Shortly after arriving in the United States from Peru in the late 1960s, and despite the fact that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, Dr. Anibal Pepper found himself "invited" by the U.S. Army to "volunteer" for service in Vietnam.
He wasn’t the only non-American to provide critically needed medical skills.
“When I got drafted I thought my case was unique,” he said. “But when I got to boot camp with 300 other doctors, I discovered that 60 percent were foreigners. I told my wife, it doesn’t look like the American Army — it looks like the Foreign Legion.”
Anibal was awarded the Bronze Star for his service as a trauma surgeon at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units in Vietnam, operating on more than 600 GIs under incredibly difficult conditions.
Despite constant pressure, he also found time to volunteer at a local Vietnamese hospital and orphanage.
Upon his return to the Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, Anibal had more surgical experiences than most American doctors and was ready to work to become top in his field.
“I knew I had to perform much, much better than my American friends,” he said. “It can be difficult for a foreign doctor in a hospital with mainly Americans, but I was very well prepared.”
Anibal became known as the “bullet” doctor who took care of all the policemen who got shot.
“It was not that much different from the bullets in Vietnam,” he notes.
As the doctors “realized that this new Dr. Pepper was a very good surgeon,” Anibal was appointed head of the intensive care unit and, after 10 years, chief of surgery.
Anibal never lost sight of his home country and wanted to “pay back” for the medical training he received in his hometown of Arequipa, all of which was free.
“In the 52 years I’ve lived in the United States, I have made 76 trips back to Peru,” he says.
Every year Anibal and his wife, Ann, go with a group of doctors on missions to provide free medical care to the neediest people in Peru. As a result of his efforts, Arequipa has one of the top burn units in Peru today.
Anibal believes that no one walks away unchanged from experiencing Peru and other cultures, including his own children.
“I took a sabbatical a number of years ago so that my children could live in Peru. They went to a little local school and were submerged in local life. They learned about ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ but that even if children don’t have things like bikes, they can still be very happy,” he says.
Today, Anibal and Ann are getting ready for another trip to Peru. In addition to medicine, they are focused on education and building cultural bridges between sixth-graders in Frankfort, Michigan and Arequipa.
Our Global Neighborhood is an eight-week series that airs each Wednesday on Morning Edition and All Things Considered.