When local orthopedic surgeon Gene Gulish operated on Henry Watts of Natchez, Miss., just a few weeks ago, he was greeting an old friend in more ways than one.
Dr. Gulish was well-acquainted with Watts as well as the knee he operated on. This was the fourth time he had operated on that very same knee.
In early January of 1970, Watts, a U.S. Army infantryman, had orders to deploy to Vietnam.
Unfortunately, his knee was badly injured during leave after basic training.
“Back in those days ... if you were injured, with a sprained ankle or shoulder, they would move you back to the next unit,” Watts said.
He said that was something most people tried to avoid. Infantrymen would almost certainly go to Vietnam, but it was much better to go with the company one had trained with, rather than be moved back to another group.
Watts knew his knee was in bad shape, though. The ligament had popped, and he wasn’t able to make the plane from Oakland, Calif., to Vietnam.
Instead, he contacted the Red Cross to make sure his superiors wouldn’t miss him on the plane, and made his way to his base, Fort Polk in Vernon Parish, La.
Many of the buildings were empty as almost everyone was still home for the holiday season, and others had left on the plane out of Oakland.
Still, Watts made his way to the orthopedic clinic in the hospital. Though the clinic was empty, he found a metal table and slept on it for days before the doctors returned.
It was then that he met Gulish, a major in the Army. At this point, the knee’s ligament had been torn for eight days or more.
Gulish said he needed surgery as soon as possible.
“He said it was the worst knee he’d ever seen,” said Watts.
After Gulish operated and put a cast on Watts’ leg, however, more problems arose.
When he was making his rounds a few days after the surgery, he noticed that Watts’ toes were not moving properly at the bottom of the cast.
“He pulled my toes down under the cast,” said Watts. “They didn’t come back up again.”
Gulish quickly determined that Watts had peroneal nerve palsy.
When aides put the cast on his leg after surgery, they applied too much pressure and pinched his peroneal nerve, requiring even more recovery time for Watts.
Gulish took the cast off and made a new foot brace that would allow the nerve to heal as well as the knee.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
With Watts taking up a long residency in the orthopedic ward, he and Gulish quickly became friends, along with Lt. Fabian Wambsgans, a physical therapist who also worked in the ward.
Watts and Wambsgans found common ground through a hurricane — Camille had recently swept through Mississippi, where both men had loved ones.
At Fort Polk in 1970, news didn’t travel as quickly as it does today. Neither man could get much information about the storm after they first heard it had hit.
Eventually, Watts and Wambsgans discovered that they had both sadly lost people they knew.
It’s difficult to share an experience like that without becoming close friends, and that’s just what happened. Soon, Gulish, Wambsgans and Watts were sharing meals together despite regulations about enlistees fraternizing with officers.
Watts was still somewhat worried about one thing, though. Even with nerve problems requiring Watts to stay longer in the ward, he was sure he’d be going to Vietnam as soon as he was healed.
Watts’ military occupational specialty, or MOS, was classified as 11B, meaning infantry.
Watts said infantrymen were nearly guaranteed to go overseas.
As luck would have it, one of the soldiers working in the orthopedic clinic was being discharged from the Army around this time.
Gulish put in a formal request to have Watts’ MOS changed from infantry to a medical classification, on the grounds that his knee wouldn’t ever be in good enough shape for the fighting in Vietnam.
“He was a smart guy,” Gulish said, “and I needed someone in the clinic.”
Gulish’s request was honored, and Watts became the orthopedic clinic’s newest brace specialist.
Not too long after, Watts’ knee injury was determined to have caused a permanent disability.
He received a medical discharge, and went home to Natchez.
STAYING IN TOUCH
He soon got a job working for an airline in California, and as luck would have it, Gulish and his wife moved to the same state after his own discharge some time later.
Gulish and Watts were able to visit and maintain their close friendship, and Gulish was able to operate on the knee again when he needed it.
Wambsgans said he lost touch with them, and wasn’t able to get back in contact with Watts until 2014, through social media.
This year, the three would be brought together, once again by Watts’ knee, for a visit.
In 1994, Watts received a total knee replacement from Gulish, and a plastic insert that was installed during that procedure wore out. Gulish repaired that damage and gave Watts what he called a “tune up.”
Wambsgans was able to give Watts a ride back to Natchez after the surgery, and the old friends were able to visit for a few days while Watts was recovering.
“This is really a story about friendship,” Gulish’s wife, Kris, said.
Seeing the men together makes that friendship readily apparent. In telling a story together, trading off every 10 minutes or so, one could see how much brotherly love the three men have.