October 25, 2021

Citizen Soldiers

Robert L. Siegle, MD, MPA, FACR

During the Vietnam War, I was drafted into the U.S. Air Force as a General Medical Officer after internship. I was assigned to a small Strategic Air Command base with many young families. The base hospital was small, although it seems that all military hospitals — whether 15 beds or 1,500 — had the same table of organization at that time.

When I arrived, I filled a slot that was open for a base psychiatrist (in addition to my general medical duties), since my medical school education was rather heavily weighted toward psychiatry. Apparently, the role of base psychiatrist also included the title, "human reliability officer," which meant that I had to ensure that the flight crews and everyone with access to nuclear weapons was sane. It's not that I didn't take pediatric bellyaches and otitis media seriously, but I really took this psych job very seriously!

My father was a U.S. Army doctor drafted into World War II, landing at Normandy in a field hospital seven days after the first soldiers hit the beaches. He told the story of a young German lieutenant POW he was treating who said, "We Germans shouldn't be fighting you Americans. After all, it's the Jews who started this war." This patient probably didn’t understand that two Jewish U.S. Army officers were in fact debriding his wounds!

My father also served with the first medical unit into the Nordhausen slave labor camp. He didn’t discuss this much, but we received his bronze star and five battle stars as mementos of his service.

During the Civil War, one of my great grandfathers served in The Union Army of the Potomac. He was an inspector of horses and mules stationed at the Giesboro Point Calvary Depot — near what is now Anacostia in Washington, DC. I have no idea what stories Great Grandfather Leopold might have told us, but I do have his warrant signed by the cavalry colonel-in-charge.

We are clearly not a military career family. Rather, we are a family of citizen-soldiers who did what was necessary for our country, when called upon.