'Just call me H'
His name was simple. What he did on the front lines was anything but.
I was touched by the March–April 2015 Ohio State Alumni magazine and the article about student veterans. Having served in Vietnam in 1967 and ’68, it seemed perfectly appropriate to tell a story of H. Orthmeyer. I never knew H. while we were at Ohio State. I was in med school, and he was in dental school. We met in Vietnam. Nearly 50 years have gone by. His story should be told.
I graduated from The Ohio State University College of Medicine in 1966. Following my internship in New York City, I was drafted into the Navy and assigned duty as a battalion surgeon with the 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines in Vietnam. The entire preparation for that duty was a 10-day course at Camp Pendleton prior to shipping out. I assumed the duties of medical officer for 1,200 Marines in combat and essentially learned on the job.
After a few months, a dental officer named H. Orthmeyer joined our battalion. His first name was “H.” And that was it. “Just call me H,” he’d say.
H. was from Washington Court House, Ohio, and a 1967 graduate of the Ohio State College of Dentistry. He volunteered for duty with this “grunt” battalion. Dental officers typically were assigned to the battalion headquarters, where they could practice in a relatively secure environment. But H. felt that troops in combat deserved his services where they were, and he was determined to do his part for them. So he and his dental tech would set up a little dental office no matter where the battalion landed, and that usually meant in harm’s way.
He worked seven days a week, dawn to dusk. His schedule reflected his work ethic.
After the Tet Offensive in 1968, our battalion deployed with a regiment to relieve the besieged troops at Khe Sanh, a base that had been destroyed by continual hostile artillery fire. Medical officers from the combined battalions ran a forward aid station underground and lived in an adjacent underground bunker.
H. again volunteered to join us and provide dental service. This time he worked from the “Mobile Molar,” a little trailer parked next to the aid station. He had a portable generator to power his instruments. And in that exposed trailer, he did dentistry.
I spent two months at Khe Sanh with H. and never met anyone like him. He was a true patriot. He loved his country. Never focused on the politics of the war. Never felt sorry for himself or his lot. He loved being able to help the troops. He was proud of his role and unselfish in his zeal. He disdained personal glory and felt that his work was just the appropriate thing to do. He was inspirational.
While his undergraduate school was Notre Dame, his true love was Ohio State. Loved the Buckeyes. Loved Ohio. In spite of our wretched circumstances, he remained upbeat and determined.
H. and I kept in touch after Vietnam. I continued my training and became a urologist. H. stayed in the Navy and became an oral surgeon. Both of us married and had families. I began my practice in Santa Monica, California, and he lived in San Diego.
In his 40s, H. developed ALS while still on active duty. He deteriorated rapidly. I would call him, and his wife would put the phone up to his ear while I carried on a one-sided conversation. H. died a short while later. His wife and their children moved to be with her family in Oregon.
Twenty years later, my wife and I drove to Washington Court House to pay our respects to any surviving Orthmeyers. It was a Sunday, and everything was closed except a VFW Hall. We stopped there and asked if anybody knew the Orthmeyers. A patron at the bar said he remembered them. He kindly drove us to their old family house, where a neighbor greeted us and told us all of H.’s relatives were gone. We visited for a while before the emotion overwhelmed me and we left.
Now that nearly 50 years have passed, it is appropriate to honor this amazing man. An Ohioan. A Buckeye. A combat dentist. A selfless volunteer. A patriot.
H. What a guy.
Stuart Fisher ’66 MD lives in Los Angeles.
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