Ron Hale was in the middle of a residency in dermatology when his friends and neighbors decided that it was time for him to serve his country. This was 1965, the start of the Vietnam War buildup, and Dr. Hale accepted his draft notice and joined the Army Medical Corps.
He was sent not to Vietnam but to South Korea, where some 50,000 American soldiers were deployed to prevent resumption of the hostilities suspended in 1953. If a young doctor has not yet completed a residency, the Army almost invariably assigns him as a battalion surgeon. In wartime that would mean running an aid station where battle wounded get immediate first aid. In peacetime it means seeing patients with runny noses, sprained ankles or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Hale might have completed his service uneventfully ─ except one day several battalion officers called his attention to the unusual behavior of the battalion commander. Hale determined that this colonel urgently needed psychiatric treatment. When he refused to accept such treatment, Hale had him strapped into a straitjacket and sent to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital.
The colonel's replacement decided that he would prefer the services of another battalion surgeon. No other battalion commander would accept him, so Doc Hale became the Assistant Venereal Disease Officer for US Forces, Korea, a job where he was unlikely to order anyone put into a straitjacket.
For decades those who preceded Doc Hale in his new position had limited themselves to statistical analysis of reported disease. Hale, however, took his new job seriously. While he studied disease reports carefully, he also traveled all over South Korea to visit aid stations and speak with Army doctors and Korean physicians in communities adjacent to bases. He was shocked to discover that a quiet epidemic was raging throughout the country. US soldiers were contracting syphilis, a highly contagious and potentially fatal STD, in record numbers.
Syphilis is easily cured with penicillin. But Hale discovered that because the Army classified this inexpensive drug as a controlled substance, only a physician could prescribe it. Every dose had to be accounted for.
At the same time, Hale learned from Korean doctors, syphilis was running rampant, virtually out of control, among the local populace. There were thousands of cases, few of them reported to authorities. Because penicillin, which had to be imported from the US or Japan, was too expensive for most Koreans to afford, few cases were treated. Worse, unlicensed medical practitioners often dispensed diluted dosages of the wonder drug, creating penicillin-resistant strains of the disease.
Hale waited a few weeks until his boss, the Venereal Disease Control Officer, went on leave. As acting head of the department, he sent memos to every US Army doctor in Korea repealing all controls on penicillin. He suggested that aid stations hold sick calls in their local communities and offer penicillin to anyone who tested positive for any STD. He also shipped large quantities of penicillin to Korean hospitals and health clinics around the country, and let it be known that any doctor who wanted penicillin had only to ask at any US base.
In a month the epidemic was over.
Hale completed his military service and returned to his residency. Today he maintains a private dermatology practice in Santa Monica, California.
© 2002 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.