Amid the horrors of war, I learned what life is all about.
I can still hear my dad say to my mom, “Olga, guess where Sis is going to now?”
I can still see the tears in my mom’s eyes as she said to me, “I always told you to travel– but Vietnam?”
I thought they would be overjoyed. After all, we were Americans and we believed that when we hear the call to arms, we answer it. Nothing in life is free. Sometimes you have to fight for what is right. They had told me that.
Besides, I wasn’t going to carry a weapon; I was going to be an Army nurse. I was going to care for the wounded. My skills were needed to keep our soldiers combat-ready and our country free. I was 21 years old and I was ready to serve my country. It was my patriotic duty.
In February 1968, commissioned a 2nd lieutenant, I left my hometown of Freeland, Pa., for officer training school at Fort Sam Houston. For 12 weeks, I was drilled on how to salute, march in step and wear the uniform according to regulation. I was taught to fire a .45, put on a gas mask in 15 seconds, find my way back to base camp with a compass. I ate C rations, explored a mock Vietnamese village and learned the meaning of Charlie, punji stick, mama-san, tripwire, M-16, pit viper, incoming, grunts, bunker, dust-off, point, Bouncing Betty, DMZ, mortar, sapper, Ho Chi Minh trail, I Corps, 1st Cav, Big Red One…the list seemed endless.
It wasn’t until I was learning how to suture, insert a chest tube, perform a tracheotomy, start all kinds of intravenous lines, set a fracture and triage that I began to have doubts about volunteering for Vietnam. I didn’t question my intentions; I just hoped that I was ready for the real thing. Working on anesthetized goats was light years away from working on a fellow human being.
In October 1968, I boarded Flying Tiger flight 702 at Travis Air Force Base with 200 other military personnel for the 22-hour flight to Bien Hoa to begin my 364-day tour of duty. There was little conversation on the flight or as we deplaned and stood in formation. No one spoke as we marched to the hangar to pick up our fatigues, jungle boots and firearms. There was no one to talk to when I changed into my uniform. Then I was on a Huey headed north to Chu Lai and the 312th Evacuation Hospital.
Colonel Jane Carson greeted me there. “Welcome to the 312th, Lieutenant. You’ll be working with Captain Barb Reilly in the ICU/R&E (Intensive Care Unit/Receiving & Emergency.) You will be working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. No fraternizing with the enlisted men, all off-limits areas are posted, no chopper rides for fun. If you will follow me, I’ll introduce you to your hooch mates, lieutenants Patti Weisner and Barb Caldara. Again, welcome to the 312th, Lieutenant.”
The next 363 days were among the most remarkable of my life.
I learned, from day one, not to cry, not to wince at the smell of napalmed flesh or wounds caked with animal dung, not to look discouraged, not to show fear or panic. After all, someone had to stay calm when the vibrations of incoming rounds rattled the Quonset hut walls and dimmed the lights. Someone had to take charge and see that the critically wounded GIs in ICU were covered with flak jackets until the all-clear signal sounded. There were no bunkers in the hospital ward, and even if there were, none of the wounded could run or crawl to them.
From day one, I learned to pray, smile, laugh and stretch the truth for the sake of the troops. I learned what war is all about, what living is all about and how fragile life is. I learned about dying, and I vowed that no one was going to die alone on my tour.
I soon learned that courage and bravery walk hand-in-hand with fear, and that no matter what age, what color or creed, blood is red and pain is real for everyone.
The 312th Evac Hospital received casualties via land ambulance and medical helicopters directly from the combat zone. Medical personnel, noncommissioned as well as officers, worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. Within my first 48 hours in country, the war and its casualties began to have a profound effect on my life views—emotionally, spiritually, politically and professionally. War has a sobering effect on those who serve in any capacity, and its intensity instills maturity and colors their views forever.
First Lieutenant Sharon Lane arrived at the 312th on April 29, 1969. At that time I was working in the ward set aside for Vietnamese patients and now Sharon was assigned to take my place. She was quiet and didn’t mingle much with the other nurses; she was cordial but sad-eyed.
Just 40 days after her arrival at Chu Lai, June 8, we were both working the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. I was in R&E and she was in the Vietnamese ward. About 0500, I heard a loud crashing noise, the lights went out and corpsmen were running around in a panic. A 122mm rocket had slammed into the Vietnamese ward. Someone yelled, “We’re hit, we’re hit!” The generators quickly kicked on, providing a dull light. In minutes, as I ran to the R&E doors, in came corpsmen carrying a stretcher, a small, limp arm dangling over the side. They carefully placed the stretcher on the sawhorses and in the pale light I saw Sharon Lane, her skin chalky white, her eyes wide open, pupils dilated and fixed, her uniform soaked in blood. Colonel Sam Marrash rushed in, and while I started IVs, he took his large hand and placed it over her chest, applying compression after compression.
