Veteran veterinarian

Posted 11/9/10

Tolman, a veterinarian, was drafted and asked to put his knowledge and skills with animals to use in the Army. Although soldiers no longer used horses for transportation or for charging into battle, those skills still were needed.

He received …

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Veteran veterinarian


Clark man reflects on years of serviceHaving served as an Army Green Beret in the 1960s, Don Tolman of Clark has some interesting stories to tell. But they're not stories of stealing into an area under cover or completing top-secret assignments.

Tolman, a veterinarian, was drafted and asked to put his knowledge and skills with animals to use in the Army. Although soldiers no longer used horses for transportation or for charging into battle, those skills still were needed.

He received training on food inspection, which he used later to inspect Army food and the processing plants in Kentucky and Tennessee.

When he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., he also took care of the stables of horses.

While there, he discovered a love of skydiving, and he joined a skydiving club with the nearby 101st Airborne.

Later, a notice came down from Washington, D.C., saying the Army was looking for veterinarians to serve in Special Forces. They should have experience with pack animals, the notice said.

“I grew up here, and we had sheep, and I knew how to pack horses,” Tolman said.

It also would be good for the veterinarians to have some skydiving experience, since they would be required to pass paratrooper training.

Tolman figured he was the guy for the job.

“I passed all the requirements,” he said.

Tolman was transferred to Fort Benning, Ga., and from there to a new duty station at the Special Warfare Center in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Though still quite a new concept, “Special Forces was expanding at that time,” he said. “They had created five or six units called groups, each oriented to specific areas of the world ... I was assigned to the 6th Special Forces Group, oriented to Iran, which then was an ally.”

He went through training in several specialized areas, such as unconventional warfare and officer training school. Each training was intense and demanding, Tolman said.

The Green Berets was such a new operation, he said, that few people knew about it or recognized the uniform.

“Once I came upon a man who asked, ‘Where's the rest of the Boy Scout Troop?'” he said. “They were the only other ones who wore beret hats, so he assumed I was a Boy Scout leader.

“I didn't correct him. I just said, ‘Well, I've got to meet them.'”

Even if people knew about the Green Berets, “almost nobody knows what a veterinarian does in Special Forces,” he added.

Tolman was the first veterinarian to complete the training programs. Part of his specialized training was learning about different kinds of animals that could be used as pack animals. In addition to horses, mules and donkeys, they include animals such as elephants in India, camels in the Middle East, sled dogs and caribou in the Arctic, water buffalo in Africa and llamas in South America.

He also learned about food procurement in indigenous areas, as well as food processing, sanitation, nutrition and storage.

Knowledge of both topics was important, he said, because Special Forces units often must use resources available locally.

“When you're at war with a country, you're not there to kill people,” he said. “You're there to change their minds. That's why you have help from local people. Not everybody believes in a dictatorship that's tough on people.

“You give them help, and part of that help is to better their lifestyle. Since many of the diseases people get come from animals or food, the training we get comes in handy.”

Tolman noted that both tuberculosis and brucellosis come from animals and are spread through milk, and improper food storage can lead to botulism and other diseases.

He also learned about poisons from snakes and other animal-related health hazards.

“You can start to see that if somebody wanted to disable a fighting unit, if they could contaminate their food, they could disable them as bad as shooting them,” he said. “It's important to have someone who knows that, who can watch for symptoms.”

Tolman also learned how to disinfect water and get rid of parasites.

That information then can be taught to the locals to help them improve their lifestyles.

Special Forces is part of that strategy, he said. Special Force groups often go behind enemy lines to work with people sympathetic to the cause at hand, helping them and thereby strengthening alliances and creating new ones.

“When you build a clinic, help new mothers, vaccinate kids or clean up a water supply, you've created quite a friendship,” he said. “Many times, local villages would fight more to protect a clinic than they would for any political philosophy.”

In 1964, Tolman was stationed in Alaska, where he worked to vaccinate sled dogs against rabies and other diseases.

Wolves carried rabies, and could transmit that and diseases to sled dogs, he said. Vaccinating the dogs would allow them to survive an epidemic.

“Back then, before snowmobiles, dog teams were integral to the people's survival,” he said.

He got to know some of the people well, and to show their thanks, they presented him a seal skin beret with the insignia added in beadwork.

To this day, Tolman said he enjoys watching the annual Iditerod race.

From Alaska, Tolman received training in Spanish, which he would use during his next assignment in Panama.

Tolman said Special Forces often competed with the regular Army for funding. Eventually, Special Forces moved to Special Operations, which, in addition to the Green Berets, now include the Navy Seals, the Rangers and Delta Force.