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Salsburg Served As Naval Flight Surgeon


Last updated 2/25/2019 at 3:55pm

Courtesy Photo

Salsburg was stationed at the Marble Mountain Air Facility.

Dr. Steven Salsburg was in his last year of internship at Jackson Memorial Hospital during the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive. The escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam required more doctors and corpsmen, and Salsburg realized that he probably would be drafted.

"On my way home from my internship," he said, "I stopped in at the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. Of the options available, I chose U.S. Naval Flight Surgeon."

After six months of flight training in Pensacola, Fla., Salsburg was assigned to the Marines and found himself at Camp Pendleton for two weeks of Marine basic training for doctors and corpsmen, followed by training in El Toro with a tanker squadron, practicing mid-air refueling.

In May 1970, Salsburg flew to Vietnam.

"It was a long flight," he remembered. "We got into Da Nang at about 3 a.m. and I jumped into a cot in the officers' barracks. We were a half mile from a place called Liberty Hill, where they had an artillery unit. At about 4 a.m. the artillery unit started firing salvos by the huge howitzers, which were so loud that it knocked me out of bed. Some guys on their second tour were standing around smoking, and they watched me fall and flop around for a while. They thought it was pretty funny."

Salsburg moved across the river to the Marine Air Facility at Marble Mountain, one of five mountains located south of Da Nang that stretched from the coast inland. He was assigned to Marine Air Group (MAG) 16, helicopter squadron HML 167. After several weeks associating with helicopter pilots and crews, Salsburg knew he wanted to fly the choppers. Learning that Salsburg had never flown a chopper, the CO eventually agreed to let him fly with a test pilot on injured birds after they had been through maintenance. The pilots taught the eager physician how to fly the helos.

"After 2 or 3 weeks, one of the test pilots told the CO that I could fly well enough to get us out of trouble if a pilot was injured. From then on, I was in," Salsburg recalled. "They wouldn't let me fly gunships. I think they were afraid it was a violation of the Geneva Convention," he said, "so they put me on the helicopter taxi squad, flying Marines from landing zones (LZs) to airfields, to bases and hospitals.

Medical Treatment Near Da Nang

According to the Navy Medicine Operational Training Center, the naval flight surgeon practices preventive medicine first and foremost.

"He or she is the interface between the practice of medicine, the science of safety, and the profession of aviation. Through successful aviation medicine programs, the flight surgeon promotes aviation safety decreasing the potential for aircraft accidents. This is accomplished by a dedicated search for those problems - physical, mental, environmental and manmade, which compromise safety in the air and in the workplace."

The physical injuries Salsburg treated were primarily accidents which occurred around machinery, although there were occasional injuries to the Vietnamese locals.

"The biggest wound I treated was a little kid injured by shrapnel," he said. "I had the mother bring him back every day for a shot of penicillin. I didn't feel comfortable sending him home with pills since the VC, if they found out, would have killed the child and kept the pills for their own use."

But there were also psychological injuries that needed attention.

A Marine Pilot's PTSD

"One night, one of the guys in my squadron came up to me crying. He'd been flying a General in an attack mission on a village that was supposed to be empty. The Viet Cong had been using it as a supply base and using the civilians as cover. The South Vietnamese Army was supposed to have removed all the civilians so we could destroy the village. The General called in an airstrike and the Phantoms came in, dropping napalm. Just as one plane dropped its load, a small boy ran out of a thatched roof house - and the napalm just rolled him up."

"The Marine, who had young children of his own, witnessed this and was a mess," Salsburg continued. "When I think of what I had to do next, I wonder how I became so objectively callous about it. After sitting and listening to him and telling him the usual, 'it's not your fault, you'll be OK, your kids are fine,' I went back to my hooch, called the operations officer who scheduled pilots, and told him to take this Marine off the gun ships. I didn't want him to be in a position where he might hesitate, and Marines could be hurt. In retrospect, I think that's the most callous thing I've ever done. About a week later, I passed him as he was yelling 'Why am I on these taxis?' And I said, 'You're ready,' and I put him back on the gun ships."

Visiting A Leper Colony

During his Vietnam tour, Salsburg was assigned to a Medical Civilian Action Program (MEDCAP) in which Americans set up clinics to examine the civilian population. Salsburg's CO received notification that they would visit a leper colony outside Da Nang. Salsburg and other members of the MEDCAP were helicoptered in and out of the colony.

"The leper colony, run by Swiss nuns, was located in the jungle, a little northwest of Da Nang," he said. "Families accompanied the patients and stayed there until the patients were discharged. The lepers were treated with rifampicin. Like TB, Hansen's disease takes a long time and a lot of medication to control.

