From the VETERANS series:
Vietnam, U. S. Army Nurse Corps
71st Evacuation Hospital
Dates of Service: 1969-1970
You’re aware of the awful price that’s being paid. There was a purity of commitment to the work in Vietnam that you never experienced anywhere else. You don’t realize what you can do until you are put under that situation.
-February 2013, from the Veterans Oral History Project, Library of Congress
[Recollection, a poem by Joan Furey is from the book Visions of War, Dreams of Peace,1970, edited by Furey.]
I close my eyes and conjure up
visions of things past.
Unwillingly, unknowingly -- like the
blinking of an eye, the twitch of a muscle.
Visions of men, young and old.
so many young and also old.
The gift of life slowly drips from its container
to form a puddle on the floor
beneath your head.
PUMP! PUMP! PUMP!
Try in vain to replace what is going
Streaks of crimson in waves of gold
on sea of green and shore so white
so very white.
What purpose has brought you here?
to lie so still,
to think no thoughts,
to cease to dream and care and be.
The nature of your mission,
locked in your soul.
The reason for you living,
in another’s heart.
the vision of your death,
in the folds of my mind.
“I was brought up in the environment where my father and his brothers and all their friends were WW 2 veterans and there was this sense of obligation to serve, with my being a nurse. Some of the guys I had hung out with in high school had gone to Vietnam and it became a much more personal thing – it really home when a classmate of mine was killed. I was literally on my way home from work one day and walked into the army recruiters and I said ‘I’m a nurse and I want to go to Vietnam’, and they said ‘sign here!’ When I told my mom and dad, they were stunned, they cried.
“I don’t think anything in civilian life can prepare you for combat causalities. I went from working in geriatrics, to all of a sudden having to deal with people my own age and younger. I was 22, and so many of the causalities were 17, 18, 19 years old. The nature of the injuries and the wounds was a totally different experience for me.
“I spent a year in the post-op/intensive care unit at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, Vietnam and I can remember my first day, its one of those memories that’s emblazoned in my mind and I’ll never forget because it was truly totally overwhelming. The first patient I had was a young GI who had been really severely injured in a rocket attack, and had a spinal cord injury and a bilateral chest injury, so we had tubes coming out of both sides of his chest, and he had a neck and skull fracture, so he also had tongs in his skull with a weight to keep the neck in alignment, and IVs, the whole nine yards. They told me he was my patient to take care of. They told me I had to turn every two hours, and I thought ‘turn him, I don’t even want to touch him, I was really terrified. Injuries as severe as that were not all that uncommon.
“I really didn’t think I would be able to do it. You don’t realize what you can do until you are put under that situation. You’re dealing every day with a lot of young men with multiple amputations, severe disfigurements, really awful wounds and injuries that you knew were going to dramatically affect their lives in the future, but if you got too caught up in that you wouldn’t be able to do your job. So you learn to shut down emotionally and you really just do whatever had to be done to take care of people.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we took care of a lot of civilians, we took care of a lot of kids, little babies, that had gotten injured in the course of the fighting. You would have an American soldier come into the hospital carrying a wounded kid in their arms. If they came to the hospital we took care of them. It was very hard not to feel connected to these patients, with both the GIs and civilian patients.
“It was very distressing when you lost someone, or you had someone with very severe wounds and you knew there was going to be a really long road ahead for these young men when they returned home. And for the Vietnamese, you knew they didn’t have access the level of care that the American had, and God knows what happened to them when they left the hospital.
“When you are in this situation, you are certainly aware that there is a lot of stress, so you really have to push down a lot of the overwhelming emotions, of course with a varying degree of success, and I think the names you remember, the wounds you remember, show that. You think about how well they recovered, how they did after.
“For most of us, that was channeled into a commitment to do the absolute very best you could do for the patients. There was a purity of commitment to the work in Vietnam that you never experienced anywhere else. You’re aware of the awful price that’s being paid.
“I went back to Vietnam in 1996 with four friends who had been nurses in Vietnam as a way of getting closure on that experience. We were up in Da Nang, and we went by a memorial where they had large stones with names engraved in it of people from the different villages in Da Nang that had been killed during the war. I had brought a picture of the Vietnam memorial with me and I took out the picture of our memorial with the names to show the caretaker, and it was this bridging of a gap and it was very moving.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to about this when I got home. I remember feeling that I wanted people to know what war was. I think the biggest difficulties that I had as a nurse, is it’s very hard to experience yourself as ‘wounded’ when you have taken care of people how had had such incredible physical injuries, because your pain is never going to compare to theirs. You feel like acknowledging your personal pain somehow diminishes theirs. One thing I have learned over the years is that it doesn’t. Owning your own pain helps you get past it and heal. It become a difficult balancing act emotionally that takes time to get through.
“Upon completion of my service in Vietnam, I was awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service. Back home, I worked as a nurse and a nursing administrator at the VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida. Later, I was director of education at the VA National Center for PTSD in California. Starting in 1995, I was the Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Women Veterans."