Dan Cheney and Roger Barnhart, both former paratroopers, saw enough of the horrors of war to know that their lives would be better served healing others. Both remain proud patriots.
When the paths of two lives continue to cross, through war and through peace, perhaps it is inevitable that these two lives would eventually come to rest in the same place.
Dan Cheney and Roger Barnhart both served in the army, albeit during different wars. They also both became paratroopers. After their time at war, they would meet while working in medicine, again in the reserves, and would both ultimately settle in Bellingham, by that time longtime professional friends, to begin their own respective private practices.
Their paths in life led them through war, where they learned the value of human life as only a soldier can truly comprehend, and then into medicine, where both men again merged onto the same course, each committed to preserving lives.
After attending dental school at Ohio State University, and additional training with the army abroad, Cheney began his residency training. In 1966, with his first year at the hospital behind him, his plans changed when, according to him, “patriotism called.” Cheney said he was compelled to interrupt his medical training and go to Vietnam.
“At the time I thought it was important to serve, and that the cause was worthy,” said Cheney, 68, who was born and raised in Ohio. “I bought into the idea that we were saving that part of the world from Communism,” he said of his attitude in 1966. “I never regretted going, but (after time) you become a little disillusioned,” he said.
Cheney’s entrance into the war was a different experience than most, because of his prior training as a paratrooper. “I went over already knowing I would join a paratroop unit,” he said. According to Cheney, most people who went to Vietnam were assigned to a unit once they got there.
Cheney joined the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles,” an elite unit with as proud a history as any in the armed forces. He first served as the brigade dental officer, directing dental services for a unit of 6,000 to 8,000 men, and also doing anesthesia. After six months he was a promoted to major and later took command of the medical company, something unique, said Cheney, because he was the only dentist to command a medical company during the war. According to Cheney, his medical unit worked to prioritize and temporarily treat patients near the fighting, and then airlift them to another hospital.
Arriving on stretchers into the medical tents were injured soldiers with a variety of injuries from snake bites and fungal infections to gunshot wounds and damage from grenade blasts, he said.
“There were moments of boredom, but most of the time it was filled with too much activity,” he said.
“It was almost M.A.S.H-like. You’d see people dashing in with stretchers, taking people off choppers, bringing them in any way they could,” said Cheney. “Some of the soldiers were evacuated as walking wounded, while others might have a mortal wound and die in transit, or were maybe already dead when they were loaded onto the chopper,” he said.
Cheney said the stress he felt didn’t stem from being concerned about his own safety, but rather from caring for the seriously wounded and prioritizing arriving casualties coming in during times of action.
“I’m not sure what kicks in when you start managing people in that condition; your training is paramount. It’s not automatic, but you go about your business,” he said. Cheney said he had to become detached emotionally while treating the gravely wounded because of the intensity of the work, but afterwards often came to a grim realization of the situations.
Cheney recalled a particularly hectic time near Dak To,Vietnam, when the 101st engaged in fierce battle with the Viet Cong. Every kind of aircraft was bringing in patients; during the battle, Cheney’s company treated 110 people in 36 hours, overwhelming the hospital.
“You can imagine the sense of accomplishment, but also the incredible drain,” he said.
Although a harrowing experience at the time, Cheney said the intense time at Dak To is a positive memory he took from his tour of duty. The 101st would later receive a Presidential Unit Citation for the Dak To battle.
In 1967, after his tour in Vietnam, Cheney first met Roger Barnhart. They became fast professional friends while working together at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver. During that year they would consult each other and work to treat patients as they came in, despite Cheney’s being an oral surgeon and Barnhart an otolaryngologist.
“I would not have gone to medical school if it hadn’t been for the service, so it’s very important to me,” said Barnhart. “The army gave me self-confidence I didn’t have before.”
Barnhart’s army career began in 1951 as a private. He went to officer candidate school to become an artillery officer, and then underwent additional training with the 82nd Airborne, the “Eighty Deuce,” to be a paratrooper and work in reconnaissance. In late 1952, he began a tour in Korea that lasted 13 months. He spent half his time in a reconnaissance unit as a line officer in the 3rd Infantry Division, a special operations unit. After the unit dissolved near the end of the war, he moved to an artillery unit.
As part of the reconnaissance team, he made long runs either by parachute drop or walking, said Barnhart. “We did a lot of walking,” he admits. In the field, they would observe vehicle movements, pick up prisoners and demolish ammunition depots and petrol stations, he said.
“You don’t sleep, you eat rotten food and you travel immense distances on foot quite often and then you kind of get down to the real world, where you find out you can sweat so much, but you are proud that you can do it,” said Barnhart of his experience in reconnaissance.
“People dying, even the enemy dying, they are all 18 to 21, and that’s something you take home with you,” he said.
Barnhart said being reassigned to artillery was almost like going home. He slept in a bed, ate good food with the other officers and enjoyed the comforts of being more stationary.
Like Cheney, the army gave Barnhart a new direction in life. With his new perspective he decided to attend medical school at the University of Oregon.
Cheney and Barnhart are not ones to loosely share the gritty personal details of war, but they both have short stories they said they would rather forget, which shed light on the attitudes of soldiers and the value of life as only someone in combat can understand.
Cheney recalls a young man, and a close acquaintance, in the medical company dubbed “Fireball.” He said “Fireball” wanted to leave the medical unit and join the brigade’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, so he could see more action. “He saw himself crawling through the jungle with a knife in his teeth I guess,” said Cheney. Army protocol kept the young soldier in the unit about a year longer, but “Fireball finally got his way and got transferred,” he said.
Weeks later, Cheney said “Fireball” came back to the unit in a helicopter after bei
ng killed in action.
“We had a close relationship, but he was determined that he was going to take things a step further, so that was difficult,” he said.
The invincible and reckless attitudes toward life seen in young soldiers made an impression on both Cheney and Barnhart.
Barnhart tells a similar story about the effects of war on the psyche of the soldiers fighting it.
“We were lying in a rice paddy waiting for the moon to go down so we could go through the safe line between the mine fields,” Barnhart recalled. While waiting in the cold, Barnhart said one of his men leaned over and said “You know sir, I’m getting so it’s getting just as easy to kill a human being as it is a dumb animal.” The comment, according to Barnhart, struck a nerve with him and it was then he knew he needed to get out of combat and change his direction in life towards medicine.
Although the dark times will stay with them, both men try to focus on the positives of their time in the service.
One of Cheney’s memoirs from Vietnam is a black-and-white photo of him playing with children during a humanitarian aid mission to a village in the Kon Tum Province.
“Children are the same all over the world,” he said. The picture, said Cheney, is the reason why he wanted to serve, to help people.
By stroke of luck, the two friends eventually settled in Bellingham, Barnhart starting a private practice in 1969 and Cheney in 1972.
Beyond private medicine, they continue to better the lives of others. Barnhart, now retired, volunteers as an English teacher at Options High School in Bellingham. Cheney was named the 1997 Washington State Dental Association Man of the Year for his work with a dental outreach program in Guatemala.
The stark realities of combat on foreign soil have left memories that will never fade from the minds of either man, but rather than glorifying their experiences, both continue to move forward, united in their desire to spend their post-war lives healing others.