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Creating a small rehab facility for civilian amputees in war-time Vietnam

(Adapted by Earl G. Drake from his memoir, ‘A Stubble-Jumper in Striped Pants: Memoirs of a Prairie Diplomat’ (University of Toronto Press, 1999).   



It was early 1968. The United States was deeply mired in the war in Vietnam while Canada was appalled by the carnage on both sides. We tried to find a way to alleviate civilian suffering but avoid taking sides in the military struggle. A year earlier, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had opened a hospital in a remote area of Vietnam to treat tuberculosis. No one at CIDA headquarters knew what our medical staff was really doing out there. Moreover, we wanted to expand our medical program to cover the rehabilitation of civilians who had lost limbs in the conflict. So a team of Canadian doctors was assembled to visit Vietnam to assess the current medical program and recommend how it might be expanded. I headed the team as the representative of CIDA. 


When we arrived at our CIDA hospital in Quang Ngai, we found the reality was startling. There were very few TB patients. The hospital, which was on the front line between the two warring sides, treated civilian war casualties by day and suspected Vietcong soldiers by night. Everywhere we went, we saw civilians maimed by land mines and bombs. Indeed, we saw the human suffering far more closely and graphically than I would have wished. I had nightmares about those scenes for a long time afterwards. 


We also began to realize that it was pure nonsense to trust the assumption that we were safe because we were Canadian civilians. We looked and sounded like Americans and consorted with them. We were also terrorist targets. One night in Danang, we were invited to dine in the American officers’ club. I was reluctant to accept because we were supposed to be neutral civilians and because the club was such an obvious target for terrorists. I was outvoted because my colleagues were hungry for good Western food and conversation. Forty-eight hours after we left, the club was blown up at the dinner hour with a large loss of life. 


It was not a pleasant trip but it was a revealing one. Because civilian accommodation was limited in the small cities we visited, we had to double up. My four Canadian medical colleagues bunked with each other, two to a room. I volunteered to room with our Vietnamese medical escort officer which gave us lots of time to talk and exchange views. I told him that I could not stand being cooped up in our hotel room every night, respecting the dusk-to-dawn American curfew. He said that, if I was prepared to take some risks and to trust him, we could go out together every night. I put on some of his clothes and wore a cap that covered much of my face. We also agreed to say as little as possible and to speak only French if anyone came near us. So each night, I saw a vigorous Vietnamese community life which was thriving, totally oblivious to the American curfew. 


My CIDA team came back with a recommendation to restrict our tuberculosis program and establish a Canadian rehabilitation program for civilian amputees. But I was under no illusion that this was more than a tiny and temporary palliative. The reality was that we would eventually have to establish a program with the North Vietnamese, not the Americans and their puppets, if we were serious about long-term development in that country. If I had any doubt about this assessment, it was soon dispelled by the Vietcong successes in the Tet offensive which began within weeks of our return. 


Earl G. Drake, Canadian diplomat (1955-1992), with assignments in Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Paris/OECD, CIDA, World Bank/Washington, Jakarta and Beijing  

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