Ex-Marine works to help former allies walk again

August 13, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Bob Dalton, a tough ex-Marine who first went into combat in Vietnam in 1966, wants to put legs back on the soldiers of the South Vietnamese army who lost their own fighting as allies of the United States in the Vietnam War.

In April, Dalton helped open a clinic that already has provided 600 innovative, light-weight, computer-fitted artificial legs to Vietnamese in Hanoi, the capital city of the old enemy in North Vietnam. Now he wants to open a similar clinic in southern Vietnam, perhaps in the Mekong Delta market town of Can Tho.

"Somebody has to communicate with the guys who fought with us that somebody gives a damn," he says.

Dalton is co-director, along with Dr. Lois T. Vietri, a University of Maryland political scientist, of a prosthetics program submitted by the university to the Agency for International Development for funding. The United States has earmarked a million dollars for artificial limbs in Vietnam. Dalton's program in south Vietnam needs a little more than half a million.

"My motivation is to put limbs on people who have been working around 20 years on sticks," Dalton says.

He's a blunt, plain spoken, but mild-mannered veteran of 32 years in the Corps. He lives near Davidsonville, in Anne Arundel county. And he's one of the more frequent fliers on the U.S.-to-Vietnam route.

He's been to Vietnam 15 times since he first returned in 1987. He speaks Vietnamese fluently. He knows contemporary Vietnam "on-the-ground," as he likes to say, probably as well as any American.

He finds veterans of the ARVN -- the defunct Army of the equally defunct Republic of Vietnam -- often come last for almost everything in the "new" Vietnam, including artificial limbs.

Dalton has more than an abstract interest in helping former ARVN soldiers. He fought with a lot of these guys. A "mustang" Marine officer who served three years in Vietnam during the war, Dalton commanded a Combined Action Group of 150 Marines and 1,000 Vietnamese on one of his tours.

A mustang is a Marine Corps officer who rose from the ranks. Dalton was a Marine when he was 15. He celebrated his 16th birthday during the Korean War, a rifleman slogging up the hills around the deadly Choshin Reservoir. He went on to spend 32 years in the Marines; he retired in 1984 as a lieutenant colonel.

"What I'd like to do is get 150 limbs on people," Dalton says, "come back here and get our people who fought in the war and then have a parade in Saigon next spring right around Tet."

Dalton, 57, was executive director of the Prosthetics Research Foundation, the Seattle group which established the clinic in Hanoi. Dr. Ernest M. Burgess, an orthopedic surgeon from Seattle, supplied the medical expertise. Burgess developed an artificial, energy-storing foot that has a lifelike spring and bounce unlike conventional prosthetics legs. It's called the "Seattle Foot."

The Hanoi prosthetics center designs a custom-made socket for each amputee's stump, using a computer program called the "Seattle Shapemaker." The rest of the limb is made up from "modular" off-the-shelf parts, which include a flexible plastic shank, plastic joints, stainless steel bolts, alignment devices and the Seattle Foot. The foundation even designed an "all-terrain" foot for farmers.

The clinic produces the new light-weight limb in just a few hours at remarkably low cost, a few hundred dollars compared to several thousand dollars artificial limbs normally cost in this country. Patients in Vietnam don't pay anything.

Vietnamese were brought to the U.S. for training in fitting and making the new limbs. And the clinic is now totally run by Vietnamese, with backup from the foundation if problems develop.

"This is a stand-alone operation," Dalton says. "We set it up. We get out. We send materials. And they're putting on legs."

Dalton hopes to reproduce the Hanoi program in the south. The goal of establishing prosthetics clinics in the south and in the villages was part of the original proposal he and Burgess submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department in 1989.

"This is without a doubt an ideal method to employ in Third World countries," he says, "because it can produce the maximum amount of quality limbs in the shortest amount of time. And it's simple to operate."

Dalton says "disenfranchised soldiers of the former regime will be given half the allotted limbs, the South Vietnamese soldiers. The rest will go to the general public."

The goal is to provide 500 limbs initially.

In the North, Dalton says, no influence has been exerted. The limbs have so far gone only to "common people, mainly farmers, people from the villages, no relatives of high officials."

The University of Maryland would assume overall management of the clinic in South Vietnam. Dr. Vietri, who among other things teaches courses on Vietnam at UM, will be project manager.

Applied Production Works Inc., a Virginia firm that designs, makes and maintains automated machinery systems, well equip the clinic, train personnel and provide periodic oversight.

Ken Wilkinson, president of APW, is also a lieutenant colonel retired from the Marine Corps. As a young lieutenant, he commanded a rifle company for the entire 2 1/2 -month siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. Shortly before his retirement, he was senior military adviser to Royal Thai Marines serving along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Dalton brings his "on-the-ground" experience, expertise and contacts in today's Vietnam. His recipe for success in Vietnam is to substitute action for rhetoric.

"You don't say what you're going to do," he says. "You do it and tell them how to do it and then get out and let them do it."

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