On a cold autumn evening, General Surgeon Robert Garvey was called into the ER to see a dying naval district captain. As the captain lay in agonizing pain, Garvey checked his vitals every half hour while attending to his every need. To maintain his own composure and distract the captain from his pain, Garvey used his witty humor to entertain the captain until his last breath.
Robert Garvey is a wise and funny U.S. Navy veteran from McMinnville, Ore. He has an easygoing voice, chipper laugh and a personality that lights up a room. He could play guitar for hours while describing his experiences in the ICUs of the naval hospital in Oakland, Calif.
Garvey was born in 1940 in the Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Wash. Many of his family members, including his father, served in the U.S. Army. Garvey’s family eventually moved to Tigard, Ore., where he enlisted straight out of high school – but not in the Army. Garvey wanted to join the Navy because of its benefits over the Army. These benefits included clean sheets, a real bed and above-average food, he says.
Garvey was a surgeon for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He trained in San Diego for eight months, eight hours a day. Garvey recalls his days as a medical student as hectic. His days consisted of rising early for training and late nights of studying. There was always confusion about where to go and what to do. There was no time for extracurricular activities, though newly appointed naval officers had to complete calisthenics each morning.
The training prepared Garvey for the challenges that awaited him at a naval hospital in Oakland, Calif., where some injured Vietnam veterans were sent. While in Oakland, Garvey worked as a general surgeon, as well as in emergency medicine, neuropsychiatry, the amputee service and the finance department.
“My time in the military was hectic. There were countless servicemen that came in with gruesome injuries,” says Garvey.
Humor was the only way to get through his time at the hospital. He remembers playing games with patients and pulling pranks on his comrades. Jokes made his service during the war go by faster.
Garvey still remembers the case of one soldier who came through the hospital, remarkable for his age and attitude: an 18-year-old who came in without a leg.
“A young man come into my ER with a leg missing. I was blown away by his enthusiasm and makeup,” Garvey says. “The soldier told me that during his service, a plane had just landed on the aircraft carrier. One of the cables that caught the plane snapped in half and cut the soldier’s leg in half. The leg was never recovered because it fell into the sea.”
To get away from the pain and suffering of wounded soldiers, Garvey would hitchhike home to spend time with his family in Tigard. The Navy food was quite good, but nothing compared to his mother’s cooking.
“[Hitchhiking] was much safer than it is today,” says Garvey. “After long hours of patching up wounded soldiers, I needed to get away.”
Another way Garvey got his mind off the hospital horrors was playing sports. He and other hospital employees swam, played football and baseball, and wrestled. He also played guitar in a band. Playing his guitar soothed his soul.
“A few of us hospital employees started a band to get our minds away from the war. It made me see the positive sides in the young men who I worked with,” says Garvey.
Garvey says he never experienced overwhelming stress while he served. He did see the psychological effects of the war on some of the soldiers he treated. However, he never knew the meaning behind their stories because his job was to patch up their arms and legs, not to evaluate their psyches.
He eventually became tired of seeing so much blood, and he decided to switch over to finance and a desk job.
As a surgeon, he says, “My job was to save lives. Working behind a desk was a totally different experience for me. Now I was instructed to save the U.S.’s money.”
During his service, Garvey made many close friends. He kept in contact with them as best he could during and after the war. However, as time went on, he lost contact as they scattered around the country. But Garvey has met many other veterans who volunteer at McMinnville’s Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, where he also gives his time. He has made close friends through their shared military stories.Garvey is a true American hero not because he fought on the front lines, but because he made a difference in other veterans’ lives. He saved countless lives and gave hope to those who had no hope at all.
Writing: Dan Hellinger
Photograph: Chloe Raymond