Home Around the World Ronald Glasser, doctor who recorded Vietnam War wounded, dies aged 83

Ronald Glasser, doctor who recorded Vietnam War wounded, dies aged 83

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Up to 40 stretchers an hour came from medevac flights – infantrymen, marines, downed helicopters injured in a North Vietnamese offensive in late 1968.

Robert Glasser wanted to help, but he hadn’t been in an operating room since medical school. The 29-year-old doctor was drafted, was given the rank of captain and was assigned to the small children’s ward of a military hospital in Zama, Japan. His job was to treat the children of American military families in the area.

He met his colonel on a stairwell. Medical teams struggled with the huge number of victims. dr. Glasser explained that as a surgeon, he might be a little rusty.

“It doesn’t matter, Captain,” said the Colonel, dr. Glasser recalled:“we’ll give you the little wounds.”

dr. Glasser scrubbed up. And unknowingly at the time, he was about to embark on a journey into the personal suffering of war wounded and the toll of those who try — and sometimes fail — to keep them alive. His 1971 book, “365 days”, became part of the canon of first-hand accounts of the Vietnam War because of the unblinking story of what he saw amid the young men whose lives were ruined by horrific injuries and mental trauma, and at times captured the violent demeanor of many soldiers in relation to the country they had to fight for.

“It’s not political,” said Dr. Glasser, who died Aug. 26 at a veterans hospital in Minneapolis, aged 83. “It’s just the way it was.”

dr. Glasser said he had no intention of writing about his experiences in the military three years after receiving his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. He opposed the war. He thought he would just spend his time with the US Army Medical Corps at the hospital in Zama, one of four US field hospitals in Japan’s farm belt southwest of Tokyo.

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However, he was stunned at the magnitude of the seriously injured or fatally wounded who arrived from Vietnam. Every month, between 6,000 and 8,000 soldiers were flown over from battlefields, minefields and ambushes. “I quickly realized,” he wrote, “that the troopers they picked up from those medevac helicopters were just kids themselves” — not much older than his pediatric patients back home.

His book, the title of which refers to a year’s conscription in Vietnam, blends the raw pain and anguish of the wounded with Dr. Glasser’s doctor for how their bodies were ripped apart. Many reviewers noted Dr. Glasser and placed “365 Days” alongside some of the most searing and honest stories about the human cost of war.

dr. Glasser dedicated the book to Stephen Crane, whose “The Red Badge of Courage” paints a vivid picture of the battlefields of the Civil War.

Michael G. Michaelson, a physician and editor, wrote in a New York Times review: “What is remarkable and even noble about this book is not something new, but something old and almost forgotten: a compassion, not being limited by doctrine or polemic, but that may include the torments of a Vietnamese peasant or an American career officer; a sensibility that knows not only the murdered… but the murderers too.”

Nevertheless, some public and school libraries failed to keep it in their piles due to the soldiers’ use of profanity — a move Dr. Glasser found nearsighted considering the fierce anti-war protests and the daily body counts on the evening news. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award.

“They couldn’t say ‘golly gee,’ and they didn’t,” testified Dr. Glasser during a 1981 federal court hearing in Bangor, Maine, after a school banned the book. “It wasn’t enough. [The words] showed their fear. They don’t go home and don’t use that language. They were desperate.”

Outside the courthouse, veterans in full combat gear marched in support of the book. (The court ordered the school in January 1982 to: take it back to the library.)

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“In the beginning I talked to the kids to have something to say and to get them to talk. Later I realized they were all saying the same things – without actually saying them,” he wrote.

“They were all worried, not about the big things, not about survival, but about how they would explain their lost legs or the weakness in their right arm,” he continued. “Would they embarrass their family? … Would anyone love them if they came back?”

He also wrote in harrowing detail about the injuries — legs tattered, faces burned, fingers mutilated — as well as the men who didn’t make it.

On a soldier seriously injured in a mine explosion: “There wasn’t enough skin to completely close his surgical wounds, so his stumps were left open. … Despite antibiotics, his wounds became infected. On the fourth night in the ward, he attempted to commit suicide. … On the seventh day, his fever reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit; he passed out and died seven days after his injuries.”

Ronald Joel Glasser was born on May 31, 1939 in Chicago to parents who owned a delicatessen. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s degree in 1961 and stayed at the university to earn a medical degree in 1965, later specializing in pediatric nephrology during a fellowship at the University of Minnesota.

He ended “365 days” after returning from a two-year deployment in the military hospital. “As for me,” he wrote, “it is not my wish that I never served in the military, but that this book could never have been written.”

dr. Glasser wrote four other books while working in pediatrics, first as a professor at the University of Minnesota and then in private practice until his retirement in 2016.

“Ward 402” (1973) and “The Body Is the Hero” (1976) analyze limitations in modern medical education to treat patients holistically; the novel “Another War, Another Peace” (1985) follows a doctor during the Vietnam War. In “Broken bodies, shattered minds(2011), Dr. Glasser on the history and advancement of military medicine, and also advocated for a better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, among veterans.

At the time, he said PTSD research was particularly important as troops in Afghanistan increasingly faced detonations of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. “The only major success of medicine in Afghanistan is the awareness and connection between traumatic brain injury, concussion and PTSD,” he told NPRs “All together.”

His 10-year marriage to Janis Amatuzio ended in divorce in 1992. In 2008, he married Joy Itman, who confirmed his death from complications related to dementia. They divorced in 2018, but she basically remained “his wife and partner,” she said.

The survivors include three stepchildren from his second marriage, Rachel, Benjamin and Aaron Silberman.

In “365 Days” Dr. Glasser was repeatedly struck by how young conscripts would obey orders and do their duty in the field, even if some were deeply against the war. Everyone just counted the days.

“Strange War,” he wrote. “Going for something they didn’t believe in or didn’t care about, just to make it 365 days and be done with it.”



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