“I learned so many lessons, but it took me years to put them into words or concrete thoughts. Vietnam hardened me.”
One tour in Vietnam was more than enough for Janis Nark, who served as a nurse during the Vietnam War from 1970 to 1971. Inspired to serve others after she lost her Drama scholarship from Eastern Michigan University, Janis found herself shipping off to boot camp in the spring of 1970.
When the first female service members arrived in Vietnam. 83% were nurses. The others held positions in special services, supply, air traffic control, cartography, the USO, American Red Cross and many other jobs in support of our combat troops.
The day Janis left for Basic Training in her new Ford Maverick, her father checked the oil, the weather, the antenna – anything to avoid acknowledging his little girl was leaving home for the Army. “Bye Mom! Bye Dad! I love you!” She waved one last time and headed out, never contemplating that would be the end of her childhood and a brutal induction into irrevocable adulthood.
Janis, like her fellow nurses, went to her job and faced the perils of enemy fire, horrific heat and humidity, disease, insects, isolation, long work hours and sleepless nights. She treated wounded and dying soldiers in Southeast Asia for a tour, later serving in a West Coast military hospital. Jets carried the injured from the frontlines in Vietnam back to the U.S. for care within mere hours. Janis sometimes cared for men who were still boys by age, but were taken from their innocence in the blink of an eye. She would see the faces of 19 and 20 year-olds who would be paralyzed forever.
It was quoted by Former Sec. of State, Colin Powell that “the men came back and rested, but you [nurses] looked at death every day.”
It was not an easy job, but no one said it would be.
One quiet morning around 2 a.m., the soft sobs of a seventeen-year-old resonated through the quiet halls of the medical ward Janis was working. The crying patient was skinny with blonde hair and big blue eyes. He had lost both legs and one arm to the war. Reaching his bedside, the young soldier looked up at Janis, tears building up in his eyes and desperately asked, “Why?”
“He had been to war and back and couldn’t answer it, and was looking to me…for answers,” Janis recalls. “I smoothed the hair back from his forehead and I gave him morphine for the only pain I knew I could take away.”
Through heart-wrenching moments like these, Janis said she and her fellow nurses did the “best we could with who we were and what we had.” Hard realities were not an easy thing to swallow, but necessary. Janis learned about everything from gunshot wounds, to different weapons, booby traps, and the toll of war on the young mind.
“I learned never to wake a vet standing next to him. You could get hurt that way.”
However, Janis mostly learned about amputations. “Almost half of my patients were amputees; many of them had lost more than one limb.”
There were times when she felt helpless; feeling like treating wounded soldiers would have no end.
One of the hardest realizations was sending men back into battle. Soldiers would arrive in the medical ward half conscious, only to open their eyes and come face to face with nurses like Janis. They looked for reassurance and peace. The patients called them “angels.”
After seeing the faces of those she helped, Janis knew these soldiers were grateful to be alive and that they were wonderful to her. Janis remembers, “There was a great feeling of camaraderie…It was wonderful to see wounds heal, to see physical and mental progress. A lot of good happened…”
While there were a lot of lessons to be learned in Vietnam, it took Janis years before she could put her memories into words or more concrete thoughts. Her experience as a Vietnam nurse caused her to become destroyed emotionally by PTSD. Like so many women who served with her, they were haunted by the very injuries they treated, and the death they faced day in and day out.
Through this tumultuous time in her life, she said it made her stronger. “It heightened by a sense of humor. It made me realize what’s important in life and what’s not. “
Many returning veterans did not speak of their service – in other words, they came home quietly. Society did not seem to want to acknowledge that young men and women had been there. Others simply did not want to discuss their service. Janis did not do so for 20 years. “I was just another nurse. I never told any civilian I was in the Army.”
If Janis ever wore her uniform in the outside world she was “looked at with one of two emotions: curiosity or disdain.” Even during the Women’s Liberation Movement, underlying messages of ‘nice girls wouldn’t have gone to war’ rang loud and clear.
Following Vietnam, Janis wasn’t done. She stayed in the Reserves, serving once again in wartime during Desert Storm. She retired in 1995 with 26 years of service. Looking back, Janis said, “I learned skills that I never would have. I learned to think outside the box at a very young age. I learned survival skills, how to improvise, the list is long. And I am grateful.”
When The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, it became a symbol for national reconciliation. The Wall quickly became sacred ground, bringing men and women veterans together. Many began to mourn and confront demons they felt they could not do for so long. Eight women are inscribed in black granite on The Wall, alongside their 58,300 ‘brothers’ in war.
The recognition for women came on Veterans Day of 1993 when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. With attendance in the thousands, including but not limited to: air traffic controllers, Red Cross workers, intelligence operators, and nurses, these “angels” and veterans were met with praise and thanks. Men saluted and cheered, others yelling, “Thank you! Thank you!”
