Moffitt Surgeon Recalls His Time Serving in the Vietnam Era

By Nikki Ross Inda - March 26, 2021

The phrase the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree is a fitting one for Moffitt Cancer Center  thoracic surgeon Dr. Lary Robinson.

photo of Dr. Lary Robinson
Dr. Lary Robinson, thoracic surgeon

My dad was a flight surgeon in World War II and served in Northern Africa, primarily in Egypt,” said Robinson. “He received several awards including the Soldier’s Medal for his bravery when pulling an injured airmen from a burning bomber that crash landed in his base. That bomber blew up soon after; all of the crew were rescued.”

1974 hospital personnel in Northeast Thailand at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air base
1974 hospital personnel in Northeast Thailand at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air base

Robinson joined the Air Force ROTC program in 1964 at the University of Kansas where he was an undergraduate. “I really didn’t consider at the time the possibility of being sent to a war. The United States involvement in the Vietnam War began in March 1965, but again, I never thought much about potentially going to the Vietnam war zone because I wouldn’t enter on active duty until ten years later,” said Robinson said.

Robinson was obligated to serve for two years after medical school and two years of surgery residency. In return, the Air Force paid some of his college tuition. In addition to his obligation, there was a doctor draft at the time. “All able-bodied physicians after internship had to go in the military during the Vietnam War.

The doctor draft ended in 1973, one year after he finished medical school. He would have been drafted had he not been in the Air Force ROTC.

Robinson says he enlisted to be like his dad, a flight surgeon. “You don’t need to learn to be a pilot, but rather learn to provide the medical care in your squadron on all the various aircrafts. However, prior to entering the military, I already had a private pilot’s license and flew small planes from time to time.”

Ariel view of Nahkon Phanom Air Force Base
Ariel view of Nahkon Phanom Air Force Base

Robinson attended three months of classes, conditioning exercises and calisthenics at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He received marching and commands, ejection seat and desert survival training. “I also went to Clark Air Base in the Philippines for jungle survival training and small arms training such as handguns, M-16 and grenades,” he said.

After training, he Robinson was sent to Nakhon Phanom, Royal Thai Air Force Base, a remote base in northeast Thailand on the Mekong River about 100 kilometers from the Vietnam demilitarized zone. “There was an underground command post at my base where all the generals and admirals directed the war, including all of the bombings in Vietnam.

Teams flew into Vietnam daily to help direct airstrikes and my squadron flew in rescue missions. I was the only flight surgeon on the base with the exception of our hospital commander, so I was responsible for all of the flight crews and flew in all of their aircrafts, but not on direct missions in the war zone,” he said.

HH-53 helicopter used during Vietnam
HH-53 helicopter used during Vietnam

The severity and darkness of the war was very difficult. There was one fatal crash of an HH-53 helicopter Robinson will never forget that took the lives of several men in his squadron. “It was sad, many of them were my friends. I was supposed to be riding on the HH-53 helicopter that night, which was headed to another crash scene. In the final moments before departure, I was taken off the flight,” Robinson recalled.

He was still listed on the crew manifest and was listed as killed in action for several days. He called his family  and some friends to let them know he was alive.

Robinson says while he did not volunteer for his tour in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, it was a remarkable experience. “I met and became friends with some of the finest men and women I’ve ever known. Committed, courageous, fun-loving but serious when the time came to serve.

Dr. Lary Robinson with nurses, corpsmen and other doctors in the 56th United States Air Force hospital
Dr. Lary Robinson with nurses, corpsmen and other doctors in the 56th United States Air Force hospital

A few of the characters in the television series “M*A*S*H*” truly existed at my base, although exaggerated for the show,” he said. “I greatly admired all the people I served with and to this day have the highest regard for anyone in uniform. They are great patriots and are willing to sacrifice potentially everything for their country.”

Robinson’s two and a half years in the military, especially time spent in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, was life changing.

He spent many hours of boredom interspersed with times of fear and even terror that he learned to cope with. He had to rapidly learn to be highly self-reliant and confident in his decisions.

“This invaluable medical experience has afforded me the ability to approach challenging clinical situations in my current role at Moffitt and feel comfortable handling them which, of course, is beneficial to my patients,” said Robinson.

Robinson married the love of his life, Susannah in 1989 and 31 years later, they are still married. They have three sons and two golden doodle dogs and one cat. 

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