Ronald Glasser, penned gripping account of Vietnam casualties, dies at 83


Up to 40 stretchers per hour came out of the medevac flights – infantrymen, Marines, downed helicopter crews injured in a North Vietnamese offensive in late 1968.

Ronald Glasser wanted to help, but he hadn’t been in an operating room since medical school. The 29-year-old doctor had been drafted, given the rank of captain, and assigned to the small pediatric unit of a military hospital in Zama, Japan. Her job was to care for the children of American military families based in the area.

He met his colonel in a stairwell. Medical teams struggle to the impressive number of victims. Dr. Glasser explained that he might have been a little rusty as a surgeon.

“It’s okay, Captain,” the Colonel said, Dr. Glasser recalls, “we’ll give you the little wounds.”

Dr. Glasser cleaned up. And, unknowingly at the time, he was about to begin a journey into the private suffering of the war wounded and the toll of those who try – and sometimes fail – to keep them alive. His 1971 book, “365 Days,” became part of the canon of first-hand accounts of the Vietnam War for its unflinching account of what he saw among the young men whose lives were torn apart by d horrific injuries and mental trauma, and at times captured the violent attitude of many servicemen towards the land they were meant to fight for.

“It’s not political,” said Dr. Glasser, who died Aug. 26 at a veterans hospital in Minneapolis at age 83. “It’s like that.”

Dr Glasser said he had no plans to write about his experiences in the military, three years after graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a medical degree. He opposes war. He thought he would spend his time with the US Army Medical Corps at Zama Hospital, one of four US field hospitals in Japan’s agricultural belt southwest of Tokyo.

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He was, however, stunned by the scale of the seriously injured or fatally injured arriving from Vietnam. Between 6,000 and 8,000 servicemen a month were airlifted from battle sites, minefields and ambushes. “I soon realised, he wrote, “that the soldiers they were pulling out of those medical evacuation helicopters were just children themselves” – not much older than his pediatric patients at the House.

His book, whose title refers to the year-long tour of duty in Vietnam, mingles the raw pain and fear of the wounded with Dr. Glasser’s doctor’s eye on how their bodies were torn apart. Many reviewers took note of Dr. Glasser’s lean, observational style, placing “365 Days” alongside some of the most searing and honest accounts of the human cost of war.

Dr. Glasser dedicated the book to Stephen Crane, whose “The Red Badge of Courage” vividly depicts the battlefields of the Civil War.

Michael G. Michaelson, physician and publisher, wrote in a New York Times review: “What is remarkable and even noble in this book is not something new, but something old and almost forgotten: a compassion, which is not restricted by doctrine. or polemical but which can include the pangs of a Vietnamese peasant or a career American officer; a sensibility that knows not only the murdered… but the murderers.

Nevertheless, some public and school libraries did not keep it in their stacks due to the soldiers’ use of profanity – a move that Dr. Glasser’s defenders found short-sighted given the fierce anti-war protests and tally daily life of the bodies on the evening news. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award.

“They couldn’t say ‘golly gee,’ and they didn’t,” Dr. Glasser said in a 1981 federal court hearing in Bangor, Maine, after a school had banned the book. “It wasn’t enough. [The words] showed their anguish. They don’t go home and use that language. They were desperate.

Outside the courthouse, veterans in full combat gear marched in support of the book. (The court in January 1982 ordered the school to return it to the library.)

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“At the beginning, I spoke to the children just to have something to say and to make them talk. Later I realized they were all saying the same things – not really saying them,” he wrote.

“They were worried, every one of them, not about the big things, not about survival, but about how they would explain their lost legs or the weakness in their right arm,” he continued. “Would they embarrass their families?” …Would anyone like them when they came back?

He also wrote in harrowing detail about the injuries – shredded legs, burned faces, mutilated fingers – as well as the men who did not survive.

On a soldier seriously injured by a mine explosion: “There was not enough skin to completely close his surgical wounds, so his stumps remained open. … Despite the antibiotics, his wounds became infected. The fourth night in the room, he attempted suicide. … On the seventh day, his fever reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit; he became unconscious, and seven days after his injuries he expired.

Ronald Joel Glasser was born in Chicago on May 31, 1939 to parents who owned a delicatessen. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s degree in 1961 and stayed on at the university to earn an MD in 1965, later specializing in pediatric nephrology while on fellowship at the University of Minnesota.

He completed “365 Days” after returning from a two-year deployment to the military hospital. “As for me,” he wrote, “my wish is not that I had never been in the military, but that this book could never have been written.”

Dr. Glasser wrote four more books while working in pediatrics, first as a professor at the University of Minnesota and then in private practice until his retirement in 2016.

“Ward 402” (1973) and “The Body Is the Hero” (1976) analyze the limits of modern medical training to treat patients holistically; the novel “Another War, Another Peace” (1985) follows a doctor during the Vietnam War. In “Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds” (2011), Dr. Glasser delved into the history and advancements of military medicine, also advocating for a better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in Veterans.

At the time, he said research into PTSD was particularly important as troops in Afghanistan increasingly faced explosions from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. “The one big medicine success story in Afghanistan is the realization and the link between traumatic brain injury, concussions and PTSD,” he told NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

His 10-year marriage to Janis Amatuzio ended in divorce in 1992. In 2008 he married Joy Itman, who was confirmed dead from complications from dementia. They divorced in 2018, but she effectively remained “his wife and partner,” she said.

Survivors include three stepchildren from his second marriage, Rachel, Benjamin and Aaron Silberman.

In “365 Days,” Dr. Glasser was repeatedly struck by the way young conscripts obeyed orders and did their duty in the field, even though some were deeply opposed to the war. They were all just counting the days.

“Strange war,” he wrote. “Going for something they didn’t believe in or cared about, just to do it 365 days and be done with it.”


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