Houston Matters

Peaceful Bones: Doctor Reunites With Patient He Helped During Vietnam War

An American medic in Vietnam saves the life of an enemy soldier. Some 45 years later, the American sets out the find the man and reunite him with something invaluable.

Samuel Axelrad and Hung Nguyen in Vietnam
Dr. Samuel Axelrad, right, hands over arm bones belonging to former North Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Hung, left, at Hung’s house in the town of An Khe, Gia Lai province, Vietnam on Monday, July 1, 2013. During the Vietnam War, Axelrad amputated Hung’s arm after the soldier was shot in an ambush by American troops.

During the Vietnam War, Houston resident Dr. Samuel Axelrad had to amputate a young man’s arm. That young man — and that right arm – play a central role in Axelrad’s memoir, Peaceful Bones.

One day, US troops brought a severely wounded patient into the medical clinic Dr. Axelrad ran on an American base. They’d found him dying alone in a rice field. The patient was a North Vietnamese soldier – aka the enemy. But, instead of letting him die, Axelrad decided to save his life, amputating the man’s right arm in the process.

While Axelrad originally only knew the man as “Charlie” – as US troops referred to enemy soldiers – he later learned his name was Hung Nguyen. Once Hung recuperated, he worked for Axelrad as a medic and translator in a children’s ward of a clinic Axelrad oversaw. Later, Hung would run a military pharmacy.

However, after the war, the two men lost touch as Axelrad returned home to the United States.

Samuel-Axelrad-Hung-Nguyen-Vietnam-War
Dr. Samuel Axelrad poses with Hung Nguyen, a North Vietnamese soldier whose right arm he had to amputate during the Vietnam War. The two reunited in 2013 and Axelrad reunited Hung with the bones from his arm.

Decades later, in 2010, Axelrad opened an old trunk he kept military items in and made a surprising discovery – he’d apparently kept the bones of Hung’s right arm, which he amputated.

So, on a return trip to Vietnam in 2012 he began the quest to find Hung or his family and return the man’s arm bones. During the visit, he mentioned the story to a journalist there, and eventually they were able to track down Hung, who was alive and well in the very village where Axelrad had seen him last.

In 2013, the doctor and his patient reunited for the first time in some 45 years. After shaking hands (with their left hands) and hugging, Axelrad reunited Hung with the bones from his right arm.

Axelrad says he wants the story to serve as a reminder of what can be achieved when humans choose compassion toward their fellow man.

MORE: Humerus Reunion: Doc Returns Vietnamese Vet’s Arm (Yahoo News)

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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