As a medic for the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, Donald Greene experienced danger and devastation.
But the battle that soon will take his life is the one he faces right now.
For the past decade, Greene has fought prostate cancer that metastasized to his bones. Last December, he decided to quit chemotherapy and get his ducks in a row.
High up on his to-do list: Find a home for the memorabilia he collected while serving across the Pacific Ocean.
“My kids didn’t want this stuff,” Greene said, “and I didn’t want it to just go into the trash.”
Serendipitously, after tracking down a translator on behalf of a fellow veteran, he learned about the Museum of the Republic of Vietnam in Westminster.
Greene no longer drives. So Dien Pham, an interpreter for Orange County courthouses, offered to chauffeur him to the museum. For Pham, that meant two round-trip hauls to Greene’s home 80 miles away in Hemet.
“I felt a bond with him immediately,” Pham said. “I grew up in Vietnam during the war, escaping as one of the ‘boat people.’ Don showed me photos of himself with kids in the villages. I could have been one of those kids.”
Now in hospice, Greene, 74, donated an array of souvenirs to the museum – including his trunk, surgical kit and multipurpose helmet used for cooking and bathing.
Tucked away in a shopping mall off Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon, the handsome gallery debuted four years ago – billing itself as the “only museum in the world” of its kind.
Exhibits include military uniforms, weapons and mural-sized photographs. Posters share information about the conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and American lives.
Due to coronavirus precautions, the museum is temporarily closed to the public. Normally, passionate volunteers bustle about the treasure trove – setting up new displays and shepherding visitors.
Liem Doan is a prime example of the little museum’s dedicated supporters. Last February during the Tet Festival, Doan slept in the parking lot to guard a helicopter temporarily showcased there.
To allow Greene one last look at his relics, volunteers arranged a private gathering at the museum Saturday, Aug. 15.
Joined by Pham, the guest of honor sat in a wheelchair reminiscing about his adventurous life. He brought along thick albums of snapshots the young serviceman had mailed home to El Segundo. His mother had meticulously numbered each one.
Greene enlisted in the Navy fresh out of high school to train as a medic. Three years later, in 1966, the Marine Corps asked the Navy for help with wounded soldiers in Vietnam.
“I raised my hand,” Greene said.
He flew out that July.
When he wasn’t assisting American soldiers, Greene ministered to South Vietnamese villagers.
“I delivered a lot of babies,” he said.
The intrepid medic also volunteered to go on dangerous reconnaissance missions with small groups of men – spending dead-silent, pitch-dark nights in the jungle.
Greene returned in late 1967 with three Purple Hearts. Too restless to stick with community college classes, he took off to backpack through Europe.
For two years, he worked odd jobs all over – picking grapes in French vineyards and pumping gas at American military bases.
While clerking at a German hotel, Greene intended next to join the Austrian ski patrol. Then his mom called with news that his stepfather had died.
“I’d just bought a bunch of ski equipment,” Greene recalled. “I asked the hotel manager to hold on to it for me. I told him I’d be back in 10 days.”
But he would never retrieve his brand-new skis and boots. Back in California, Greene noticed a UCLA ad in the newspaper soliciting veterans.
“I knew that ultimately I wanted a stable life and a family, so I enrolled,” he said.
Although scientifically inclined, Greene pursued a business degree rather than medicine.
“I didn’t have the confidence to believe I could succeed in medical school,” he said.
Greene ended up graduating from Cal State Northridge, where he met his wife Joan. They raised two daughters and have five grandchildren.
Still drawn to health care, Greene sold medical equipment for Beckman Instruments, leaving at age 60.
“I was too young for retirement,” Greene said.
He and a former colleague decided to start their own business selling and developing medical supplies.
One morning, the partners were sitting outside watching a hummingbird feed. That gave them the idea for a neonatal device now used in hospitals around the country to more safely draw blood from premature babies.
In 2009, just as their invention was taking off, Greene doubled over in excruciating pain while attending a convention in Singapore. Its source, he would learn, was prostate cancer that had already spread.
Surgeries and chemo kept him alive. “But the last two years have been hard,” he said. “Eventually, your body rejects chemo. I told my wife, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’”
He divvied up his Purple Hearts among his wife and daughters, and he’s holding onto the photo albums. But just about everything else from his Vietnam chapter is now at the museum.
“It means a lot to me that somebody cares about these artifacts,” Greene said. “I feel grateful and honored.”
Source: Orange County Register