Victor Johnston

Victor Johnston, performing with his band The Road Owls August 2019 Grafton MA

Working in a career as an emergency room nurse for more than forty years, I wanted to learn about interesting experiences Victor had in the E/R, and would make an engaging story. Little did I realize, when Victor was a teenager in the 1960s, he was drafted in the war in Vietnam and served his country. Let me introduce you to Victor Johnston.

This is the base where Victor was stationed as a medic.

The 1960’s was a turbulent time in our nation’s history. The War in Vietnam was raging, and protests continued to rattle the core of our country.  Victor Johnston was a teenager growing up in northern California. He stayed busy with school and worked at the local hospital as an orderly.

I asked Victor what was going on in his life in the 1960s.

“In 1968 at the age of 18, I finished high school in Auburn California, then hitchhiked to Cleveland Ohio to chase a girl who was moving there that summer. Soon after I arrived, her Dad wasn’t all to pleased, and we didn’t get along. He wanted me out of the house. My Mom called from California and said “Victor, your draft notice came in.” So, I did the logical thing and ran down to the Navy to sign up, but they wouldn’t take me until January 1969. Instead, I went to the Army recruiter, who took me in right away. I wanted to be a hospital medic. After taking multiple tests, I passed the exam, and was shipped to Fort Knox in Kentucky.”

Victor’s upbringing in California had zero minorities, and when he showed up at Fort Knox, he was joined by hundreds of African-American men from Detroit. In places in America where there was poverty, a large contingent of minorities with limited opportunities would sign up for
military service, as a way to make a better life for themselves. 

After basic training at Fort Knox, Victor was transferred to Fort Sam in San Antonio Texas for basic medics training. From there, Victor was transferred to Fort Gordon in Georgia to complete advanced medics training, and he received his 91C.

Through 1969, Victor learned to be a medic. “I learned how to sew people up, along with the usual nursing tasks, including prescribing medication.” All at the ripe old age of 19.

Victor didn’t have hesitation reporting to the Army. Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain,  25-year member of the Navy, and a 5-year prisoner of war in Vietnam,  discussed his view about the draft. On C-SPAN McCain says, “One aspect of the (Vietnam) conflict by the way that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong. If we are going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve.”

As the year progressed, Victor met his girlfriend Ann in August of 1969, and proceeded to get married to her in December. In January 1970, Victor was shipped to Vietnam.

Social Upheaval

In 1970, the war in Vietnam continued to rage. By this time it was clear America was not even close to winning this conflict. The current and prior presidential Republican and Democratic administrations of Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy made major mistakes regarding combat strategy and operations during their tenures.

A group of anti-Vietnam War protestors carry a poster showing the ‘My Lai Massacre’ during the ‘Home With Honor’ parade to mark the homecoming of American troops from Vietnam, New York City, 1973. (Photo by Jill Freedman/Getty Images)

The American people were fed up. During this time of protests and assassinations, an upheaval of social consciousness permeated distrust in our institutions, namely the government and the military. Vietnam resulted in the fourth deadliest war in U.S. history, behind the Civil War and both World Wars, with more than 58,000 American lives lost. Over 587,000 Vietnamese people perished from this war.

Vietnam Experience
The 93rd Evac Hospital in Long Binh Vietnam would be Victor’s home for the next year, including working in the medical ICU. Long Binh is located 18 miles east of the South Vietnamese capitol city of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Victor commented on his experiences and his view about the War in Vietnam.  “Vietnam was the first American war where every soldier, no matter their rank, wanted to go home. It was not a war anyone wanted to be part of. The best part was getting high, smoking dope. You had two groups, the dope smokers group , and the alcohol group. Obviously, people did both, but I didn’t find anyone who wasn’t part of either group. Partying was a way to alleviate boredom.”

And, what was the worst part being in Vietnam? “That you’re always in harms way, that you could get killed at a moments notice. The other worse part, as I mentioned, was boredom.”

Patient being treated at the 93rd Evac Hospital by Victor

In the Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick film The War in Vietnam, was your time in Vietnam depicted accurately? If you were interviewed by Ken Burns, what would you want him to know?