"A few weeks after we had MEDCAP, the Viet Cong mortared the place and killed some people. I don't know how many of those kids and people were injured in the attack. I think the VC specifically targeted the colony because the nuns had allowed us to visit."

Salsburg's Undetected PTSD

Salsburg described his own long undetected experience with PTSD.

"One morning, we flew into to a very small landing zone in 'Indian Country'- dense jungle near Laos - to pick up a Marine Colonel and his staff and take them to another base. After we landed, the Marine Executive Officer spoke with the helicopter pilot, who then told me, 'You've got to get out.' I said, "What do you mean, I have to get out?" Apparently, the Marine Colonel had his wings and wanted to fly back in my chair as a co-pilot so he could get his monthly flight pay, about $200. I said 'OK, I'll get in the back.' He said, 'No, he's got too much staff with him, it'll be too heavy. You have to stay here until I come back to get you.' I said, 'Stay where?' There was nothing but jungle and nobody else around. The pilot replied, 'Hunker down and I'll come back as soon as I can.' So I stepped out onto the foot plate, and that's the last thing I remember for a two days."

According to Salsburg, his mind shut down due to the stress of the situation. He knows that he hid behind the bushes, pulled out his .45 and prepared to fight.

But he doesn't remember any of it.

"I thought I was fine," he said. "But a year later, I started drinking, depressed and suicidal. I didn't attribute it to Vietnam because I didn't have any flashbacks, dreams or memories of the event. My memory was shot. So, I did have the symptoms of PTSD, even though I didn't have the memory of it.

"Back home, I was in the second year of my residency, when one night I was extremely depressed and thinking of suicide. It scared me, so I went to the student psychiatric clinic and started getting psychological help. For the next 30 years, I saw psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists on and off. Not one of them ever asked me if I had served in the military or had been under fire!

Agent Orange And Some PTSD Relief

Salsburg was one of more than 2 million American service men and women who were exposed to the toxic defoliant, Agent Orange. At age 55, the results of his exposure were so severe that he had to retire from his career as an ophthalmologist. He decided that while still able, he would train to practice psychiatry. While in his psychiatric residency, he served at the VA as part of his training.

Salsburg said, "I was assigned to interview Vietnam veterans who had PTSD. As I sat and listened to them telling me that 'I did this, and I felt like this," I realized I'd done and felt the same things. After several interviews, I approached the head of the PTSD unit, and after 20 minutes of talking to me he said, "Yeah, you've got it.

"Nobody ever put it together because I'd never had any flashbacks or dreams. I'd forgotten them all. I eventually spent time at the Batavia Veterans Hospital in the PTSD unit. And the best thing that happened to me is that I realized I wasn't alone, nor was I as bad off as some others. I'm doing all right now. I have trouble sleeping, but that's about it."

Due to his exposure to Agent Orange, Salsburg has developed two types of cancer, a brain tumor, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy.

"My whole endocrine system shut down," he said. "The diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and peripheral neuropathy are now acknowledged by the VA as resulting from exposure to the chemical. However, the other symptoms, although suffered by many other veterans, have not yet reached the 'statistical level of significance' qualifying for government benefits. We were hammered with that stuff," he said.

Japan And Flight Training On F-4 Phantoms

In the autumn of 1970, the Marines began pulling out of Vietnam. Salsburg was sent to Iwakuni, Japan where he spent time as a flight surgeon for the Phantom 4 flightier squadron.

"I had 40 hours of backseat time in the F4," he said. "It was probably like what a video game is for the kids now. We would go on maneuvers, flying combat situations against each other. The Marines that went through top gun at Miramar came out there and put on a kind of 'Reader's Digest' version of 'How to Fight a Mig.' I sat in on some of those programs."

The Moment The Street Stopped

Salsburg related his worst military experience. It occurred before he went to Vietnam.

Courtesy Photo

Steven Salsburg posing with a T-28 after his solo test flight, 1969.

"A colonel from our base went to Vietnam as a new commander of an A4 attack fighter squadron and was killed. I was asked to be part of a CACO call (casualty assistance condolence call) to inform the wife that her husband was killed," he said. " It was a beautiful day in Southern California, a suburban place, sun shining, kids playing, birds singing, wives walking up and down. We pulled up in front of the house and got out in our uniforms. And the street stopped.

"The kids stopped. The wives came to their doors. It seemed as if the birds stopped singing. That was the worst moment for me. The worst."

(In collaboration with writer Michel Robertson and the WNC Military History Museum of the Carolinas, The Transylvania Times publishes an article once every two weeks on a local veteran who served in Vietnam.)


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