Dr. Allen Hassan might be described as an over-achiever. He has a veterinary degree, a medical degree and a law degree. He’s a former U.S. Marine. And he’s published a book with two damning accusations stemming from the Vietnam War.
“Failure to Atone: The True Story of a Jungle Surgeon in Vietnam” is his story, as told to writer David Drum.
First, a little background. Hassan’s father was an Arab, his mother was an Iowa farm girl. He grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Iowa.
“I had to work,” he said in a recent phone interview from his medical office in Sacramento. “I finally joined the Marines with $22 in my pocket.”
Today Hassan says he has only one regret. While in the Marine Corps, Hassan received an appointment to Annapolis. He began his studies there, but could not complete his work due to his grandfather’s death. He had to return to farm and take over, and from there he went to Iowa State for his veterinary degree and then to University of Iowa for his medical degree.
Hassan thought he’d like to be a psychiatrist, but he found it depressing and dull at Mendocino State Hospital.
“In January 1968 I noticed a short advertisement in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. It said: ‘We need volunteer doctors in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to provide health care for the civilian population.’”
Hassan was the youngest doctor to volunteer with the AMA in Vietnam and served two tours working in a dirty, under-staffed hospital with inadequate medical supplies.
He had many hair-raising experiences but two in particular have burdened him for nearly 40 years, and prompted him to find a former reporter, Drum, who could help him put his life on paper.
Hassan says he was the only surgeon-doctor at Quang Tri Provincial Hospital in May 1968 when a U.S. military helicopter landed in the courtyard. Three uniformed pilots unloaded stretcher after stretcher heaped with 40 very young Vietnamese children. Each child had been shot in the head; all of them died. Each child wore an armband saying “Interrogated USMC.”
Hassan doesn’t know who executed the children. He didn’t know in 1968 and he doesn’t know today.
But that was only the first legacy nightmare. Another came when Hassan was invited to visit some wounded Marines at Dong Ha, close to the border between North and South Vietnam. Hassan walked through three large tents filled with about 200 horribly mangled Marines, many quadruple amputees. Hassan knew his task – to improve patient morale – was impossible.
“None of these kids was in any condition to talk, listen or even see me clearly,” he said. Yet he felt that he was witnessing a medical emergency that required urgent action. Hassan wanted the Medevac planes to take them home immediately where they could have the best possible care or at least spend their last days with their families by their side.
A young medic told Hassan that the wounded Marines weren’t going anywhere.
“They’re too grotesque,” the kid said. “As soon as that Medevac plane landed back in the world and everybody saw these guys, they’d riot and the war would be history.”
Hassan said he could not believe a calculated decision had been made to leave the amputees in the military hospital tents until they died in the jungles of Dong Ha with only military brass and the young medics knowing what was happening. But that appeared to be the case.
Hassan returned to Northern California and attempted to live a normal life. But he has never been able to forget Viet Nam and has made many return trips to that country, a place he has come to love.
As a result of his experiences, he has developed two passions – the desire to help veterans, and the desire to help Vietnamese. The nation may have failed to atone for the destruction of the Vietnam War, but Hassan is doing his part.
He earned a law degree in 1978 in order to help veterans hack their way through the red tape imposed by the government.
“I have a family practice (in Sacramento) and I practice law part time helping veterans,” said Hassan.
Why did it take so long to finish the book? Hassan said he began writing it in the 1970s but could not complete the task. The U.S. government has officially denied that the Quang Tri children’s massacre took place.
And Hassan had other things to do – he served as a clinical instructor in family practice at UCD School of Medicine from 1976 to 1986.
But now that the book has been written, and has been translated into Vietnamese, Hassan, 71, thinks evidence may be found to prove that the children’s massacre took place.
When he returned to Ho Chi Minh City in April, no one greeted him at the airport gate. But when he stepped outside, he found a crowd of several hundred people gathered to welcome him.
“I was very tearful and amazed at how the Vietnamese have forgiven us, when I haven’t forgiven us,” he said. “I still get choked up,” he said, pausing over the phone to collect his emotions.
“The response to my book in Vietnam was overwhelming.”
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at email@example.com and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.
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