This summer, Chaplain Lt. Col. (Ret.) William Toguchi retired after a military career that spanned 44 years. He began his career in the army, serving as a medic in Vietnam, and retired from the air force, where he worked as a chaplain.
Although Toguchi’s multi-faceted career was as varied as it was long and distinguished, it was characterized throughout by dedicated and selfless service to his fellow service members. It began under auspicious circumstances: he was sworn in on the Fourth of July, 1969. It ended under historic ones: Toguchi was the last of all Vietnam War veterans to retire from active-duty service.
Chaplain Toguchi—a learner in CalSouthern’s PsyD program—graciously but somewhat hesitatingly agreed to this interview. He is a humble man, not one to draw attention to himself, quick to point to others—especially those who paid the ultimate price—as the real heroes. But as he candidly—often emotionally—reflected upon the highs and lows of his historic military career, it quickly became unmistakable: Chaplain Toguchi is a true American hero.
California Southern University: You joined the army, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1969 in your home state of Hawaii. What do you remember about that day?
Chaplain Lt. Col. (Ret.) William Toguchi: I lined up with 150 other Hawaiian guys in front of Iolani Palace in Honolulu to be sworn in. After that, we said goodbye to our families and boarded a plane to San Francisco. From there, we took a bus to Fort Ord on the Monterey Peninsula.
When we arrived, this guy with a Smokey Bear hat came out and greeted us very politely and gave us an extremely cordial welcome. Then, he started yelling at us at the top of his lungs.
That was the start of a very interesting adventure.
CalSouthern: What were your motivations for enlisting?
Toguchi: I’d grown up in a military family and always had a love and respect for the army. However, my immediate motivation at the time was learning that our junior ROTC instructor was killed in Vietnam. We were told that his body was desecrated. A bunch of us were very angry and dropped out of high school—a foolish decision that I grew to regret—to enlist. I was 17.
CalSouthern: What were some of the greatest challenges you faced as a young medic in Vietnam?
Toguchi: The training we received as medics was very short. Many of us hung around the operating room to learn additional skills. For example, we would learn how to do a subclavian, where you would open the IV bag wide, delivering as much fluid as possible directly into the subclavian vein in an effort to buy time for a soldier who was as risk of bleeding to death due to a severe injury. Or we learned to perform ligations to do our best to stop severe hemorrhaging and hopefully give the soldier enough time to receive the medical care he needed.
So, having to deal with life-or-death emergencies under extremely stressful and austere conditions, making due with whatever training or equipment you happened to have—those were the greatest challenges.
And of course, losing my friends, whether in combat or later, due to Agent Orange or other circumstances.
CalSouthern: How were you able to remain resilient in the face of such trauma and hardship?
Toguchi: I had great mentors who were encouraging and optimistic, even in dire circumstances. They were solution focused—although I doubt we used that term back then. They would help me realize that while what I was going through was very grim, very tough, it was giving me the tools I needed to better help people in the future. Crises can provide an opportunity for growth. Maybe I didn’t understand what they were saying right away, but over time it sunk in and helped me to deal emotionally with these difficult circumstances.
As far as dealing with the death of my friends, I tried—and continue to try—to focus on how blessed I was to have the opportunity to know these people, and how grateful I am at their influence in my life which helped me to become a better person.
And of course, there is my faith, with has provided strength and comfort at my lowest lows.
CalSouthern: You spent the second half of your military career as a chaplain. What led you to pursue this path?
Toguchi: When I was in Vietnam, there was a chaplain that used to come around the base. The guys actually found him a little annoying. He seemed to always be around, especially when you didn’t want him there. But over time, we came to realize that whenever there was a firefight, whenever things got ugly, he was there, too, and he was able to provide comfort to anyone who needed it. One day, when I was struggling with some issues, he came to me and said, simply, “Willie, I know you’ve had to do some things you didn’t want to do. But God loves you, and He forgives you.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time and I’ll never forget it.
That chaplain never made it home from Vietnam. He went down with his chopper. But looking back, the impact he had on me, when I really needed it, helped lead me to become a chaplain myself.
