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A friendship forged in Vietnam: George Cadwalader and Kristaps Keggi

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Spring


“The thing I remember most about that day is that if it’d been busy, I’d have amputated,” says Kristaps Keggi, MD ’59, professor emeritus and senior research scientist of orthopaedics and rehabilitation. Keggi, who’d graduated Yale in 1955, did a great deal of surgical work as the US presence ramped up in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. “The 173rd had encounters with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese where they lost a lot of men, and their wounded were lying in the rain for hours, outside overflowing tents, waiting for operations. If that had been the case when George arrived, I would have made a quick decision to do bilateral amputations for the greater good of all the others. We had the ‘luxury’ of time with his badly shredded ankles and feet. I could take as much time as needed to do the complex work involved in preserving them, and did not need to cut them off.”

“Lucky for me!” says George Cadwalader, who graduated Yale in 1961.

It may seem extraordinary, but the two Yale athletes, both of whom wanted to serve their country, met on a sunny day in 1965 Keggi’s makeshift operating room. Keggi and his Third Surgical Mobile Hospital (MASH), had been assigned to the storied 173rd Airborne Brigade (the first Regular Army unit of their kind in Vietnam) almost directly after completing his orthopaedic residency at Yale with the late Wayne O. Southwick (the first chair of Yale’s department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation). Southwick had served in a similar hospital with the Marines in North Korea and had not dissuaded Keggi from serving in a similar capacity with the Army airborne in Vietnam. Cadwalader, whose expertise with French had (in true military fashion) played no role in his assignment as a Marine Corps infantry officer to advise the Vietnamese, was in his first month embedded with a South Vietnamese Marine Battalion.

“The Vietnamese didn’t like to show that they knew French,” says Cadwalader. “Heading over there I thought it might be an advantage, but they were very nationalistic about their culture. At least, that’s what I encountered.”

In 1965, Vietnam was still mostly an afterthought to Americans, though combat was already beginning to show signs of ramping up. Keggi was one of the first American surgeons to arrive in theater, and among other things was responsible for treating the casualties sustained by the 173rd during Operation Hump, immortalized in a popular song by former country duo Big and Rich named 8th of November.

“There were times the fighting got to be very intense,” says Keggi, his voice trailing off. “We had to do everything to save those boys lives, and there were some long, sleepless nights, let me tell you, and everything wasn’t always enough.”

Cadwalader’s injury had a better ending. Keggi remembers Cadwalader being brought in because of his South Vietnamese Marine fatigue trousers, which had been custom tailored for his tall American frame in Saigon. “I could tell then and there that he was a different breed of officer than I usually saw, and it was no surprise to me that he was a Yale man. I cut the trousers right off with my surgical shears.”

“Those were a nice set of trousers,” says Cadwalader. “We wore the same fatigues as the Vietnamese, and they didn’t have my size, so I had them done custom. And this guy—I guess they don’t teach doctors to appreciate fine stitching—cut them off without so much as a by-your-leave.”

The two Yale veterans share a laugh at the memory. “Well, the damn fancy pants were shredded and bloody, covered with mud and we had to examine as quickly as possible the rest of the legs,” quips Keggi. “But I’ll have you know that I did make it right.”

Sure enough, years later Keggi appeared at Cadwalader’s door holding a new pressed uniform to make up for the one he’d ruined saving Cadwalader’s feet. “It was the least I could do,” said Keggi.

After Vietnam, life sent the two men in different directions. Cadwalader was medically retired from the Marine Corps, married, and moved to Cape Cod, where, on an otherwise uninhabited island at the west end of Buzzards Bay, he started and for many years led the Penikese Island School. Penikese took in court-referred teen-aged boys and offered them rehabilitation through a deliberately austere life, modeled on that experienced by 19th century island residents.

“The one common denominator I observed in my students was that they had grown up in environments too chaotic for them to have learned to connect behavior to consequences. I reasoned that from such simple lessons as sleeping in a cold house after not cutting enough firewood for the wood stoves, they would learn that they could influence their own lives for better or for worse by the things they did or didn’t do. No boy ever left Penikese without improving somewhat for having been there,” says Cadwalader.

To help make financial ends meet for his school and his family, Cadwalader fished commercially for lobsters in the fourteen miles of water between Woods Hole and Penikese. He wrote two books, Castaways, about the Penikese Island School, and The Unmarked Road, about Vietnam. Cadwalader and his Brazilian-born wife Yara raised two sons (both of whom joined the Marines), and still lives on the Cape.

Keggi, traveled back to New Haven where he joined Yale School of Medicine as faculty in the new department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation. Over his career he taught five decades of orthopaedic residents, 250 fellows from the Baltics, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam. He is also credited with initiating the anterior approach to total hip replacements in America. He is the recipient of multiple national and international awards and four Honorary Doctorates.

Both gentlemen use canes, now, and Cadwalader is starting to lose his sight. But he credits years of being able to walk under his own power to Keggi’s quick thinking in Vietnam, and his good fortune to cross Keggi’s path. Keggi, for his part, still wears his 173rd Airborne pin to honor the men of that unit whom he feels privileged to have served.

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