Vietnam Stories: Life as a nurse in Vietnam

For the Monitor
Monday, September 25, 2017

After a year’s college scholarship from the Army, I ( age 24) was stationed at Walter Reed. I then requested Vietnam and subsequently served in Long Binh in 1967 as a nurse.

As with most people, that was a never-to-be-forgotten period in my life.

I have slides aplenty – and more memories in my mind. Not wanting to add stress to the family at home, the pictures are anything but graphic.

I was able to work in 93rd Evac hospital’s intensive care ward (four quonset huts put together in the shape of a cross) for the bulk of that year.

When I could no longer hold up a strong front for the men – and cried as more and more were dying or seriously wounded with injuries that boggled the mind – I requested a change of work within the hospital. A “but you’re so good at it” from the wonderful chief nurse, Col. Jamison, did not change my need to relocate. Dealing with patients with malaria, VD, etc., was doable.

In that year, I witnessed phenomenal compassion of young men toward one another. These fellows were like my younger brothers. And when those who did sustain dramatically horrific injuries, they were yet able to reach out to one another and make sure those around them were faring well. The educational level of many if not most was such that with damage to their legs and/or arms, there went their livelihood back home. Needless to say, the mental anguish was beyond description. The oft-repeated phrase “War is hell” was all too true.

So, yes, our hours were long – many 12 hours – and a challenge. Living quarters, in that year, were primitive – bunk beds, quonset huts, table fan for the oppressive 100-degree-plus and very humid days, and outhouses “up the road apiece.”

Entertainers and stars such as Bob Hope and James Garner brought smiles to both patients and staff. Those who came for their own glory were obvious and not at all impressive.

One of my dearest friends in college was a Vietnamese student who, with her four-year scholarship, had 10 years to repay her country. “Cuc” was stationed at the Vietnamese hospital in Saigon. After I had been “in country” (at the hospital) six or seven months, I (very illegally, we nurses were supposed to stay on the hospital grounds all year, but that’s another story) hitch-hiked in an Army jeep into Saigon and visited with her. It was so sad. The quality of their medicine was, as you may imagine, leagues behind our country’s. She was there to take care of the persons wounded by Americans (and other medical/surgical needs). We both knew our worlds were dramatically changed. It was the last time we corresponded. It was a sad day indeed.

Timing is a lot in life.

My tour ended in December 1967. On flying to California, I exited the plane with a lovely suit I’d had made while on “R and R.” I showed it to the flight ticket persons, saying I was going into the ladies room to change into the suit. “After all my family has been through worrying about me, I need to show them I’m fine.” Unbeknownst to me, they then passed on the word to the flight attendants who, on seeing me, insisted I enter the first-class section: “What time should we waken you so that you may be ready to deplane and feel fresh?” And so went the voyage to Chicago. Yes, my family was pleasantly surprised.

The reality factor then crept in. A welcome-home party scheduled a week later (when I was actually due home) generated a different tone. Many family and friends came over to welcome me home. I couldn’t handle the emotional high as I was too well aware that many of my dear friends and all of the military persons were living an unnecessary hell overseas. I said a thank you and left for upstairs minutes after the party started. Imagine the horror when the Tet Offensive happened. Once again, powerless to do anything but watch and pray. “Watch” was not the pattern. I don’t think I watched TV news for years, and talking about the experiences took even longer.

It was only in the past maybe 10 years, when my young persons were wondering why I didn’t have something about Vietnam on my license plate, that I felt comfortable even bringing up talk of “when I was there.” Now “NAM67” says it well, almost. And, if I had a nickel for every person who has asked me “Where was your husband?” or “When did your husband go there?” I’d be wealthy indeed. It is with much pride that I can set straight their good intentions.

(Ginny Timmons, formerly of Glencoe, Ill., and Concord, lives in Boscawen.)