CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Dr. John Haley headed off to Vietnam in 1966, confident his dental and oral surgery training had prepared him well to treat injured soldiers.
He was humbled pretty quickly.
Working at a hospital in Saigon, he approached a patient whose face was heavily bandaged.
"I had just finished my residency and I was cocky as hell," he said. "I'm playing Dr. Kildare and I go over there and say, 'Let's take the bandages off.' "
When he saw the young man's injuries, Haley was stunned.
"I froze," he said, the memory still fresh decades later. "It looked like someone had taken a curved blade and cut off the bottom part of his face."
A veteran nurse assisting him took charge and helped Haley focus.
"She said, 'Remember, A, B, C,' - clear the airway, stop the bleeding, clean it up," he said.
His three years in Vietnam provided more training than nearly all of his years of schooling and informed Haley's philosophy about patient care for his 44-year career in Charleston, one that ended this month with his retirement.
He learned to focus on healing and not devastation. He learned to improvise, figuring out solutions in the worst of circumstances.
"It was knife, fork and spoon surgery. If you didn't have it, you could make it," he said.
Haley learned to be both tough and compassionate.
One day while he was walking through a field hospital, a badly injured young soldier - no more than 18 or 19 years old - held his arm out to Haley.
"I still start crying sometimes when I tell this," Haley said, growing emotional. "He looked at me and said, 'Doc, am I going to die?' I looked at him and thought he probably was going to die.
"I said, 'I'll tell you what, if you die, you won't die alone. I'll be with you.' And I sat down and held him. And he died in my arms."
Haley said his war memories remain fresh and he still finds himself awaking with a start at night occasionally.
The cocky young doctor came home to Charleston as a seasoned surgeon with a clear idea of how he would treat patients, whether for a traumatic injury such as a car accident or whether they needed their wisdom teeth extracted.
"I learned early on if you are aloof and behave like an asshole, you're treated like one. And the patients don't understand what you are telling them," he said. "You have to give a damn about them.
"I deal with people one-on-one," added Haley, 75. "If you came to my office with an appointment at 1 p.m., we saw you at 1 p.m. And we didn't see the next patient until we were finished with you.
"It's not the way to make millions of dollars, but I don't run a train station here."
The Charleston native, son and grandson of physicians, volunteered for service in Vietnam because his family had always served.
"My family has been here since 1642, when we arrived at Jamestown," he said. "We have served in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War on the Confederate side and World War II."
His physician father, also named John, served as a Navy physician during World War II and returned to Charleston to become one of the founders of the Eye & Ear Clinic.
Although he comes from physician stock, Haley admits he didn't always take his studies seriously.