the throes of raging war.
Brief served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 as a U.S. Navy orthopedic surgeon assigned to the care of Marines in Danang. He was one of more than 30,000 Jewish American men and women who served in the war, which began in 1959 and ended with an American pullout in 1975. The Vietnam War was a prolonged struggle to stop the spread of communism and unify the divided country of Vietnam.
During his 359 days of service, Brief was in the First Medical Battalion, a team of 30, made up of general, thoracic, neuro and orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists and an ophthalmologist. Trained in combat, they often wore protective gear and were armed in the operating room.
Brief, an established Rockland County orthopedist for more than 30 years, was motivated to write his memoir of that time out of genuine concern for Vietnam veterans. They were grossly demonized, ignored, and disrespected upon returning to the United States, something Brief describes as a collective embarrassment.
“The country welcomed us back with closed arms,” said Brief. “It took some 20 years for the country to acknowledge the disrespect that was given to returning soldiers.”
Brief also wanted to draw attention to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers who have been in combat. “I was not the same person when I came back,” said Brief. “I became very serious and introspective and needed time to recover.”
The brutal conditions of war impacts the lives of soldiers and for most, the experience remains with them forever. Normal routines are altered in times of battle because their importance is diminished. This is especially true about religion.
For some Jewish soldiers serving in Vietnam, it was the first time in their lives that they did not observe major Jewish holidays. Brief, a member of New City Jewish Center today, describes in one moving chapter, his realization that he had completely lost track of Jewish time and its rituals.
“Not only was I unaware that Passover was approaching, I realized that I completely missed the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the previous September,” Brief wrote.
War, however, was often able to put things into perspective for Brief, who says that “nothing comes close in severity to what I experienced as an orthopedic surgeon in Vietnam.” Today, he is not intimidated by any injuries he encounters in his private practice. “It made me fearless,” said Brief.
The bonds that develop among comrades in arms are unique because of the stresses and crises that are shared. Brief still maintains friendships that he describes as lifelong. “We supported one another in order to maintain our sanity,” he said. As a result, a 45th year reunion is being planned.
But the most important life-long bond of all, is the one that he found with his wife, Rochelle. “If it wasn’t for the war, I would have never met her,” said Brief.
In a later chapter, he recalls sitting in synagogue during Yom Kippur services in 1973 when the rabbi announced that Israel was under attack. “I whispered to Rochelle that I’d like to go to Israel to help and without a moment’s hesitation she said yes.”
Hootch 8 is available online at amazon.com; however, to obtain a copy autographed by the author send $25 to Hootch 8, P.O. Box 9311, Bardonia, N.Y. 10954. All proceeds from the sale will go to charities for wounded and disabled soldiers. For more information, there is also a website www.hootch8.com.