There was at least one peaceful man among all the hostility and blood loss of the Vietnam War that claimed thousands of lives between the years of 1955 and 1975.
That man was Dr. Richard Wilker of Creston.
Wilker — drafted in 1968 for his medical expertise — served one year in Vietnam as a medical doctor for the United States Army. He admitted last week, though, he wasn’t for or against either side of the conflict. His priority was restoring the health of the ill and injured regardless of sex or origin.
“I’ve always enjoyed taking care of people — all people — and being part of the military wasn’t going to change that,” Wilker said.
Wilker spent the majority of his year based in DiAn — located in the southeast part of Vietnam. The base had a company of cobra helicopters, dental unit, three engineer companies and medical clinic he was in charge of that had 12 beds.
Wilker treated soldiers and civilians from both sides of the conflict.
At least twice a week Wilker visited Vietnamese hamlets (small villages) to medcap (medical civic action program). Wilker carried medicine and bandages to those villages to help restore the health of the Vietnamese.
“Sometimes I was bandaging the wounds of Viet Cong soldiers whose injuries we caused,” Wilker said.
More often than not, though, he was treating Vietnamese civilians who had a dau đau (headache) or dau bung (stomach ache).
“The idea was to win the hearts and minds of the population,” Wilker said.
Wilker said many times after treating Vietnamese patients, they would invite him in for dinner and conversation. Wilker often accepted the offer and communicated with them via his translator.
Another delight for Wilker was visiting Vietnamese orphanages and treating the children. He frequented one orphanage that had about 100 children. The children would swarm Wilker as soon as he walked in the door.
“They’d hug and hug me,” Wilker said.
Wilker — who had a practice in Creston before being drafted — said he communicated to his friends and family about his like for the children in the orphanages and many people from Creston began packaging and sending clothes to the orphans in Vietnam.
Wilker took care of many, many American soldiers and personnel during the Vietnam War. He treated critical injuries — like surgically suturing deep wounds. He treated a lot of immersion foot, which oftentime was caused by soldiers standing in water all day long.
Wilker was also the coroner.
“In Vietnam, all the dead bodies would be put alongside the road and oftentimes they’d sit there for days,” Wilker said. “They’d bring me the dead body and I’d have to determine if it was ours or theirs. That was often difficult because after two days in the heat, all dead bodies bloat up and look alike.”
Wilker also delivered a handful of babies in Vietnam — including his interpreter’s twin babies.
Wilker said — even though he tried to remain peaceful and focus on his love of treating patients — his stay in Vietnam was not without severe danger. He said a firefight broke out almost every night and his base was often bombarded with mortars.
“It took me two months not to be afraid I was going to die,” Wilker said. “I lost 20 pounds in the first eight weeks. That was a combination of the stress of missing my family and the heat. I didn’t think I could make it a year. Finally, you tell yourself whatever happens is going to happen.”
Wilker had several close calls. The Americans had built bunkers for protection. However, when under attack, Wilker’s orders were to go to the emergency area on base to treat patients who may be injured.
“Every day in Vietnam was like playing Russian roulette,” Wilker said. “It just became a matter of, were you the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Wilker left Vietnam in 1970. He received many offers and incentives to continue as a medical doctor with the United States Army, but respectfully declined.
“I wouldn’t have given them one more day,” Wilker said.
Wilker was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and returned to Creston reuniting with is family in 1971. He continued serving the Creston community as a medical doctor through 2000 when he retired.
Wilker and his wife Gail currently reside in Creston.