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BY MARC LEEPSON
Who can forget the scene in Francis Ford Copolla’s Apocalypse Now when the insane Col. Kilgore dressed down a young trooper who questions Kilgore’s order to Lance “the Surfer” Johnson and other First Cav soldier/surfers to hit the waves in a VC-infested area.

“It’s pretty hairy in there,” the trooper says. “It’s Charlie’s point.”
To which Kilgore shouts: “Charlie don’t surf!”

Lance and Kilgore are fictional, and the enemy certainly didn’t ride the wild surf in the South China Sea. But a few intrepid American servicemen actually did surf off of South Vietnam in the war zone.

That included young Navy Corpsman J. Craig Venter, who was stationed at the Danang Navy Hospital in 1967-68, and who today is one of the world’s top scientists. Venter achieved worldwide fame in 2001 when he led a team that completed the publication of the sequencing of the human genome—one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in modern history.

Craig Venter was named to Time magazine’s 2007 list of the top “men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.” One observer called him “arguably the most famous living scientist, taking over the role once occupied by Albert Einstein.” Venter will receive VVA’s Excellence in the Sciences Award at the National Leadership Conference.

Venter spoke to us recently about his rite-of-passage tour of duty in Vietnam and how that experience has shaped his entire life, including his pioneering genetic work that has earned him accolades across the globe.

The iconoclastic, free-spirited California-born-and-raised Venter avoided the draft by joining the Navy in 1965. He not only surfed during his tour, but also regularly body surfed, jogged along the beaches, and went sailing in his 19-foot boat Lightning in the shark-infested South China Sea. He also volunteered at a nearby Vietnamese orphanage during his free time away from the hospital.

His job at the Navy Hospital consisted of putting in 12-hour night shifts his first six months as senior corpsman in the intensive care ward, an assignment that included working in the receiving/triage unit. That experience, Venter says, “was M.A.S.H. without the jokes and pretty women.” The young corpsman who barely finished high school found himself in the thick of things at the hospital during the 1968 Tet Offensive when he and his fellow medical personnel were inundated with casualties day and night.

“I witnessed several hundred soldiers die,” Venter said in his 2007 autobiography, A Life Decoded, “more often than not while I was massaging their hearts (at times with my bare hands) or attempting to breathe life into them.”

I asked Venter about another passage from his autobiography. The everyday life-and-death drama at the Danang hospital, Venter says in the book, helped turn him “from a young man without purpose into one compelled to understand the very essence of life.” How so?

“That’s what I’ve spent the last forty years working on,” Venter told me. “There are multiple ways to deal with what everybody saw and went through there. You can let it destroy your life or inspire your life. I was one of the lucky ones in that it inspired the next stages.”

In Vietnam, Venter said, he was “like a sponge for learning things. I absolutely loved practicing medicine and using my knowledge that I was acquiring to help others. So intellectually, that was very enjoyable. It also made me want to learn more. And the more I learned, the more you could catch up to our lack of knowledge and see how little was truly understood.”

Personal Transformation
Having been “drafted off my surfboard,” as he put it in 1965, Venter avoided the draft’s uncertainties by joining the Navy, something his father, a former Marine, persuaded him to do. “I was personally against the war,” Venter writes in his book, “but had a long family history of military service” going back to the Revolutionary War. Venter had other, even more personal, reasons for joining the Navy.

“I believed that the war could transform me personally,” he said. “I had met servicemen who fought in Vietnam, and it was clear they were different in some indefinable way from those who had not. I wanted to experience the adventure, and I thought Vietnam could offer answers to some fundamental questions about life.”

Venter signed up for a special three-year program, opting for hospital corps school. After medical training at Balboa Navy Hospital, he was sent to the naval station at Long Beach, California, where he ran the emergency room. After receiving orders to go to Vietnam, Venter took a month-long counterinsurgency training course at Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. He arrived in country on August 25, 1967.

Like other medical personnel in Vietnam, Craig Venter soon experienced the war’s horror first hand when he was given the job of leading the hospital’s cardiac arrest team, a position that in normal times would have gone to an experienced heart doctor. How did the self-proclaimed “naïve freedom-loving kid,” a “southern California surfer and an antiwar protester” find himself in that life-and-death position?

“There were never enough doctors around,” Venter told us, “so the corpsmen all had to rise to the occasion. Almost every one of them did.”

Venter said he has “nothing but phenomenal respect for the young guys I worked with who were in the triage center during Tet. It was an amazing experience. There were just never enough physicians by far to deal with things. While the physicians were tied up in surgery dealing with overloaded casualties, you had to do stuff yourself.”

