Emergency Medicine and the Vietnam Experience

On April 29, 1975, United States Marines Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge were providing security for the American evacuation of Saigon when they became the last American servicemen to die in Vietnam. The war had a significant impact on not only the United States, but also emergency medicine.

Vietnam set a high standard for battlefield care. Mortality rates ran about 4 percent in World War II, dropped to 2 percent in Korea, and fell below 2 in Vietnam. One reason was that battlefield evacuation by helicopter became standard — 206,229 were done in 1969 alone at the height of conflict. There were also more specialized surgeons and a larger armamentarium. Diagnostic and treatment machines were becoming smaller and more widespread.

The mosaic of private and public services operating to provide emergency services stateside couldn’t compare with the highly-organized military medical system. But doctors and medics returned to civilian practice with a wealth of experience and a new sense of what they could accomplish, spurring widespread improvements in emergency medical services.

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