To kick off a series of veteran interviews in anticipation of Memorial Day, we’ve spoken with Doctor Samuel D. Axelrad, M.D.. Dr. Axelrad is a veteran of The Vietnam War. He served as an army surgeon, commanding a Forward Medical Company in the First Air Cavalry. After returning to civilian life, he became a urologist. Now retired, Dr. Axelrad has now become an author.
Peaceful Bones is the title of Dr. Axelrad’s recently published debut memoir. It is based on the true story of his experiences in The Vietnam War. There, he found himself not only helping American soldiers, but hundreds of Vietnamese citizens who were wounded or sick.
The memoir specifically focuses on a very special patient. Hung Nguyen (AKA “Charlie”) became Doctor Axelrad’s unlikely friend on the battlefield. Having saved Charlie’s life, the two formed a bond that crossed both enemy lines and cultural divides.
Nearly half a century later, after losing touch in 1967, Dr. Axelrad and Charlie were fortuitously reunited. The friendship that made history is now immortalized in Peaceful Bones. Dr. Axelrad’s son, Chris, and Rabbi Ranon Teller co-authored the memoir.
5% of proceeds from Peaceful Bones are being donated to Texas for Heroes, an organization that sponsors retreats for US veterans. Another 5% are being donated to Hoa Binh Peace Village, to support children in Vietnam affected by Agent Orange.
On Memorial Day we remember those lost serving our nation during wartime. As a veteran, what does this weekend signify to you?
This weekend signifies a time in which every American should stop and take a moment to remember those individuals who have lost their lives defending our country. It’s also an important time to remember the soldiers who survived and fought for our country. The focus during this special weekend should be about the remembrance of the events that our country had to participate in order to keep people free. The idea of going to war is for freedom in the United States.
What are some ways you and other veterans commemorate Memorial Day here in Houston?
Well, I believe almost all veterans have memories and the kind of memories I’m talking about are usually linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. I think it’s very difficult for veteran combat soldiers who have experienced death to cope with these kinds of holidays, but even if it is stressful, it’s important to understand that many veterans don’t celebrate their feelings. I believe the best way to commemorate Memorial Day as a veteran is to reach out to other veterans, talk to each other about the things you can’t say to your wife, family or the average American. This is a great way to commemorate those we have lost; by celebrating the life and freedom we have in our country with others who understand our similar struggles.
Can you tell me about a few of the people you particularly remember this weekend?
Of course, I always remember my experience with Charlie because my memoir, Peaceful Bones, was inspired by our friendship, but I also reflect on the fact that I had the privilege of being a commanding officer to a group of medics. The work we did during our stay in Vietnam was life-changing. There were so many children that were sick or injured and we also took care of our troops; there’s no doubt about that, but the children haunted me the most. The Vietnam War resulted in over 50,000 soldiers dying and those who were killed in action (KIA) were sent to me because I had to sign the death certificates. The concept of seeing these things is unfathomable to most that haven’t experienced war.
I’ve heard some veterans express sadness that many celebrate Memorial Day with BBQ parties and maybe a bit too much beer. How do you recommend people mark Memorial Day in a manner that’s considerate to veterans and honors the memory of their friends?
Yes, I think there are organizations that really help surviving veterans and the families of deceased soldiers that should be focused on during Memorial Day. Most people cannot relate to what veterans really go through, so I think it’s important to support organizations that give back to the veteran community and encourage veterans to talk to each other. A portion of the proceeds of my book is donated to Texas for Heroes, an organization focused on providing healing, hope and honor for veterans in need, and their families, through education and self -awareness. They host weekend retreats for vets at no cost and give them a chance to spend time with each other. It’s a great way to heal and I think giving back is the best way to consider veterans and to honor the memory of friends.
We are extremely thankful to Dr. Axelrad for taking the time to talk to us about Memorial Day, and how we as a community can be supportive of veterans on this special day set aside to remember. Please check back in the following days for more editions of our Memorial Day series, Veteran Memories.