Military Medicine to Win Hearts and Minds: Aid to Civilians in the Vietnam War

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Texas Tech University Press, 2004 - History - 207 pages
American soldiers have provided medical aid to civilians in many wars, and no less in the Vietnam War, where there were more than forty million contacts between U.S. medical personnel and Vietnamese civilians. Robert J. Wilensky, using data derived from extensive archival research as well as his personal experience in Vietnam, shows how medical aid to Vietnamese civilians, at first based simply on good will, became policy. The original Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP), by which unit medical teams treated civilians in their area, soon expanded to other acronymically designated programs: the Military Provincial Hospital (later Health) Assistance Program (MILPHAP), the Civilian War Casualty Program (CWCP), and the Provincial Health Assistance Program (PHAP). Although MEDCAP treated many, American doctors were uniformly unhappy about the superficial care they were able to give. Labs, x-ray machines, and surgery were not available at the unit level; follow-up was sketchy or nonexistent. Other programs became so politicized that they were almost ineffective. Coordination with the government of South Vietnam was poor, creating areas that were underserved. Most important, there is no evidence that the good will built by U.S. doctors transferred to South Vietnamese forces. American programs may have emphasized the inability of the Republic of Vietnam to provide basic health care to its own people and may have demonstrated to Vietnamese civilians that foreign soldiers cared more for them than their own troops did. If that is the case, the programs actually did more harm than good in the attempt to win hearts and minds.

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A rather comprehensive overview of military and civilian health programs during the Vietnam conflict. I did note one egregious error by the author which makes me wonder about his source of information as there are many 'wannabes' out there whoe profess to be experts on Vietnam and never set foot in the country. .
I was a member of MILPHAP N-7 located in Quang Duc province from 1970-1971. The author referes to the acronym MILPHAP as being Miltary Provinical Health Augmentation Program which is incorrect. The program was called Military Provincial Health Assistance Program and was under the operational command of MACV in Saigon. The health assistance programs and directives came from USAID (United States Agency for International Development). We had one physician and four Navy Corpsman (a pharmacy tech, a lab tech, an admini tech and me -the OR tech) during my stay. We conducted MEDCAP providing anti-malarial medication, anti-plague medications and we also did some classified activities with the Korean health teams within the Montagnard villages that were infected with bubonic plague. I was the only Corpsman involved with my Korean military counterpart located in Nha Trang and that is about all I should say. In any event MILPHAP teams were composed of medical staff from the USN, USA and USAF and distributed in most of the provinces in Vietnam. Our stated mission was to provide advice and tecchinical support to the provincial hospital and Medicine Chief (senior VN doctor or Bac Si) however most of the time we did the actual medical treatment as the VN were so ill-equipped and poorly trained. Quang Duc province is located in II Corps (Central Highlands) and the center was Gia Nghia. Outlying districts had ARVN medics who could barely provide anything beyond basic first aid. I spent about six months at Duc Lap district north of Ghia Ngia about 30 km south of Ban Me Thuot in support of some USA 'spooks' doing intelligence ops across the border in Cambodia and running agents and ambushes. I just want the record clear about MILPHAP as the teams were composed of dedicated medical personnel who do not deserve to be forgotten or misspelled or misidentified.

Selected pages


Previous Use of Medical Care for Foreign Civilians
The Ad Hoc or Informal Programs
Medical Evaluation of the Programs
Evaluation of the Programs as a Policy Tool
Patients Treated in MEDCAP
Bibliographic Essay

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About the author (2004)

Robert J. Wilensky, a battalion medical officer in Vietnam in 1967-68, is a surgeon who also holds a Ph.D. in history. He is on the staff of the Historical Section of the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army, teaches at George Mason University and American University, and has an appointment at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

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