The VVA Veteran® Online

November/December 2014

Dr. John Miller: Saving Lives During the War and After


In 1967 we entered a village near the DMZ where ten Marines had set up a perimeter. After checking around the hooches to make sure there were no enemy or hostiles, the Marines gave us the signal that they had completed their sweep.

I asked who was the most seriously wounded. One of the corpsmen said there was a 10-year-old kid who was “oozing out”—bleeding to death. He had a gunshot wound in the leg. A mamasan was trying to console him.

I put a blood pressure cuff on him and rolled him over, face-up, onto a plastic tarp. He had been shot through the thigh, and was, indeed, slowly bleeding to death. The entry wound was very small, but the exit wound was large. So I cut off the dead tissue, tied off the bleeders, and applied a tourniquet.

This mamasan was like a village nurse; she delivered babies and so on. I had a translation sheet that went from English to French to Vietnamese. It had phrases on it, such as “Where’s your pain?” I would point to the sheet and, since she knew how to read, she would respond.

At some point I looked up and there was a fellow standing about ten meters away with his Chicom rifle pointed at me. I thought at first I was hallucinating, so I just went back to treating the boy.

But then I heard the mamasan say, “Daiwi bachsi, daiwi bachsi.” She was saying, “Lieutenant doctor, lieutenant doctor.” The next thing I knew, this figure—this armed stranger—was standing no more than three paces away.

I thought, “I hope he shoots me in the head because I don’t want to be in pain.” I know that’s a crazy thought, but I told myself, “I’m going to finish the job of treating this child.” When I was done, he said to me, “Merci beaucoup, Americain.”

So I turned to the mamasan and said, “Tell him how much I appreciate the love and care he has for this young child.” She pointed to my translation sheet where it said, “This is the father.” I had treated his son. That’s what kept me from being killed that day.

ohn Miller—a member of VVA’s Tucson Chapter 106—was born in the backwoods of Idaho on a subsistence farm near the Canadian border. By the time he completed his medical training at UCLA courtesy of the U.S. Navy, he was already in his late twenties.

“I was well read and knew the Vietnam War was a lost cause before I even got there,” he says. “It was insanity.” After a few months in the relative safety of Da Nang Air Base, Miller’s commanding officers realized he was “a bit cantankerous” and not a career officer. So they shipped him to Dong Ha near the DMZ to serve out the rest of his time.

By the time he was medevaced out eight months later with a temperature of 105 degrees, Miller had served in Con Thien, Khe Sanh, and The Rock Pile.

Miller’s focus was treating wounded and dying Marines, but when an opportunity arose to treat civilians, he would organize a MedCAP—a medical civil action program—working with Marine volunteers who would go with him into villages for security.

Quickly, though, his commanders forbade the use of U.S. medical supplies on civilians. So Miller began scavenging for medical supplies, soliciting help from some of his physician friends in Da Nang, and buying supplies with money he raised from woodcarvings of Playboy bunnies that he created himself and sold to the highest bidder. 

“Helping civilians was different than doing my job. It was a choice,” Miller says. “MedCAPs were the only sane things in the midst of insanity.” They gave him a connection with his own humanity, he says, and he was even more motivated after that enemy soldier spared his life.

When he returned to the U.S., Miller set up a medical practice, first in California then in Huntsville, Alabama. But his desire to provide care to the underserved never went away. In the early 1980s Miller and his wife Lynne volunteered with the St. Louis-based Wings of Hope, an organization that brought medical care to Mexico and parts of Central America.

“My wife would fly me into a village, drop me off, and I’d stay for three or four days delivering babies and helping people,” Miller says. For some ten years they made stops in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

Miller gives much of the credit for a lifetime of helping people to Navy Corpsman Mel Overmeyer, who asked Miller to go on his first MedCAP. “While I was still working in the hospital in Da Nang, he said, ‘Come on out to our territory,’ and I did. My life hasn’t been the same since,” says Miller. His friend Overmeyer, while treating wounded Marines during an NVA siege near Con Thien, was severely wounded by grenade shrapnel and suffered head trauma that left him paralyzed on one side. His actions earned him the Silver Star.

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