Nothing but a quiet sense of helplessness. She was gone. We moved her to the rear of R&E behind the screens, and there I gently placed her arms at her side and covered her with a clean white sheet. Her gaze was gentle, not frightened like so many others. I packed her neck wound to keep the blood from staining the sheet and shattering that peaceful appearance. No more pain. No more violence. No sadness.
I found Colonel Marrash in an adjacent room, a big hulk of a man now holding his head in his blood-soaked hands, softly weeping. I put my arm around his shoulder as the tears continued to fall for what seemed like forever.
Finally I said, “Sir, we have more casualties.”
“I know. I’m OK. I’m just tired of this damned insanity. Let me wash my hands and I’ll be right out. Cover for me.”
The ensuing hustle to treat the many others seriously wounded, as well as incoming wounded from the field, helped dull the initial shock and grief over the loss of our young comrade.
By the time Sharon’s body was taken away to Graves Registration, all those serving at the 312th Evac had come by the R&E to pay their respects. Nurses were not supposed to die. Sharon Lane was the only American nurse to be killed in combat during the Vietnam War.
On the last day of my tour of duty, October 28, 1969, I boarded a C-130 at Da Nang for Cam Ranh Bay in the company of 15 body bags. Much as when I arrived, I was going home in silence.
I survived physically. I survived emotionally and spiritually. I did, however, feel guilty because I had survived and some others had not. I felt guilty because some young men died as a result of their intense injuries, and I felt guilty because some young men lived despite their disfiguring injuries. I felt guilty because I had to make life and death decisions by triage in the emergency room all the time. I felt guilty because I couldn’t always do enough. I felt guilty when the warrior returned home and no one was there to say “Welcome home.”
I kept in touch with my nurse corps friends for a while, but life goes on, and who wanted to talk about Vietnam anyway. It wasn’t until November 11, 1993, when I went to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and marched with Barb and Patti and heard men in wheelchairs shouting, “Welcome home, sister!” that I began to cry. In the sound of their voices and the warmth of their embraces, the fear that they would somehow resent our efforts to save their lives despite their disfiguring wounds was laid to rest.
In the reflection of the names of the dead on the Wall were the faces of the living. At last I was able to welcome home some of the brothers and sisters who shared the sorrow of combat with me. And I could, at last, touch the names of those who did not come home.
I searched for a few remembered names: William R. Chapman, Freddie Teal, James Person, Dale Johnson, Sharon Lane. But I could not stop crying because I couldn’t remember the names of the others. There were so many to remember and I needed to remember them all.
As two helicopters flew overhead, the thumping of their blades against the air unleashed a flood of memories and faces:
“312, this is Medic One, ETA 10 minutes, four litters, two KIA…”
Radio static and the sound of automatic weapons.
Corpsmen carrying litters from the dust-off…GI limbs dangling…Young men strangling on their own blood.
Vital signs written on foreheads and bellies…Cries of despair as young men reach down to touch limbs that are no longer there…Eyes swollen shut or open and not seeing…The sound of air leaking from chest wounds…The warm sticky feeling of blood on my hands…The Cheyne-Stoke respirations of the dying.
And the faces and their words came flooding back:
“You sure smell good, ma’am.”
“I can’t feel my leg.”
“My Annie has brown eyes too.”
“I’m so cold.”
“I’m from Buffalo, you ma’am?”
“You’re sure I’m gonna be OK?”
“I guess this is my ticket home?”
“You won’t let me die, will you?”
“Are my buddies here?”
“Don’t leave me, OK? I won’t squeeze your hand too hard.”
“Make sure my wife gets this letter.”
I don’t know how long I cried. I just remember my brother, next to me with his arm around my shoulder. “Welcome home, sis,” he said.
If people could only have experienced what it felt like to be there caring for the brave young men who were wounded and dying in Vietnam, they wouldn’t have to keep asking me why I volunteered to go. To have the privilege of whispering words of comfort into the ears of the dying, the honor of being able to hold their cold hands and to gently wipe away their tears, was a gift I will cherish forever.
After Vietnam, Sylvia Lutz-Holland worked as an intensive care nurse, and then as a school nurse while raising her family. She is now a traveling nurse, working primarily on Native American reservations. She hopes to be assigned as a traveling nurse in Australia and New Zealand before retiring. For more about Sharon Lane, see Hostile Fire by Philip Bigler.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.