Experiencing the trauma of Tet so intimately had a huge impact on the young corpsman. “I learned more than any twenty-year-old should ever have to about triage,” Venter writes in his book, “about sorting those you can salvage from those you cannot do anything for, except ease their pain as they died. I was not studying at the university of life but of death, and death is a powerful teacher.”

Aside from his work on the cardiac arrest team, Venter also spent time at the hospital in Vietnam working on tropical and infectious diseases. Both of those experiences, he told us, set the course of his postwar life.

Sitting on the 707 on his way home from the war, Venter said he “felt overwhelmed, a combination of relief and trepidation about the future. So much had happened, so much had changed. I had been in the military for only two years and eight months, but I was not the same young man who had been drafted off his surfboard.” He had “seen thousands of men my age killed or maimed in unthinkable ways,” Venter said. “I did not feel survivor’s guilt, but I did want to do something with my life to honor all those who were now beyond my help.”

Venter elaborated on those feelings in a Veterans Day 2000 speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I knew when I landed in the U.S. in August 1968 after that long flight back from Vietnam that I was given a gift—my life,” he said. “And I vowed that I would somehow find a way to make my life meaningful, to repay and to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. I feel an obligation to make them proud and to let the world know that those who served their country in Vietnam have made a difference in the world.”

Venter ETS’ed on August 29, 1968, with “a burning sense of urgency to get an education and to somehow change the world.” He took some time off, then enrolled at a community college, The College of San Mateo, near where he grew up in northern California, in January 1969. The rest was history.

Venter excelled at The College of San Mateo, transferred to the University of California at San Diego, and changed his course of study from medicine to scientific research. He received his Ph.D. from UCSD in December 1975, “a little more than seven years and five months from the moment I had stepped off that plane on my return from Vietnam,” Venter notes in his book.

After 16 years doing basic science research at the School of Medicine at the State University of New York in Buffalo and at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, Venter formed the not-for-profit Institute for Genomic Research. During his time at NIH, Venter had begun the research that led to the decoding of the human genome.

In 1998, he co-founded and became president and chief executive of Celera Genomics, which decoded the genomes of the fruit fly, the mouse and, most importantly, the human genome. Venter stood tall among other pioneers in the genome world at a podium at the White House on June 26, 2000, as the worldwide media took note of the announcement of the first assembly of the human genetic code.

“I couldn’t help but think while I was at the White House podium that I owed my success and motivation, in some part, to the men and women who served in the Vietnam War,” Venter said in his Veterans Day 2000 speech, “and even more, to the ones who paid with their lives. That incredible experience transformed me from a young man without direction and purpose into a man driven to understand the very essence of life and to use that understanding to change medicine.”

The Raw Origins
I asked Venter to explain in layman’s terms the significance of decoding the genetic material of living organisms, including the human genome and those of infectious disease organisms.

“It’s an event that changes basic science,” Venter said. “It changes how we view ourselves; it changes the fundamental information we have about ourselves.” The biggest impact of this scientific milestone, he said, will come in the near future when doctors will be able to use the map of the human genome to learn how to treat—and in many cases prevent—many different diseases.

“All of the diseases that I treated in Vietnam were ones that I’ve applied genomic solutions to: TB, malaria, cholera, syphilis,” Venter said. “Those were all species whose genomes I decoded as ways to come up with new therapies.”

He cited one example—meningitis—which, he noted, was “almost impossible to treat” in Vietnam. As a result of his work uncovering the genomic code of that disease, the first new vaccine for meningitis is now being tested in clinical trials. “If you understand the genetic code of bacteria such as the one that causes meningitis,” Venter said, “it gives you new clues how to create vaccines, new antibiotics, et cetera.”

I asked Venter to look fifty years into the future and predict how the decoding of the human and other genomes will affect human health. “In fifty years, most people will know their own genetic code; it will be a standard part of medicine,” he said. “People will learn at young ages what they are—at least genetically —susceptible to as diseases. And it will lead to, in some cases, early detection and prevention.

“It won’t eliminate diseases. But with things like colon cancer, if you know you’re susceptible to it and you have early tests and you detect it early, it’s a pretty simple operation for curing the disease. Whereas, if you detect it from symptoms, there’s less than a five-year survival rate.

“Every human trait and characteristic has a genetic component,” Venter explained, “and so in the next fifty years I am certain that we’ll understand most of those and what’s genetic and what’s environment. This will have, I think, a big impact on humanity and our understanding of ourselves and the understanding of life. This, hopefully, will help us all make better-informed decisions so we can avoid future Vietnams.”

Venter ended our conversation by telling me that receiving VVA’s Excellence in the Sciences award was especially important to him. “I’ve received lots of honors,” he said, “but this is a particularly meaningful one. It goes back to the raw origins, right?”

 

 

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