From Hue to Wounded Knee
BS Med grads from the 1960s talk about studying medicine with a war on, and one graduate who never made it home.
“I remember when President Kennedy came to speak to us at UND on Arbor Day in 1963. Not even two months later he was gone.”
So recalled Stephen L. Hanson, MD, a 1964 graduate of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) who took to heart Kennedy’s advice about asking what one can do for their country.
“I would give medical exams to new draftees in a quonset so loud that you couldn’t even hear a heart murmur,” Hanson told North Dakota Medicine, over the phone from his home in Minneapolis, Minn., of making a career out of his service in the U.S. Naval Air Medical Reserve following graduation from the SMHS. “When we started, we took 45 minutes to examine one guy. But we had a line of recruits stretching out the door, so we really had to speed things up.”
Hanson wasn’t the only SMHS graduate to end up serving his country during a time when it felt like the whole world was on fire.
In fact, a small platoon of BS Med grads from UND ended up in the Armed Forces, serving in Vietnam and elsewhere in the late- 1960s and early-1970s, at least one of whom never came home.
Graduating alongside Hanson in 1964 was Bowman, N.D., native Gary D. Lokken, whom, like Kennedy, was also gone much too soon.
After leaving Grand Forks and earning a medical doctorate from the University of Texas-Galveston, Lokken volunteered for the U.S. Army, and found himself in the Thua Thien province of South Vietnam by April 1968. It was there that a jeep in which he was riding rolled over a landmine.
Captain Lokken died as a result of “fragment wounds while a passenger in a military vehicle,” reported one North Dakota newspaper at the time. “The three servicemen riding with Gary were also killed. He was a medical doctor serving with the 14th Engineers Battalion in the Hué area and had been in Viet Nam since October.”
As expected, the death of Lokken—who left behind a wife, twins, and a placement in a psychiatry residency—hit his former classmates hard.
“Dear CPT Lokken: Appreciate deeply the supreme sacrifice that you made for all of us so long ago,” Hanson wrote in a tribute to Lokken on his classmate’s entry in the togetherweserved.com military database. “Your quiet dignity, kindness & empathy for your patients was an example for all of us to emulate.”
“My father suffered from some type of congenital hip dysplasia that made it difficult for him to walk. On top of this he had severe asthma,” added Kajsa Harris (née Lokken), MD, one of the daughters Lokken left behind—and a member of the School’s MD Class of 1993. “My father was not eligible to be drafted due to these medical issues. He was worried about the lack of physicians in Vietnam and felt there were not enough doctors to care for the young soldiers fighting. My father, as my aunt tells it, was upset enough with this that he obtained medical waivers for his hips and his asthma so he could go to Vietnam. Not just to serve his country but the soldiers who were fighting there.”
By most accounts, the year Lokken was killed was one of the most dramatic in world history, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy notwithstanding. By mid-year the Vietnamese Tet offensive and American Civil Rights movement were in full swing and not only the United States but much of the world had exploded in a wave of protests, die-ins, labor strikes, and revolutionary violence.
North Dakota, too, was far from immune to such events.
“I don’t remember anything about Lokken being brought up at the school or on campus,” added G. Peter Boyum, a member of the 1968 BS Med graduating class who himself ended up doing medical work in the Air Force in the early 1970s and only learned of his colleague’s death years later. “It’s possible that no one was aware of it.”
As a student focused on his second year studies at the UND SMHS at that time, Boyum wondered why there was not more reaction around the School to Lokken’s death. He mused that perhaps the ostensible silence was a product of the war’s increasing unpopularity and heightened tensions in the country generally, which by 1969 included some local protests and even a hospital workers’ strike in Charleston, S.C.
“UND was a pretty conservative place, and there wasn’t much protest activity on campus at that time,” he said. “Of course, we were so busy that we didn’t spend a lot of time getting involved with anything other than our studies.”
Image courtesy the Dakota Student
But as the global political scene fractured and the war dragged on, governing authorities grew more interested in young physicians and their training. In Boyum’s recollection, the draft board was eager to snatch up young medics and tended to take the oldest and single guys first.
“I qualified for both conditions then,” laughed Boyum, who earned his medical degree from Southwestern University in Dallas, Texas, in 1970. “So I signed up with the Air Force early to avoid being assigned to the Army. I provided health care to the pilots who flew SR-71 Blackbirds over Vietnam. It was a pretty choice assignment since these guys were some of the healthiest people in the world—they went through the same training as our astronauts.”
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
For his part, Boyum’s fellow Class of 1968 graduate Jim Brosseau, a native of Drayton, N.D., did recall protest activity in the region.
“There were protests, even on the UND campus,” said Brosseau, who took his BS Med degree to the University of Minnesota and earned a medical doctorate before fulfilling his military obligation through the Indian Health Service at Fort Totten and Fort Berthold, N.D., and Wounded Knee, S.D. “There were protesters of the Vietnam War here, but I don’t think there were any medical students who took part in that. It was mostly confined to students from other colleges.”
Calling the America of his youth a fraught and violent place, Brosseau said that he registered for the draft at age 18 and was called up as an A1 draftee almost immediately. But a college deferment allowed him time to figure out how he hoped to serve as he completed his medical education.
“The day I finished my internship was the day I got my notice that I was going into the Army. But I was transferred over to the Indian Health Service and ended up being commissioned in the Coast Guard, which at the time provided physicians for working on the reservations. They had a few openings and one was at Fort Totten [on the Spirit Lake Nation].”
But even though the doctor managed to miss service overseas, such an assignment was less tranquil than it sounds. Brosseau ended up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota right as the American Indian Movement was coordinating its Wounded Knee occupation in 1973.
“When I first got to Pine Ridge the Dee Brown book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had just come out,” recalled Brosseau, whose interest in literature—William Faulkner in particular—goes back decades. “So I went down to the Wounded Knee trading post whose owners were respected and well-liked by the community. I bought my copy of the book there. It wasn’t long after that the American Indian Movement came to Pine Ridge to support the protest. But AIM wasn’t too welcome by the local Indian people. The Tribal chairman was very opposed to having them there.”
As tensions rose, violence inevitably broke out, and the experience, Brosseau said, changed his medical practice.
“For the first time, even though I grew up in North Dakota, I had an idea what people were going through on reservations,” said Brosseau, who later practiced internal medicine in Grand Forks for decades, specializing in diabetes care. “Until you actually get out there and see it first hand, you can’t appreciate what poverty and discrimination does to people. That was an experience—realizing for the first time what was going on in our own country and how much inequality there really was.”
And still is, added Brosseau, calling the liberal education he received at UND the catalyst that helped him see the patient behind the illness.
“I had a liberal arts background, which I think everybody should have,” he said, noting that such curricula have shrunk at universities across the country since 1968. “That’s one of my missions now is to try to encourage the liberal arts curriculum here.”
The author thanks G. Peter Boyum, MD, for his research assistance.