Lieutenant Commander – U.S. Army Dentistry
Vietnam War (1969 & 1970), Treasure Island (1970-1972)
Not all members of the military wield guns. Some work behind the scenes in roles that are, though less flashy, certainly not less important. One person who assumed that role was Rick West, a dentist who served in the Vietnam War.
West was born on June 21, 1943 in Battle Creek Michigan and grew up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. His father, a veteran from WWII, was a physician at a Veteran Administration Hospital in Kentucky. West had a lot of family in the army, so it was fitting that he enlist in the army after getting his degree in dentistry at the University of Minnesota. The decision to enlist in the army was not a popular one among his peers. His campus was filled with antiwar riots and nearly all of his professors were vocal about their disapproval of the war. Nonetheless, West saw his enlistment as an opportunity to see the world and get work experience. His parents, who had already seen West’s brother into the war, were supportive of his decision.
In 1969 West was sent to Camp Pendleton in Southern California for what he calls “gentlemen’s boot camp.” Because most of his comrades were doctors or dentists they had already been trained for their field and did not need the grueling training that most soldiers received. Still, West describes boot camp as a practice in manipulation. The officers would tear down a soldier’s confidence and then slowly begin to praise them in order to gain their loyalty and obedience. When asked how he coped with his experience West listed friends, alcohol, and cigarettes.
After three months at Camp Pendleton West was sent to Vietnam. Unlike in California, where he was allowed to live off base in his own apartment, he was now required to live in barracks, tents, or other types of temporary housing. Still, he did not find his time in Vietnam to be very bad. By 1969 the war was winding down. The Tet Offensive had resulted in a lost generation of Vietnamese men, and West’s base did not experience many attacks. As a dentist he didn’t meet any life-threatening conditions, and his duties involved mostly extractions. West was working at a hospital in Danang which comprised of a mass of tents. Though the hospital was far from advanced, West does not recall having a shortage of supplies.
Following a brief leave West was sent to Treasure Island, CA, where he worked in a residential clearing and training facility. The people he treated at this base were mostly soldiers on their way to other locations. West spent two years in Treasure Island before moving to San Francisco. His reception by Americans following his service was astonishing. Supporting the war was not fashionable, and even many soldiers did not support the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. The mix of antiwar riots, the civil rights movement, and drug abuse brought turmoil to the US. West commented that although people might think that times are bad now, they are nowhere near as bad as they were in the 1960′s. Despite being unable to be proud of his being a veteran, West enjoyed his time in San Francisco.
Rick West now lives with his family in Marin, where he works as a dentist. He is a member of the American Legion, but he does not keep in touch with many of the people he met in the army. The units were not cohesive, so reunions are not possible. The one fellow veteran that he does keep in touch with is a Puerto Rican dentist. In fact, the best treatment he has been given as a veteran was when he visited his friend in Puerto Rico. He described Puerto Rico as very pro-America and pro-military. Although West does not keep in touch with other veterans, he believes that he met the best and worst people of his life in the war and that their rank did not necessarily correlate with their character.
When asked how his experience in Vietnam changed his outlook on life West replied that it made him happy to be alive and made him feel debt to those who didn’t make it. He feels connected to fellow veterans and also respects the American culture, as he is sure many veterans do. As to what he feels Americans should learn from their involvement in Vietnam, West stated: “Vietnam was not fought over because it was important, it became important because that’s where we fought.”
Interview by Valerie Cherbero on July 6, 2011.