Vietnam war nurses, p.1

Vietnam War Nurses, page 1


Vietnam War Nurses

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Vietnam War Nurses

  Vietnam War Nurses

  Personal Accounts of 18 Americans


  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

  Jefferson, North Carolina, and London


  Gulf War Nurses:

  Personal Accounts of 14 Americans, 1990–1991 and 2003–2010

  (McFarland, 2011)



  e-ISBN: 978-1-4766-0208-0

  © 2013 Patricia Rushton. All rights reserved

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  On the cover: Lieutenant Commander Lou Ellen Bell (courtesy of Lou Ellen Bell); incoming rockets (courtesy of Lou Ellen Bell); background image (Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock)

  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

    Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640

  Table of Contents


  Elizabeth R. Barker

  Catherine (Kay) M. Bauer

  Lou Ellen Bell

  Karen Born

  Mary Breed

  Linda Caldwell

  Alene B. Duerk

  Merlan Owen Ellis

  Lois Gay

  Sandra Kirkpatrick Holmes

  Lynn Calmes Kohl

  Mitchel A. McDonald

  Mary Lou Ostergren-Bruner

  Ruth E. Purinton

  Maria V. Rossi

  Mary Ellen Warne

  Harry A. Wesche

  Odette P. Willis


  List of Names and Terms


  The Vietnam War was my war. I joined because the Navy would pay for the last two years of my university nursing education and because the Navy recruiter, Sandy Kirkpatrick (whose account follows in this book), looked very sharp in her dress blues. Seeing the world didn’t even cross my mind. I was just excited to see Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, and the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Valley Forge and Gettysburg. There was something wonderful about telling folks I had joined the Navy. I didn’t understand all the politics surrounding the reasons we were in Vietnam, but at a time when there was so much discussion about the right and wrong of the war, I was very proud to be serving my country providing nursing care to servicemen.

  I finished my formal nursing education and went on active duty at Philadelphia Naval Hospital. It was there I learned about myself. I learned just how much I loved my family and believed in my faith. I learned to be a good nurse. I learned to organize the work and prioritize to get important things done in an appropriate order. I learned to be in charge, a trait that has shaped many of the decisions and actions in my life since then.

  I am so grateful for my experience during the war in Vietnam. It is one of those experiences that made all the difference in my life. But this is not my story. That has been told in other places (Rushton, 2005). The stories that follow in this work tell about many aspects of nursing during the “Vietnam experience.”

  Brief History of the War in Vietnam

  The war in Vietnam has been characterized as “America’s War.” Depending on the source, the United States was involved in the Vietnam experience from 1945 or 1950, when President Harry S. Truman provided aid and advisors to the French military, until 1975, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, when the American embassy was evacuated during the fall of Saigon. During that 25- to 30-year span, five U.S. presidents held office, 3,300,000 Americans served, 57,605 were killed and 303,700 were wounded.

  The military involvement of the United States in Vietnam was initially to provide aid to the French, who were trying to maintain their Vietnamese colony and protect it from Vietnamese rebels led by Ho Chi Minh. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed in the domino theory. According to Roarke, Eisenhower once said, “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty it will go over very quickly.” Roarke also noted that Eisenhower warned, “The fall of Southeast Asia to communism could well be followed by the fall of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.” By 1954 the U.S. was providing 75 percent of the cost of the war to the French. Eisenhower did not provide troops to the French and France was defeated and signed a truce in 1954.

  The truce created the countries of North and South Vietnam. John F. Kennedy ultimately supported South Vietnam in the conflict between the two nations, providing troops and materials. Johnson continued the support. Roarke commented that the numbers of troops and the resources committed to the war failed to defeat North Vietnam in its conquest to unite North and South Vietnam under a communist government, but they added the burden of intense conflict at home in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Americans felt the war was immoral and futile and protested against it. Richard Nixon was president of the United States when the formal accord was signed in Paris in 1973 to end the war. However, the American embassy remained open and the U.S. continued to support South Vietnam with bombing in neighboring countries. In 1975 when the North Vietnamese entered and took over Saigon, the United States embassy staff and 150,000 South Vietnamese were evacuated in a massive and chaotic airlift.

  The ability to fight a war is dependent on the ability to provide medical support to the troops (Captain Margaret Armstrong, United States Navy Nurse Corps, retired). Nurses have taken care of patients on and from the battlefield since the Crimea. Nurses were present in Vietnam in an advisory role early in the Vietnam era, as will be recounted by Kay Bauer in this book. The first hospital was opened by the United States Navy in 1962. Before the war was over, 5,283 nurses served for American forces. Eight nurses died during the war in Vietnam, one in action.

