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Harry Thetford: Vietnam veteran from Boston finds home in Greensboro

Harry Thetford: Vietnam veteran from Boston finds home in Greensboro

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Dr. Michael J. Brennan cares for children and adults through his work as an endocrinologist with Cone Health. The story behind his journey to reach that role is a rather magnificent one.

After seeing the movie "The West Point Story" as a youth, Brennan knew the U.S. Military Academy was in his future. He did not know about the academy’s height requirements.

“I was almost an inch too short. Someone told me that if I laid on a hard board for 24 hours, I might pick that inch up,” he explained recently. “The board experience was a bummer. Even so, three of us were given height exemptions in the Class of 1968. Vietnam had everything to do with that.

“Col. Hal Moore, who co-wrote 'We Were Soldiers Once — And Young,' made quite an inspirational talk to us at West Point. Knowing I was Vietnam-bound, I volunteered for the infantry and requested duty with Col. Moore’s 1st Cavalry Division.”

Brennan progressed through Airborne, infantry, jumpmaster and Ranger schools and spent six months in the 82nd Airborne Division. By August 1969, he was a platoon leader in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division.

“Serving as an infantry platoon leader in combat was the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my life. I was fortunate to serve in two different units of fine, brave and dedicated young American soldiers.

“H Company (Rangers), 75th Infantry, was the long-range reconnaissance patrol unit. All volunteers, they went into the jungle in small teams to fight the North Vietnamese Army on their own ground," Brennan said.

“A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry was a typical 'grunt' infantry unit. Although not an 'elite' unit like the Rangers, A Company soldiers were equally courageous. Day after day we humped through the jungles together — it was with A Company that I really earned my Combat Infantry Badge.”

Brennan’s memories of Vietnam run the gamut. “I wasn’t a hero, but those soldiers who served in combat with me were — they remain my heroes still today. It was an honor to serve with the 1st Cavalry Division. I would do it again, in a heartbeat!”

His reflections of some memories came with tears. After Vietnam, he was a Ranger School Instructor and later commanded a company in the Airborne School.

Although he planned for a career in the infantry, “two life-changers happened at about the same time. First, I heard through the grapevine that my request for an assignment was turned down because of my height. They said I didn’t look like a Ranger! Secondly, I met a West Point classmate who was applying to medical school under an Army scholarship program.”

In 1974, Brennan was accepted at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He turned in his Regular Army silver captain’s bars for the gold bars of an Army Reserve second lieutenant. “Demoted for good behavior,” he joked.

He was the first medical officer in the Army to undertake a dual internship-residency program in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the first and only military medical officer to undertake a dual-fellowship in Adult and Pediatric Endocrinology.

Leadership roles during his 31-year Army career, include: Chief of Pediatric Clinic, at Walter Reed; Chief of Medicine and Pediatrics at 5th General Hospital, Stuttgart, West Germany; Commander of the Army Health Clinic at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.; last Commander of the Army Hospital, Presidio of San Francisco, Calif.; last Commander of the old Womack Army Medical Center, Fort Bragg, N.C.; and director of Clinical Operations at Walter Reed. He retired in 1999.

Brennan is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and the Army War College. He is one of the relatively few physicians in the U.S. who is board-certified in internal medicine, pediatrics, pediatric endocrinology and adult endocrinology. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Endocrinology,

That he served his country well is reflected by his military awards, which include the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, Purple Heart, three Meritorious Service Medals, two Air Medals, and the award of which he is the proudest — the Combat Infantry Badge.

He was 20 years late receiving his Silver Star. Earned in Vietnam as a first lieutenant, it was awarded in 1990, simultaneously with his promotion to colonel.

Brennan claims his father as role model. “Dad received a battlefield commission while serving as a WWII combat engineer in the Pacific theater. He saw the important role of medics and secretly wanted his son to be a doctor.”

Recalling his father had not received a decoration he earned in World War II, Brennan micro-managed his own promotion ceremony. “The commanding general pinned on dad’s award. Dad pinned on my Silver Star. Both of them pinned an eagle on me. It was quite a day.”

His wife, Beverley, was his diabetes nurse educator before her retirement in 2015. Their family includes four sons and seven grandchildren.

Harry Thetford is a retired Sears store manager and author of "Remembered" a book about 99 former students of Greensboro Senior High School (Grimsley) who were killed during World War II. Contact him at htolharry@gmail.com or 336-707-8922.

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