The U.S. Army Medical Department includes a Veterinary Corps. The Corps celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
In 1917, during World War I, 57 veterinarians primarily worked on equine surgery and medicine. Just 18 months later, their ranks swelled to 2,313 to support the war effort and those wartime efforts, have continued to this day. With the Corps in the 1970s was Hot Springs Village resident Jim Ralston.
A native Arkansan, Ralston entered pre-veterinary school at Oklahoma State University in 1965. Two years later he began his studies at the school’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Approximately 500 applicants sought the 48 positions available, with only eight for students from Arkansas. Ralston got one of those eight and thus began the tough four-year program.
Each semester the students took 24 hours of credit. “We would do Monday mornings from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and we would do it on Saturdays as well,” Ralston said.
Course work included gross anatomy, comparative anatomy, biochemistry, histology, physiology and more. They learned on horse, dog, cat, cow, sheep and goat cadavers in an anatomy lab. Every veterinarian had to learn to identify every vessel, organ, muscle and nerve in each animal. And they’d look through microscopes at a cell and learn where that cell came from in an animal’s body. Identifying disease was also a part of the learning process.
While in school in spring of 1969, Ralston was approached by the Army about joining an early commissioning program that would assure him he would be able to finish his education without fear of being drafted. In return, he would agree to a six-year Army obligation.
In 1971 he graduated and was commissioned as a first lieutenant.
Shortly thereafter he was promoted to captain and sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. There he received basic and officer training, learning what it meant to be an officer.
In August he completed the training, then in October received orders to Fort Sheridan in Illinois with the Army Medical Department Veterinarian School for training in food inspection.
There he learned how to inspect meat, facilities and Civil Defense rations, as well as companies that sold food to the military.
Later that month Ralston was ordered to Pennsylvania. His duty was with the First Army Medical Department Activity unit known as MEDDAC, as a Veterinary Corps officer at Oakdale, Penn., outside Pittsburgh. Oakdale was a town of only 200 and an air defense site. His office was five miles away atop a mountain, next to a transportation unit.
Ralston had five enlisted men under him at the isolated location.
Two days per week the men operated a clinic for military dependent’s pets. Ralston also inspected Civil Defense shelters to be sure the rations were still good. “We’d open them up, check them out and taste them,” Ralston remembered.
During this time he also worked with highly trained German shepherds thatpatrolled the Pittsburgh Air Defense site. The city was ringed with four sites to protect the steel industry if there was an enemy attack. The sentry dogs provided a layer of security, as did high fences and barbed wire.
Each site had four dogs that had been trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. These dogs had handlers and were trained to kill if necessary. Ralston’s responsibility was to provide care for the dogs.
In doing so he would visit each site monthly to do a facility inspection and check on the dogs’ health.
At least once a year the dogs would be brought to the clinic for a complete examination – blood work, x-rays, the works. The dogs were sedated during the exams as a safety precaution.
Ralston told me an aside about military dogs that I had never heard. He said when dogs returned from Vietnam they brought with them a disease called ehrlichiosis.
We didn’t know they had it in their bodies, so it was transmitted to other dogs and later to humans. “It’s still around to this day,” Ralston said. Once discovered, Ralston said dogs were no longer brought back to the states from Vietnam. Instead they were euthanized. “That was heartbreaking,” he added.
On June 25, 1973, Ralston was discharged. “I don’t think I could have had a better MOS. It was a neat job in a neat location,” Ralston said.
He remained on standby reserve status until May 1974, thus completing his six year commitment.
As a civilian, Ralston worked as a vet for 40 years in El Dorado, Ark., retiring in November. 2011.
He and wife Terry moved to the Village that same year. They have four children: Stuart, Jessica, Evan and Whitney.
Reflecting back on his time in uniform, Ralston said it was a great experience and it gave him a great admiration for the military. He liked the structure and even gave thought to it as a career.