Many years later, when I was in the air force during Desert Storm, I came across an army chaplain. We were talking about where we had served in Vietnam. He began to speak of a chaplain who had been a great influence in his life. When it was my turn to speak, I asked if the chaplain was a tall guy with buck teeth and dark-rimmed glasses. The army chaplain looked at me and suddenly smiled: “Doc! You’re the guy who dropped me!”
Then, it all came back to us. In Vietnam, the army chaplain (he wasn’t a chaplain back then) had been wounded. I wanted to carry him to a positon of safety. I only weighed about 140 pounds and he weighed well over 200 pounds and was fully loaded. After about 30 yards, I sprained my ankle and we both went down in a heap. I eventually managed to get him about 100 yards away where he was safe.
It was an unbelievable coincidence not only to run into the army chaplain I had tried to help so many years before, but also to learn that the same chaplain in Vietnam had similarly influenced both of our lives. And, as the army chaplain explained to me, we weren’t the only ones: three others from that unit had become chaplains, as well.
CalSouthern: What did you learn as a medic that helped you as a chaplain later in your career?
Toguchi: I learned that you can survive a deployment, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, too. And it gave me a perspective that allowed me to understand and empathize with what our service members were going through, and hopefully use that perspective to provide better and more effective care.
CalSouthern: How has the military’s approach to mental health care evolved over the course of your career?
Toguchi: Back in Vietnam, there was something of a warrior culture, one that made it very difficult to seek help if you had any personal problems, or had difficulties dealing with combat stress. However, there were some commanders were a bit more progressive and would encourage their men to seek help and do their best to remove any stigma associated with it. They also tried to prevent it from damaging the service members’ careers in any way.
It’s much better now. We are much more proactive in educating our service members about PTSD and encouraging people to seek help. The mental health personnel are highly skilled and extremely well-trained in the latest, evidence-based practices for the treatment of PTSD and other conditions commonly suffered by service members. You can be very proud of your military mental health providers.
CalSouthern: Could you share a couple of your most treasured memories of your military career?
Toguchi: The friendships I made are at the center of all my most treasured memories.
Thinking back to my time in Vietnam, when you experience combat and walk through the fog of war and emerge on the other side, you forge extraordinarily strong bonds and relationships with those you were with. You literally depend on one another for your very lives. In some circumstances, these connections can be even stronger than familial bonds.
CalSouthern: Over the course of your long career, did you ever consider leaving the military for civilian life?
Toguchi: I’m an army brat and grew up seeing the love my father had for the military. He fought in World War II, Korea and in Vietnam. He received two Purple Hearts, one in World War II and the other in the Korean conflict. I guess I had it in my blood. But I suppose there were times I wondered whether the grass might be greener on the civilian side of the fence. For example, when I came back from Vietnam, some prior war veterans were openly critical of the Vietnam vets, questioning our performance and our valor. That was a difficult time for me. But I remember my father telling me, “Son, you’ve worn the uniform with honor and you love serving your country. I’m proud of you.”
So I never seriously considered leaving. I really enjoyed the camaraderie and the common bond we shared. My father was right: I loved serving my country. To be able to reach out and provide comfort to those who put themselves in harm’s way for the good of the nation—it’s a privilege.
CalSouthern: What are your plans for the future?
Toguchi: I still have a strong desire to work with active-duty service members as well as with veterans who have served our great country. I want to help them deal with emotional trauma before it manifests in behavioral problems that may hurt them, their families or their careers.
I also love to teach, whether it’s theology or psychology. But first of all, I need to complete my doctoral program here at CalSouthern.
CalSouthern: Have you had a chance to reflect on being the last Vietnam War veteran to retire from active-duty service?
Toguchi: Sometimes I wonder what the last dinosaur must have felt like. But in all seriousness, I just reflect on what an honor it’s been to serve those who serve their country. They sacrifice so much and work so hard to keep America free. As Americans, we can’t even fathom living in a society where our personal rights and liberties are taken away. But there are people all over the world for whom that is a stark reality. Our military service members know what freedom is worth, and they are willing to defend it with their lives. What a privilege it has been to serve them.