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Doctor studying psychiatry helped soldiers in Vietnam hooked on heroin

When Brian S. Joseph was growing up in North Buffalo, his ambition was to help people. He wanted to exert a positive influence in the lives of others.

An affinity for conversation led him to psychiatry. He had just completed medical school at the University at Buffalo and was completing his first year of psychiatric residency at the old E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital in 1969 when he received a draft notice.

Married and the father of an infant daughter, Joseph had never imagined he would be making use of his mental health skills in a war zone.

It was a pretty tall order when you consider what the assignment involved.

The Army was concerned that a heroin epidemic among soldiers fighting the Vietnam War might not only be putting themselves at risk but others.

"There was a heroin epidemic raging among the enlisted men at the time and concern that some of the mechanics fixing the helicopters were high on heroin," Joseph said. "Myself, the chaplain on the base and another officer tried to develop a heroin treatment program for anyone who would come forward. There would be no penalty if they came forward."

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Dr. Brian S. Joseph, 75

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Williamsville

Branch: Army

Rank: Major

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service:  October 1970 – October 1972

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, meritorious service; Army Air Medal; Good Conduct Medal; and Vietnamese Government Civil Action Medal 1st Class

Specialty: Aviation medical officer

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Attached to an aviation unit at a base in the Mekong River Delta, he says he worked with soldiers who served in a variety of jobs, from mechanics to members of flight crews. But none ever outright admitted to performing their jobs while high.

The three-week program involved intensive detoxification and group therapy followed by a gradual return to the soldier's unit over two weeks.

Joseph says he never was able to determine then how effective the program was, but later learned that very few of the soldiers who had used heroin in Vietnam continued with it when they returned to the United States.

"When I did ask them why they were using heroin, they would say, 'Doc, it makes a whole year just fly by.' "

A compassionate man, Joseph offered alternatives he believed would give them a better chance of surviving their 12-month deployments.

"You have to realize that this was not a popular war back home and the mission in Vietnam was inconclusive, and if you could be numb for a whole year, it was the easiest way to face it," Joseph said.

Dr. Brian S. Joseph, right, with his colonel at Can Tho Army Airfield in Vietnam in 1971, helped soldiers who were dealing with addiction while serving. (Courtesy of Brian S. Joseph)

One of his suggestions encouraged soldiers to confide and share their doubts and fears with fellow soldiers, "as opposed to blotting out the world," Joseph said.

He also recommended that soldiers write letters home frequently to "remain connected to their loved ones as best as possible and value that support."

During the doctor's year in Vietnam, he estimates about 200 soldiers enrolled in the program, which was officially called, "Operation Rebuild." He does not recall anyone who went through the program thanking him, but he says there was a sense of appreciation.

The toughest part of his war service, Joseph said, was when he was called upon to pronounce members of helicopter crews dead.

"They would be shot by ground fire and I would have to view the remains before I could sign the death certificate so their families could be notified," he said of the brutality he viewed up close.

Yet there were happy and satisfying moments as well.

One occurred when he received a radio-assisted phone call from his wife, the former Carol Drozen, letting him know she was pregnant with their second daughter.

"I was surprised, delighted and now I really couldn't wait to get home," he said of the news.

He also found great satisfaction when he awarded medals to the medics under his command. "Often it was an Army Commendation Medal. You'd call the group to attention and pin on the medals and salute, just like you see in the movies."

When Joseph returned home, he completed his psychiatric training at Johns Hopkins Medical School and then served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School for six years before returning to the Buffalo area.

He has been in private practice in Amherst for 37 years, specializing in general psychiatry and forensic psychiatry.

His war service, he says, provided insights into post traumatic stress and an appreciation for what the military experience exacts in those who serve.

"And that includes myself," Joseph said. "I cannot watch a Vietnam War movie to this day without becoming tearful."

 

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