U.S. Army Nurse, 1st Lieutenant
December 1966–August 1967
In Vietnam, all wounds were considered dirty. The wounds had shrapnel, lead, dirt and anything else in them. Everything was filthy. The wounded were taken from the helicopter and triaged and then on to the surgical ward. When they arrived at Post-Op II, the ward I worked in, they came straight from recovery and their wound repairs were left open—no sutures. No matter how invasive, no matter how deep the wound, no matter where it was on their body, it was open. If the wounds had been sutured or closed immediately, the dirt would have been left inside to fester or abscess. After the medical team saved them, no one was about to let them die from infection. So we used what was known as DPC, delayed primary closure.
The soldiers had open wounds for seven days, and they had to have dressing changes every two hours in most cases. On the seventh day, if there were no signs of infection, the soldier was taken back to surgery where the wounds were sutured closed.
At 23, it was very hard, physically and mentally. Looking back I am not sure how I or anyone else did it. We just put one foot in front of the other and kept on going. I kept my sanity by maintaining my focus— don’t get involved with the wound, get involved with the boy. “It’s okay. We’re taking good care of you.” Deal with the boy. They were scared. I was scared. I couldn’t cry in front of them. Stay upbeat, up, upbeat. Don’t break down until you get away from the ward.
The doctors performed the surgery, they saved the lives, and they wrote the orders for treatment that we nurses followed. They cared, but they came and went. It was we nurses who were there all the time. We changed shifts every 12 hours but they all became “our boys.” We cried with them, we wrote letters to their moms and girlfriends. We were there to be proud like sisters or moms when their commanders came in and awarded them their Purple Hearts. We are the nurturers and if left to us, there would be no wars.
The saddest part was having the soldiers that came in who told you they were almost ready to go on R&R. We had a captain admitted who had been picked up south of Saigon. His unit was under attack and the Huey medevac helicopter knew where he was; they just couldn’t get to him because of the continuing battle. They also didn’t want to miss and therefore broadcast his position to the enemy. So he lay there for over 24 hours. I think it was just a leg injury, nothing that was going to kill him. He was to leave the next week to meet his fiancée in Hawaii to get married, so we were all excited for him. That kind of thing cheered the whole ward. He was a joy—so much kidding and fun with all the guys.
Get through the seven days; go back to surgery to be sutured and then on a plane to Hawaii to meet his girl. I was working the night shift a few days later when he began to struggle to breathe. Get the doc quick. Tell him who it is. He’s special, hurry. Hang in there, Cap, we’re going to fix this. Chest compressions, we have a heartbeat, a blood pressure. Oh no, here we go again.
Five times he quit breathing, five times we coded him. We knew he was gone the fourth time. Doc was crying, I was crying, the medics were crying. Middle of the night, the ward was awake. Every boy on every cot was holding his breath. I could hear the sounds of rosary beads coming from somewhere. It’s no use; he’s gone.
One more time. Just do it one more time. For us, for the boys, for the bride who was supposed to be in Hawaii in a few days. One time I received special permission to leave Long Binh and visit Saigon. I must have thought I had on ruby red slippers. People everywhere, on bikes, scooters and little buses. Girls walking together in groups, pointing and smiling. I thought, “Hey, where is the war?”
We had only a few hours free in a place that looked untouched by destruction. As we approached the Presidential Palace, we could see a commotion a block away. It was a monk dressed in white, enveloped in flames—I saw him fall. He had set himself on fire in protest. Just a small black pile with gray smoke curls drifting upwards as we passed the corner.
To this day, it remains one of the worst experiences of my life. I was there to preserve life. I couldn’t understand someone making that kind of statement. My mind couldn’t get around it at all. It still can’t.
Interview and photography by Jeffrey Wolin from Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam War Veterans
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.