Jan Wakelin — U.S. Navy — Vietnam War — Castaic Resident

Vietnam veteran, Navy corpsman, Jan Wakelin displays photos of his military days at his Castaic home on February 18, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal
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You don’t need to be Beethoven, Bach or Mozart to change someone’s life through music.

You don’t need to be heard in concert halls, have your arrangements blasted over car radios or sign massive record deals to inspire someone.

One can simply have their music heard in the quiet bunk beds in the belly of a ship thousands of miles from home, or in a classroom a block away from their house, and still be transported away from whatever ails them.

The belly of a ship and the hallways of school, these were the orchestra halls in which HM-4 Jan Wakelin’s music resonated, but it would be heard for generations of people.

Vietnam veteran, Navy corpsman, Jan Wakelin with his graduating class, Naval Hospital Corps School, San Diego, January 1970. courtesy Jan Wakelin

Early life

Wakelin was born Oct. 17, 1950, to Donald and Emma Wakelin at the Los Angeles Doctor’s Hospital.

His father, a surgeon, and his mother, a homemaker, had a total of five children, with Jan Wakelin being the second oldest.

Growing up in Glendale, Wakelin participated in sports, including gymnastics and wrestling. However, athletics aside, his heart was truly in his music.

“For me, it was a refuge; it was a way of getting away from some difficult time,” said Wakelin. “You need an outlet for all of it you know, from the suffering that you see.”

Once he became skilled enough, Wakelin was jamming out with his friends, with him on the keys and everyone else filling in around him. And as his skills and tastes grew, eventually he decided to take on and perform in public a new burgeoning genre of music: rock ’n’ roll.

“We did The Doors, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, all those older groups, and some Cat Stevens, as well,” said Wakelin, adding his band’s name was Night Lyte. “I just really enjoyed music.”

But music wasn’t going to pay the bills, Wakelin realized. And after graduating from Glendale High School, he started taking classes at Glendale Community College.

For many young men of this time whose age was on a register in Washington D.C., the call to a higher education or to play in a garage band would have to wait.

The United States of America was involved in the Vietnam War, and for many like Jan across the nation they knew their time to serve overseas was not a possibility, it was an inevitability.

“Several of my friends were being drafted and I wanted to have a choice where I went. Instead of getting drafted and put wherever they wanted.”

In the summer of 1969, Wakelin decided to enlist in the United States Navy.

Vietnam veteran, Navy corpsman, Jan Wakelin displays his sea bag from his military service. February 18, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Anchors aweigh

After finishing his boot camp, Wakelin had decided that he wanted to make his military occupational specialty electrical engineering. But an unknown, but nevertheless disqualifying medical condition would prevent him from accomplishing that.

On his first day in the Navy, Wakelin was given a battery of tests, one of which was to identify colored numbers on the pages of a book that was given to him. He didn’t see a single one.

“They said, ‘You can’t can’t be an electrician. You’re colorblind,’” he remembered.

“‘What do you mean I’m colorblind?” he responded to the Naval testers. “I never knew it. I just thought I didn’t have any style.”

Wakelin, after his life-altering revelation, went with his third choice and became a Naval corpsman, a set skills he would take with him for the rest of his life.

A corpsman, for those who do not have a military background, is an individual entrusted with the treatment of all those in the Navy, in addition to being ordered to help all other military personnel. They assist with dentistry, x-rays, preventative care and a number of other medical services needed by America’s seafaring military branch.

Additionally, a responsibility a corpsman may also be asked, especially in the case of someone like Wakelin, to be an operating room technician for both generalized and specialized surgery.

Following Hospital Corps School in San Diego, Wakelin was sent to Long Beach where he would train in what was becoming a family business: working in the operating room as a technician.

“Throughout the rest of my time in the Navy, I was in surgery.”

“I think my dad was pretty proud of that,” said Wakelin. “I had never ever considered going into medicine … but once I got in it, it was very fulfilling.”

Vietnam veteran, Navy corpsman, Jan Wakelin. February 18, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

The decks of Tripoli

In 1972, Wakelin was given an order that he would remember for the rest of his life.

“I think it was 12 hours’ notice that I was going to be shipped off on an emergency surgical team to Vietnam,” he said.

From LAX to Hawaii, from Hawaii to Guam, from Guam to the Philippines, from the Phillipines to Da Nang, and on a helicopter ride to the USS Tripoli, Wakelin and his team would finally arrive at one of the ships that would carry him around the Gulf of Tonkin.

An operating room suite on board a ship is like most others, Wakelin said, just a little bit smaller. And once you get “your sea legs,” triage teams can work effectively to save lives.

While the USS Tripoli and the ship he would eventually be placed on, the USS Okinawa, cruised the Gulf in figure eights, they would have soldiers wounded, hanging onto life, flown in from the battlefields.

From bullet to shrapnel wounds, infections to amputations, Wakelin saw it all. At one point during his technician tenure in the Navy, he treated a soldier who had jumped on top of grenade to save his comrades’ lives.

“He had taken his helmet and covered a grenade that was going to blow up his friends,” said Wakelin. “I think he saved eight lives doing that, and I think he still lives in San Diego.”

Days were hard on board the ship when a soldier’s life was lost on their table. But time spent thinking about it meant time not saving other’s lives.

In his few moments of free time, when he was alone with those thoughts, Wakelin said he would do his own triage through the use of music.

“I would sit down with my guitar,” said Wakelin. “Since I grew up with music, it was kind of good therapy.”

In addition to the training he received as an OR tech, Wakelin learned another lifelong skill in the Navy. A friend on board wanted to learn the guitar, and Wakelin took the time to teach him so they could play together.

Vietnam veteran, Navy corpsman, Jan Wakelin. February 18, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

A teacher and tech

In March of 1973, after having served in Vietnam for a handful months before returning back to Long Beach, Wakelin was honorably discharged from the Navy as a Hospital Corspmen 4 (HM-4).

After returning home, he continued to pursue his passion for medicine as well as music and teaching. He received a job in the Veterans Administration hospitals and worked as an OR tech, providing surgeries to veterans and their dependents.

But those lessons he gave on the ship in guitar stuck with him. And in 1982, after graduating earlier with a bachelor’s degree in music from Cal State University, Long Beach, Wakelin received his master’s degree and teaching credential.

He would become a music teacher while working in the hospitals on the weekends.

He had four kids of his own, but he also taught generations of Castaic Union School District students.

“They may not need a comprehensive music education, but at least exposure to the arts, because it makes them more well-rounded,” he said. “It lets them express themselves, or gives them an appreciation of what others are doing.”

He added that the therapeutic effects of music he experienced while a surgeon was something he wanted to pass on to kids as well.

“I’ve had some kids that will come up to me … and they’ll say, ‘You know this class is the only reason I like coming to school,’” he recounted. “Some kids have a difficult time at home or at school.”

He retired from teaching in Castaic three years ago, and five years ago from the operating room in the VA.

“If I did not appreciate or revere how the vets were being helped,” he said, “I wouldn’t have stayed so long.”

When asked if he ever thought about his two professions, music teaching and being an OR tech, as being related in that they both enlist people with a passion for helping others, he said: “Yeah, that’s a good analogy.”

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