  Nurses can do anything and they do everything. This is demonstrated by the personal accounts shared in this work. Common themes include reasons for joining the military, the desire to care for servicemen in a war time situation, love of country, concerns about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the war, and discrimination against Vietnam veterans. They also talk about personal growth, times when they took responsibility for their actions and endured difficult situations, and opportunities for teaching and leading.

  The Nurses at War Project

  Since Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, and Clara Barton, professional nurses have been involved in caring for the sick and wounded during military conflicts. This collection of accounts is of benefit to nurse-historians and others studying those who have served during military conflict. Collecting and archiving these accounts is critical because most of the nurses who served in World War I have died and nurses who served during World War II are now in their eighties, some with fading memory and declining health. Many voices are lost each day as this generation passes.

  The Nurses at War Project is a continuing, long-term project to gather the accounts of nurses who have served during wartime. Accounts are gathered from nurses willing to tell their stories regardless of the war, the branch of military service, the site of service or the type of nursing performed. The main goal of the project is to acquire the accounts while the nurses are able to talk about their experiences.

  Several common themes emerged as nurses discussed both their professional and personal experiences. First and foremost: “We did what we had to do.” This is perhaps best exemplified in the words of an army nurse spoken with pride; who served during World War II “We had chosen a profession that required
our best in brain and brawn.” Professional themes included short staffing, long hours, and insufficient supplies calling for creativity and ingenuity in clinical practice.

  Nurses treated victims of shock and trauma, as many of them practiced before the establishment of critical care units in the 1960s. They cared for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was not identified as an official diagnosis until after the Vietnam War. They cared for patients with unusual diseases not typically seen in clinical practice, including jungle rot and other skin conditions common in the Pacific theater in World War II. Sometimes they were in situations in which they were required to provide care beyond their scope of practice under very difficult circumstances. Often they had profound emotional experiences.

  Some nurses made meaning of their war-time experiences, and described the lessons learned that profoundly affected their lives, including living fully in the present, reevaluating priorities, cherishing freedom, valuing home and family, and having faith and trust in God. These were the values they held fast to and which sustained them in difficult times. Nurses taking part in the project are very patriotic and speak of cherishing freedom, even in those instances in which they had conflicting feelings about going to war. Valuing home and family was a pervasive sentiment found in the interviews and in the letters written home. These nurses espoused a spiritual lifestyle, finding strength in their relationship with a higher power.

  On November 11, 2004, Veterans Day, a note dedicated to nurses was left at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. It read: “I don’t remember your name, but thanks for saving my life.” This indication of how much the quiet, unsung, heroic services of a nurse meant to this veteran is inspiring. These men and women have made a difference in the lives of countless military personnel—and though they may not remember their names, they remember the reassuring presence and dedicated and competent care they received from a nurse.

  Elizabeth R. Barker

  Elizabeth R. Barker’s story is one of developing leadership. Her leadership skills were clearly influenced by her experience in Vietnam, which influenced the rest of her nursing career. Her comments on the coping mechanisms of Vietnam veterans, both nursing and enlisted personnel, are important.

  * * *

  I always wanted to be a nurse. I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. I was attending Wagner College on Staten Island in New York City. I didn’t have money to continue college, so I went to see the Navy recruiter. I went into the Navy as a corpsman in April 1964, during Vietnam. They approved my continuing studies at Wagner in the Navy Nurse Corps Candidate Program. I graduated college in 1966 and went off to Newport, Rhode Island, as my first duty station. We did a lot of work with Vietnam casualties. We did a lot of training of the corpsmen to get them ready to go to Vietnam. We were training them how to pass NG tubes and start IVs and actually do tracheotomies, skills they might have to use when they got to Vietnam.

  I had an instance one time where I was working the evening shift. I was going off duty through the emergency room. We had just received a good-sized group of casualties. They were on the deck and on stretchers. As I walked by, one of the casualties kind of tugged at my skirt. He had a tracheostomy and he put his finger in the trach and kind of rasped out, “Do you know Lieutenant Riley?” I said, “Yes, I’m Lieutenant Riley.” “Do you know a guy named Henry?” I just rolled my eyes.

  Henry was a corpsman we used to kid with a lot. We told him if we hooked him up with the Viet Cong we would probably win the war because he would screw them up so bad. This was a guy that just couldn’t do things right. If you taught him how to do an IV, he had to do it 14 times to do it right. He would get all excited and couldn’t figure it out. Like all the other corpsmen, he went off to Vietnam. The casualty said, “Henry said if I ever found you, I should tell you that you taught him to do it right.”

  Henry had performed a tracheostomy on this guy. Henry knew the patient would probably come back to the Newport area to recover because he was from the Newport area. They tried to put returning troops back in the region from which they came. It was really an amazing and wonderful thing to know the investment you had in time and energy to teach this corpsman something had paid off.

