Dr. J. Curtis “Curt” Kovacs, Salida, served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1971.
Among his awards is the Air Force Commendation Medal and a citation for meritorious services as an aeromedical physician while assigned to the Life Support System Program Office, Deputy for Subsystems Management, Aeronautical Systems Division, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, from Oct. 8, 1968, to June 29, 1970.
The citation states the award is for outstanding professional knowledge and familiarity with current aeromedical problems and contributing to greatly improving life support design requirements for the F-15 Air Superiority Fighter and the B-1A Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft.
Kovacs came to notice because of his teaching within both the Air Force and civilian aviation community. He became training officer for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and also operations and medical officer for the Ohio Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.
“I joined the Air Force because I had a commercial pilot license and I wanted to do aviation medicine,” Kovacs said. “I went into the Air Force as an intern, and when I filled out the form at Andrews Air Force Base and noted I was a commercial pilot, a colonel at the Pentagon read the form, and in February of my internship year I got a call from the Pentagon.
“The colonel asked if I was interested in aviation medicine research. He had read my background on that form, saw commercial pilot and said they were forming a new office and invited me to dinner with a general. That office was the Life Support System Program.”
One of his memories of his service years was working as an Air Force medical intern at Andrews AFB in Washington, D.C.
“Most of the active buildings were on the west side of the base,” Kovacs said. “Across the landing strip on the east side were some unused World War II barracks. They were activated to serve as casualty staging facilities. The wounded were cared for until flights to home facilities could be arranged.
“The number of wounded during the Vietnam War was so high that President Johnson wanted to hide them from the populace. Those soldiers were returned to the USA and then sent to various hospitals around the country. They were sent to facilities nearest to their home address, but those with severe medical problems requiring hospital care came to us at Andrews AFB. Even the people on the base didn’t see most of the wounded.”
One of Kovacs’ patients made a major impression on him – so much so that he recalled him years later. That was Milt Cochran, a combat corpsman who had stepped on a land mine. His right leg was blown off and the rest of his body received severe injuries from shrapnel. He wasn’t expected to survive.
“His strong sense of survival pulled him through after three agonizing years at various military and VA hospitals,” Kovacs said. “I always wondered what happened to him, and one day in 1972 when I was getting off an elevator at a medical conference in New Orleans, I ran into the colonel who was chief of orthopedics when Cochran was our patient.
“ I was pleased to learn the colonel also remembered Milton Cochran and gave me an update on him. He was doing fine. I called Milton in July 2015 on the 46th anniversary of the day he tripped that land mine, and we met three weeks later at his home in Arizona. It was truly Divine Providence. It was so impressive seeing him again after knowing what he went through.”
Kovacs posted the story of his meeting with Cochran and his family on Facebook and received this comment from Sgt. Randall D. LaVerne, another Marine he had treated during the Vietnam War.
“My wounds weren’t that bad, and no one will remember me and that’s OK. My stay in the hospital was not long, but I was treated very well. One day I apologized for forgetting where I was, and the doctor seemed satisfied with that. I suppose a lot of us weren’t completely there mentally during our hospital stay, going from utter hell to care and kindness.
“I guess what I am most pleased with in your story is that when you and the colonel met after all those years your first words were ‘Milton Cochran.’ The two of you must be very good doctors to have remembered him all that time.
“When we came home, no one thanked us for our service. Now people thank us all the time, so much it’s almost embarrassing. I would like to thank you, Dr. J. Curtis Kovacs, M.D., for your service.”
With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Dr. Kovacs still looks up and has no regrets because often he sees people walking around with oxygen concentrators and recalls, with pride that he was the project manager at the very beginning of developing this technology in 1969 while assigned to the Life Support System Program Office USAF Systems Command.