One of my goals was to put together an article featuring nurses in Vietnam. I’m certain that any soldier who spent time in the hospital there has fond memories of those brave women who took care of them and offered compassion. During my searches for information, I came across a website called “All about Women in Vietnam” (http://www.illyria.com/vnwomen.html) and found a wealth of information, not only about nurses but of the many other occupations and roles filled by women.
Since this article is about nurses, I’ve taken snippets from their articles to give readers a flavor of what life was like for them during the war. If you want to read the full articles, some, have working links that will redirect you.
Among the American heroes serving in Vietnam were soldiers whose mission it was not to fight, but instead to comfort and heal. The number of military nurses serving in Vietnam rose steadily after 1966 to a peak of 900 in 1969. They served as flight nurses, in hospitals throughout Vietnam, and on board the hospital ships USS Repose and Sanctuary.
From the wife of a soldier who was wounded:
“I know I speak for the families and loved ones of those who made it home and for the families and loved ones of those who did not make it home: the sacrifices made by you and all of the medical personnel who served in Vietnam may not have been glorified; however, your presence was and continues to be held most dear by those for whom you cared and by their families and loved ones. Most of all thank you for the care you gave my husband when he was wounded in Vietnam. And, thank you for all you gave to those who needed your care so much, when you were in Vietnam.”
Denham Springs, Louisiana
Rhona Marie Knox Prescott, Third Field Hospital, 616th Clearing Company, 85th Evac, ANC
“That tent became our surgery. It was beyond primitive; it was beyond the MASH movie and TV show. It was dirty; it was a non-sterile environment. We didn’t have enough instruments. We didn’t have enough hands. Needless to say we shared things during surgical procedures that were absolutely needed to save lives, but they weren’t sterile. We didn’t have suction, we didn’t have penicillin to irrigate wounds, didn’t have enough blood to transfuse, we just didn’t have… We did have so many casualties right out of the field. They just brought them all in there. The First Cav. put their people in that staging unit hoping that we could fix them and send them back into the war. So, we were [sigh] way above our heads.”
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – Diana Dawn Poole
“One of my rules was that nurses were not allowed to cry. The wounded and dying men in our care need our strength, I told them. We couldn’t indulge in the luxury of our own feelings. On the other hand, I was always straight with the soldiers. I would never say, “Oh, you’re going to be just fine,” if they were on their way out. I didn’t lie.”
“That was when, in many cases, we found the maggots. The thought is repulsive. The first time I saw maggots in a wound, white and plump and squirming under the stained gauze, I nearly vomited. The doctor who was operating merely said, “‘Ah–the Surgeon’s Little Helpers.'”
In Memory of the Young Bleeder, the Children, The World – Lynda Van Devanter
“It’s the largest trail of blood leading to the table that I have ever seen. I slip on it because my eyes are drawn to the gurney where several people are transferring the soldier to the operating table. I watch in horror as the lower portion of his jaw, teeth exposed, dangles from what is left of his face. “
Keynote Address at the Women’s Memorial – Jean Youngstrom Diebolt, Air Force Nurse
“We were the most inexperienced group of medical personnel ever to serve in war time. And I was scared–not that I’d be wounded or killed–but that I wouldn’t measure up, that I’d panic and freeze when a soldier’s life depended on me.”
‘First Warrior’ shows face of American Indian veterans – Connie Walker-Evans (Nez Perce), Ret. CMDR, USPHS, ANC 1965-1969
“I feel bad that I cannot remember their names, but I cannot forget the severity of their wounds and their young faces. Nor the hopelessness and sadness I felt as so many of their lives slipped away.”
Sapper Attack! – Diane Houser and Margaret Cohee were at “nice, safe Cam Rahn Bay”
“I saw sparks on the floor,” she said, “but they didn’t register. I thought the window had been broken by the concussion of the explosions outside. I didn’t find out until later that four sticks of TNT together with a detonator and a fuse, were lying on the floor . . .”
Welcome Home II – Kathie Trew Swazuk, 93rd Evac
“And I couldn’t get hold of the surgeon when I needed him, a night when there were all kinds of mass casualties coming in. I felt that I had to do something to stop the bleeding and I literally opened the wound up and clamped off the bleeder myself…. I did what had to be done. We were doing things that we would never do in the States, that would’ve never fallen into the hands of a nurse, and had responsibilities that we never, never encountered…. I have to keep remembering how young I was, right out of nursing school. I was 21 years old.”
American Nurses in Vietnam: Invisible Veterans – Ellen Graf’s paper for a college course on American War & Society
“During a nurse’s year long tour of duty, she would be called upon to perform functions beyond what she had learned in nursing school, working on war wounds foreign to peacetime training, with urgent heavy patient loads. Various estimates agree that standard nursing schedules were twelve-hour workdays, six days a week. Shifts would be longer and more intense as specific battles returned casualties from the field, and days off cancelled as patient loads grew heavier. ‘Time took on a different meaning. One nurse said she felt she was caught up in a craziness she could not control.'”
“Army Nurse Diane M. Lindsay went to Vietnam in April 1969 and was assigned to the 95th Evacuation Hospital where her heroic actions earned her the Soldier’s Medal for heroism. She convinced a confused soldier to hand over a grenade. (He had already pulled the pin.) Lindsay had help from a male officer in physically restraining the “berserk” soldier. Lindsay was the first black nurse to receive the award, and was promoted to Captain.
Inside the Death Factory by Christine L. Kane for the Boston Review – Lynda Van Devanter & an Anonymous Nurse
“One of her come-backs embodies anger and anguish, tough-minded pride and brooding guilt and black, black humor. “When I first came back from Nam people would always ask me if I killed any babies. I was really stunned and hurt, but I finally found an answer that stopped them cold I’d tell them, ‘I never killed a baby that I really liked.”
A Perfect Little Number – Cathie Henderson, 24th Evac, 1967
“When a severely wounded soldier learned that she would be coming back to the states soon, he asked her to call his mom when she got home. Cathie kept her promise and one of the first things she did was call his mother. She was stunned when the mother sobbed hysterically. The mother had received a telegram only days before informing her that her son was mortally wounded.”
Sharon Lane ~In Memoriam, On the Wall at 23W 112
During the early morning hours of June 8, 1969, a Soviet-built 122-mm rocket slammed into ward 4 of the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, Vietnam. 24 year old Lt. Sharon A. Lane died instantly. Pictures of Sharon Lane and an account of her short life and career.
“I’ve never seen so many wounded in my life. It reminded me of that scene in ‘Gone with the Wind’ where all the wounded are lined up for miles around the railroad station,” says Shellabarger. “And the rumors were so bad – that Saigon had fallen, things like that… Not knowing the truth was the worst.”
“For many nurse veterans, their assignment to Vietnam was, in essence, their first “real job.” The average American military nurse on duty in Vietnam was just 23 years old and fresh out of a three-year diploma nursing school.”
Slow hand salute to these brave ladies!
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