Vietnam women veterans were not alone and their service would not go unnoticed.
Vietnam impacted or inspired women serving today, she replied, “We served, suffered, paved the way, like so many women before us.”
These angels, women who risked their lives to selflessly give all they had to comfort and heal, are forever memorialized and honored on The National Mall in Washington, D.C. Once bringing peace and comfort to the suffering, they now bring solace to one another. Through their words and tears, their healing continues. Today, they hold each other close and lift themselves up. Their service is immeasurable and we thank them.
Eight U.S. of these heroic nurses died in Vietnam; six were killed, two died of illnesses. Each dedicated themselves to taking care of the wounded and dying.
See their faces and remember their names. These are their stories.
Lieutenant Colonel Annie Ruth Graham, Chief Nurse at 91st Evacuation Hospital in Tuy Hoa. A native of Efland N.C., she suffered a stroke in August 1968 and was evacuated to Japan where she died four days later. She was a veteran of both WW II and Korea. She was 52.
First Lieutenant Sharon Anne Lane died from shrapnel wounds when the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai was hit by rockets on June 8, 1969. From Canton, OH, she was a month short of her 26th birthday.
She was posthumously awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm and the Bronze Star for Heroism. In 1970, the recovery room at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, where Lt. Lane had been assigned before going to Vietnam, was dedicated in her honor. She was 26 years old.
In 1973, Aultman Hospital in Canton, OH, where Lane had attended nursing school, erected a bronze statue of Lane. The names of 110 local servicemen killed in Vietnam are on the base of the statue.
2nd Lt. Carol Ann Elizabeth Drazba (L) of Dunmore, Pennsylvania, and 2nd Lt. Elizabeth Ann Jones of Allendale, South Carolina. Both were the first military women killed in the Vietnam War. Both were assigned to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. On February 18, 1966, they were on an administrative flight to Dalat aboard a helicopter from the 197th Assault Helicopter Company, 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, when the aircraft struck a high-tension transmission line over a river in the vicinity of Bien Hoa. They died along with five other passengers in a helicopter crash including Jones’ fiance. Both were 22 years old.
They are honored on Panel 5E, Row 46 and Panel 5E, Row 47 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Capt. Eleanor Grace Alexander (L) from Westwood, New Jersey, and Lt. Hedwig Diane Orlowski of Detroit, Michigan died on November 30, 1967, when a U.S. Air Force C-7B hit a mountain about 5 miles south of Qui Nhon. The presence of low clouds and rain had reduced visibility to about two miles. It took search and rescue teams five days to locate the crash site in the dense jungle. Twenty-six people were killed in the crash. Four crewmen were lost, two Air Force passengers and 18 U.S. Army personnel, including two U.S. civilians, were also killed in the accident. With them when their plane crashed on the return trip to Qui Nhon were two other nurses, Jerome E. Olmstead of Clintonville, WI, and Kenneth R. Shoemaker, Jr. of Owensboro, KY.
To help in a rush of wounded, both were assigned to temporary duty in Pleiku. Alexander’s regular duty was at the 85th Evacuation Hospital and Orlowski was at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon. Alexander was 27; Orlowski was 23. Both were awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
They are honored on Panel 31E, Row 15 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Second Lieutenant Pamela Dorothy Donovan, from Allston, MA, became seriously ill and died on July 8, 1968, in Gia Dinh Province, South Vietnam, at the age of 26. She was assigned to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon. She was born in Wirral, Merseyside (in England), UK, March 25, 1942, to Irish parents. The family returned to Dublin, Ireland; and Pam was raised and educated there before the family came to Brighton, Massachusetts.
Capt. Mary Therese Klinker, U.S. Air Force was from Lafayette, Indiana. On April 3, 1975, Klinker was aboard a U.S. Air Force C-5A leaving Saigon and bound for Clark Air Base in the Philippines. She was a part of the initial mission in “Operation Babylift.” The C-5 troop compartment carried 145 Vietnamese orphans and seven attendants’ en route the United States.
The cargo compartment held 102 orphans and 47 others. Twelve minutes after takeoff, the rear loading ramp’s locks failed, leading to explosive decompression and massive structural damage. The C-5 touched down in a rice paddy, skidded about 1,000 feet before becoming airborne again, hit a dike, and broke into four parts. The cargo compartment was completely destroyed, killing 141 of the 149 orphans and attendants. Klinker was posthumously awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal. She was 27 years old.
These eight women embody selfless love, sacrifice, and courage. They are American heroes who volunteered to serve their country.
A grateful country remembers. Thank you to all of our Vietnam “angels,” and “Welcome Home.”
The article about Janis Nark originally appeared on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website on March 26, 2018.
To read more about the “Nurses” and “Other Women” of the Vietnam War, click here for my earlier articles:
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