“It was more accurate than I ever imagined, such as the part where soldiers disobeyed orders from their Lieutenants. This was more common than reported. More than a third of the series covered the Vietnamese perspective. No other Vietnam documentary has covered the intense suffering of the Vietnamese people.”

A Vietnamese citizen being treated at the 93rd Evac Hospital

The media reported Vietnam veterans were being treated poorly upon returning home. Was this your experience?

“These reports were way overdone. I remember about a gung-ho Vet, all for the war, and was now bawling at the Vietnam Wall memorial in Washington D.C. He realized how wrong the war was.”

You mentioned boredom as being one of the worst parts of being in Vietnam. What did you do to alleviate the boredom from day to day drudgery?

“Well, I did some crazy things over there, in fact quite stupid, with a disregard for my own safety. For instance, one time I hitchhiked to Saigon and visited the Saigon Zoo.”

According to Victor, many people don’t realize, there were many American servicemen impregnating Vietnamese women. The result was an overflow of children without father’s in orphanages.

“This picture I took below is of an orphanage in Vietnam. Many orphans were were left abandoned by their American fathers when they left Vietnam.” – Victor Johnston

In December 1970, Victor was sent back to the U.S. Since he had a year left, he was sent to a medical ICU in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In September 1970, Victor was honorably discharged from service with an E5 classification. “You start out by being a private as an E1. I was discharged as an E5, the level of a sergeant. Since I had a specialty, and I wasn’t a sergeant, they called me E5 although E5’s are sergeants.”

Victor commented how soldiers could increase their E-Level rank. “One thing you could do was to take an exam. One of the questions on the exam was ‘What do you call the round ball at the top of a flagpole?  Well, it’s called a Truck. I have no idea why.”

Post-Vietnam Experience

Victor is probably the only person in the U.S. that became a Registered Nurse without a formal nursing degree.

“I went back to California and I was allowed to take the M.O.S. Service – 91c, the registered nursing exam in 1977.Once this was passed in California, Victor had to convince Massachusetts that he could work as a nurse. After three trips to the Board of Registration, he was granted certification as a Registered Nurse in Massachusetts.

Victor worked from 1979 to 2014 in his career in nursing, primarily in Emergency Rooms. As one can imagine, the E/R had it’s shares of stories. Victor recollected a time when a women entered the E/R, saying she was thinking of committing suicide. Victor recounted the story:

Victor: “I asked her, ‘Well then, how are you going to do this?”

Woman: “I’m going to drive a car off a cliff!”

Victor: “Ok, well, do you have a car?”

Woman: “Uh, no.”

Victor: “Well then, do you have a cliff?”

Woman: “No, I don’t have a cliff.”

Victor: “OK, then have a seat, we will be right with you.”

In Today’s World

We just witnessed yet another horrific mass murder of 58 people in Las Vegas in October 2018, and this is now the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. And this past week, yet another mass-shooting of church in Texas. Thirteen of the 26 people murdered were children. Mass shootings have become the norm in America. With the assault weapons ban discontinued in 2004 by Congress, (it had been in place the previous 10 years), gun makers were free to sell weapons with automatic capacities to fire off multiple rounds at one pull of a trigger.

I asked Victor, what is your take on what should be done with gun control in the USA? “There’s simply no reason for citizens to have access to military-grade weapons. There is absolutely no reason for these high-powered assault weapons, there is no sport or hunting need for any of it.”

Did you ever think the negative politics of today would surpass the tumultuous 1960’s: war, assassinations, and a disgraced President of the United States forced to resign in 1974 rather than facing impeachment hearings for obstruction of justice?

“Simply put, the politics of today have not learned the lessons of the past. There’s no effective reason to be in Iraq. Why should we die in Iraq or Afghanistan? Iraqis and Afghans will last a lot longer than the US or Russia, so why are we spending endless resources.”

Any other thoughts about your experiences?

“These experiences made me who I am today.” -Victor Johnston

Victor at home in Holden, enjoying the day with his granddaughter.

Pictures property and courtesy of Victor Johnston, All Rights Reserved.

By Brian J. Podesta

Administrator and writer for WritingReal, a place for stories about people and places. Included are my musical projects and my book reviews.

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