On March 15, 1965, large shipments of troops arrived in South Vietnam. These troops occupied the country until 1973. During this time, many men fought and died for the United States of America. The numerous nurses that operated on thousands of soldiers are often forgotten. The soldiers that the nurses operated on were usually blown apart and crippled for life. The nurses worked diligently to save these men.
Even by working hard to save these men they were not recognized as army personnel by the public. The Vietnamese citizens and even the male American soldiers looked down upon the nurses. The United States did not acknowledge the nurses that served in the Vietnam War until 1993. The nurses that served in the Vietnam War, although commonly unrecognized, served as bravely as their soldier counterparts, and some suffered much of the same mental and physical distress. The nurses were not considered actual army personal. They were bothered by the Vietnamese street peddlers.
In one incident, as a nurse was walking home, two boys asked for money. The nurses said "no", as was army policy, and kept on walking. The boys then smeared black shoe polish on her dress, legs, and shoes (Smith 59). These same boys would not even consider harassing a male officer, for fear of being put in prison or even killed. Acts such as these were common because he nurses were not able to defend themselves. The nurses were sometimes treated sometimes treated similarly by male soldiers.
One example took place when a nurse was walking to the hospital for her Little 2 shift. "My uniform was a joke, thanks to the driver who though that it would be funny to splash me with his jeep" (Smith 161). The soldiers would seldom do this to the other men in the armed forces for fear of being punished. The men did not worry about being punished when doing things to the nurses, knowing that they would never suffer any consequences The attitudes of the men were completely different when the women went into a bar.
The soldiers and generals would invite the nurses to parties and treat them nice; but, their sole purpose would be to sleep with them (Marshall 252). The officers should have treated the nurses with respect. The most severe instance in which the male officers showed that they did not recognize the nurse as army personnel was in two cases in which nurses were murdered (Marshall 23). This should not have been tolerated. The two soldiers did not even receive severe repercussions, one was court-marshaled and the other had nothing had nothing happen to him. If these soldiers murdered male soldiers they would have been court-marshaled and possibly received the death penalty.
Aside from the Vietnamese people and the army personnel, the army as a whole did not consider the nurses important. The Vietcong pounded the airbase with mortars most of the night, and the security at the hospital was not even tightened (Smith 171). This is another case in which the nurses were not considered important enough to protect. Also, there were almost no feminine products for women to buy at the Post Exchange, a military bases department store (Marshall 42).
The male officers could buy anything from playing cards to clothes, but females had to do with what they had. The nurses were also absent from absent form Hollywood screen. Women were never shown in movies Little 3 because hospitals were not considered "action packed" enough for filming. This further made Vietnam seem like a place were only men served. It would remain that way for the next nineteen years after the war.
The women who served went unnoticed until November of 1993. A lady by the name of Diane Evans fought for many years to obtain a monument for women at the Vietnam War Memorial. One response to a letter that she wrote was "the wall contains the names of eight service women who were killed in the conflict, so no additional monument was needed" (Evans 90). Finally, after a hard fought battle, a monument was created for the nursed that were in Vietnam.
Although the nurses were given little credit fir saving many lives they still served bravely in any crisis. The bravery of the nurses is unquestioned. The nurses would hold a man's hand as he died or smile at a man who was cut beyond recognition. These nurses would stand by a soldier and tell him that he would be all right, knowing that he would never walk again (Smith 173). This does show bravery because the nurses never gave into the stress of their job.
Or in another case, a nurse was cutting through a bandage and lifted it off the patient's face only to discover that his eyeball came out with it. She still worked on the solider and tried to calm his tears (Smith 173). There were soldiers that ran at the first signs of battle or vomited at the sight of blood, yet these nurses pushed on to the next patient no matter how mutilated he was. There was another time when a nurse said, "A casualty was waiting to die and I must still care for him" (Van Devanter 173). The nurses also has to swallow their pride and learn many new life-saving techniques. The nurses were bold enough to admit to not knowing everything.