  When teaching corpsmen how to put in IVs, they had to put one in us in order to pass off. Naturally, we had a lot of interesting puncture wounds on our arms. I was a very popular candidate because I have big veins. One night I was going across the parkway from the hospital to middle town, where I lived. It was kind of foggy, about 1930 (7:30 P.M.). There was a body lying across the road. I pulled over, stopped and jumped out of the car. It turned out to be some inebriated guy who had just passed out on the road. A police car went by and saw me leaning over this guy. The policeman stopped the car and got out to see what was wrong. I told him what had happened. Now, remember this was in the 60s and during Vietnam. This policeman saw my arms with all its band aids. He asked, “What happened to your arms?” I told him about teaching corpsmen to start IVs and practicing on us. He looked at me with a healthy grain of skepticism. I showed him my ID card and gave him my name. He said, “I think you’d better come with me.”

  He brought me back to the base and into the chief nurse’s office. He wanted her to verify the fact I really was a Navy nurse, we really did let the corpsmen practice starting IVs on us and I was not a drug addict. I got a lot of teasing about that particular incident. I made sure I wore long sleeves afterward. Eventually we were able to roll the guy in the middle of road up on the berm. By that time he kind of woke up and walked off.

  I was in Newport about two years. I tried to get orders to the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. My husband was enlisted and stationed on a submarine. They never would acknowledge I was married and certainly were not going to transfer me to be with an enlisted man. I was married in 1966 to a man I met in college. He went into the Navy so he wouldn’t get drafted.

  I became pregnant in 1968. The rule was if you were a woman and had a dependent under 18 you couldn’t stay in the military. We talk now about rights and privacy, but the reality was we really didn’t have any privacy. We were in the Navy. When they gave you an order, you did it. I wasn’t actually showing yet, so they figured they could get a couple more months out of me. I had to go to the chief nurse and tell her I was pregnant. She looked at me absolutely dumbfounded. At that point if you were below lieutenant commander you were either addressed as “Miss” or “Mr.” They never did want to change my name because I was married to an enlisted man and that was thought of as being terrible. She looked at me and said, “Miss Dawson, I just cannot believe you’re pregnant.” I said, “Yes, ma’am, I am.” She said, “I don’t know how that happened. We kept you on nights expressly to make sure this wouldn’t happen.” I found that pretty funny for her to think people who worked nights couldn’t get pregnant. When my husband had liberty, he would drive up from Groton. It wasn’t far. It was the big chuckle that I had sex other than in the dark of night.

  My experience as a Navy nurse during that period was pretty intense. Those guys, who were mostly our age, were pretty badly hurt. There was a lot of intensive nursing at Newport with these fresh casualties. We had a lot of guys who had traumatic injuries and a lot of surgery. At that point, we didn’t have very many antibiotics. We were just developing products like Betadine. It was very new. We didn’t have any cephalosporins. The antibiotics we used were neomycin, tetracycline and penicillin; okay, but not great.

  I worked in orthopedics. We would have guys with osteomyelitis because they had been wounded with punji sticks or had heavily contaminated wounds. They would have their leg surgically flayed open and have a neomycin drip going into their wound. They had a tube going into their leg with the neomycin running through it and another drain to suck out all the drainage. They were in horrible pain.

  A lot of the guys came home having taken illegal drugs while they were in Vietnam. That was one of the ways some of them coped with being over there. They we
re debilitated by parasites and malaria and other conditions you get while you are in the tropics, in addition to their wounds. Postoperatively you would get an order for 75 or 100 mg of Demerol every four hours for pain control. These guys had been on a lot of drugs we didn’t know about. They were withdrawing and we were giving them very small amounts of pain medication. Demerol and morphine were basically all the pain medications we had. These guys would be in terrible pain. We didn’t know about or use things like morphine drips. The science of pain management simply did not exist yet. The doctors were very strict. If we actually gave pain medication every three hours, we were really setting ourselves up to go on report for overmedicating our patients. Everybody said, “We can’t give them this pain medication because they will get addicted.” What we didn’t realize is they were already addicted.

  We would spend tremendous numbers of hours with the patients, even during our time off. Your shift would be over and there would be guys you realized were just really in agony. We would go over and spend another six or eight hours holding their hand, talking and singing to them, and trying to keep their mind off it until they could have another pain shot. I wasn’t the only one who did it. All the Navy nurses did it. We worked hard and we were very tired.

  I know we were in the “safe zone.” We didn’t have to worry about rocket attacks and stuff like that, but we very seldom had a day off. On our days off we would come in to sit with the sailors, soldiers, and Marines to tide them over. The senior nurses weren’t too happy about us doing that, but these guys really needed a lot of support. It was the only support we had to give them.

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