The nurses also had to work without sufficient equipment to repair an injured soldier (soldier 118). The nurses also Little 4 had to work through fatigue, regardless of how tired they were. Many times they worked twenty-two hour shifts, constantly seeing blood and wounds (Evans 90). There should not be any credit taken away from the soldiers fighting the war because they were definitely brave, but the nurses did not have any weapons to defend themselves against the enemy. The nurses had to keep working on patients even when rockets were exploding around them. The women may not have lost their lives during battle on the front lines, but they gave everything they had to each soldier they cared for.
The nurses saw every wounded soldier, whereas the men on the front lines did not have to see everything. One soldier that was wounded said "I could never do this job because I must look everyone in the Face" (Evans 91). Along with the nurses bravery they endured physical and emotional distress. The nurses paid a price for serving in the hospitals. Many nurses felt that they were not doing a good job. One nurse said, "The nurses were patching up the men and sending them back to the slaughter" (Evans 91).
The nurses felt as though they were not helping anyone. Another nurse said, "The entire hospital staff worked as hard as we could to save this soldier and we did for awhile, but we later received word that the man had died" (Evans 92). These types of events were taking a toll on the minds of the nurses. The nurses also began to question themselves, always wondering if another nurse could have done a better job in saving a person's life. One nurse was so overwhelmed by work that she forgot to change IV's in a patient. She accidentally killed him on her first day (Evans 95).
The nurses also began to feel as though they would never leave Vietnam. They thought this because they watched their friends who had been discharged Little 5 killed (Smith 172). This further made the nurses feel a sense of hopelessness. Also, while some people turned to God to help them through, some nurses were losing faith.
When casualties were pouring in from a major explosion one nurse said, "God, not another burn, but God has long since forsaken this place" (Smith 158). Aside from the mental and emotional anguish that the nurses had to endure, they also were hurt physically. One example of physical violence that the nurses felt is shown in a story that happened to Winnie Smith, a former Vietnam nurse. She said, "Sometimes a patient would get so confused about where he was that he would attack the nurses. In one incident a wounded soldier jumped out of bed yelling 'I'm gonna get those suckers!' and then grabbed me by my throat. Luckily I escaped when a doctor pushed the man away" (Smith 209).
After a few attacks by patients, the nurses began to break down and cry because they were trying to help these soldiers and they were getting physically injured. Many nurses hoped that they would be able to live a normal life when they left Vietnam, but this was the case. Many of the nurses had flashbacks that were so painful one nurse said, "I am reliving not just remembering the past" (Van Devanter 297). Another nurse has a similar experience while attending a wedding. She said, "The sight of uncooked tenderloin at a wedding party brought a flashback of mutilated men struggling for life" (Evans 90). With the flashbacks, in a slit second the nurses would be in another place and time.
The mental stress that the nurses had to endure affected the nurses in a variety of ways. Some nurses disappeared from society, while others contemplated suicide (Smith 341). Other nurses could not sleep due to the fact they still had terrible nightmares in their rest. The nurses would jump at every little sound.
They might be out Little 6 in public and drive into a ditch only to discover that the sound passing by was only a police car (Van Devanter 297). There were some nurses that searched for solace among their families only to find out that they did not believe the stories. One mother recalled telling her daughter that she was "making this up for attention" (Smith 327). Some nurses enrolled in clinics years after the war so that they could cope with long-suppressed emotions (Evans 90). These clinics helped most nurses and now the nurses occasionally have bad dreams, but those are few and far between (Smith 352).
After all of this, there were still a few nurses who came out alright. They began to live with to live with what they saw, and used the experiences to help other veterans who are still upset about the war (Marshall 252). The nurses who went to Vietnam Grew up fast and their lives were changed forever. They all suffered much pain emotionally and physically. The nurses were given little credit for their participation in Vietnam, but now they will live on forever in the Women's Vietnam War Memorial.
Devanter, Lynda Van. Home Before Morning, The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. New York: Beaufort Books, Inc., 1983.
Evans, Diane. "They Also Served" People 31 May 1993 P 90.
Marshall, Kathryn. In The Combat Zone, An Oral history of American Women in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1987.
Smith, Winnie. American Daughter Gone to War, On the Front Lines withan Army Nurse in Vietnam. New York: William, Morrow, and Company, Inc., 1992.