Vietnam Nurses:
These Are the Women Who Went to War

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NAM VET Newsletter, Page 60, Volume 4, Number 1, January 7, 1990
by Myra Macpherson
In: LONG TIME PASSING VIETNAM AND THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Input by: G. Joseph Peck

(1984 Note: Myra MacPherson has written for the late Washington "Star" and the New York "Times." She is now a political correspondent for the style section of the Washington "Post" and author of "The Power Lovers" (Putnam's).)

The Stars and Stripes office, not far from the United States Capitol, was a sweat house of camaraderie on a rainy night in November, 1982. Finally, a long decade after Vietnam veterans came home, there was a national reunion. The media, from across the country and around the world, recorded a week of tears and laughter among former comrades in arms; men in fatigues and ponytails mingling with those in three-piece suits. THE STARS AND STRIPES, the national veterans' newspaper, was throwing one of the best parties. Sixties rock and country music blared in the cavernous old warehouse. The line was six deep at beer kegs. A crowd stood outside, unmindful of misting rains, telling war stories into the night.

Saralee McGoran came to the reunion. She was looking for men she did not know. She knew no faces. She knew no names. She never did. They came and went too fast through the "meat factory" when she was on duty as an operating nurse in an evacuation hospital. But they had haunted her for years. And so she went to the Sheraton Hotel reunion suite of the Army 25th Division and wrote her name in their book: Saralee McGoran, nurse, 12th eva, Cu Chi.

She was trying to complete the circle.

She starts to tell her Vietnam story. "If I can get through it." McGoran is a tiny, intense woman with curly graying hair, barely five feet two, who was 26 when she went to Vietnam. The horrors of booby-trap wounds are recalled. "A lot of times they would come in with nothing from here down," McGoran says, touching herself in mid-pelvis, above the crotch.

"The doctors and nurses would just cry and look at each other. We didn't know whether to work on them or not. I couldn't bear to look at their faces. One guy couldn't have been more than 17. He had red hair... he was just blown apart. We were putting guys back together the best we could.

"About three or four days later, I walked into this long Quonset hut and I saw this stretcher and a white sheet. All I could see under the sheet was this little bump. I walked close enough -- to see the red hair. He would LIVE." A little bump under a white sheet. She was plagued by a terrible, impotent rage and helplessness many nurses felt in a war that had so perfected its medevac operations that the bloodiest no longer died on the field of battle. They were brought to the operating table only to survive with a half life or to die crying for the assurance that they would live. There were more amputees from Vietnam than any other war; Max Cleland, President Carter's Veterans Administration chief, who lost both legs and one arm, has said, "If I had been in World War II, I'd have died." Some amputees, like Cleland, learned eventually to find joy in being alive, but nurses, caught in the endless stream of mangled and severed bodies in an evacuation hospital, were never to know their fate. For years, McGoran was plagued with thoughts of what happened to that 17-year-old. Whether he was one of the many disabled veteran suicides. There was the terrible uncertainty of whether they should have left him to die.

She admits to being in "some kind of shock" when she arrived in the States in January of 1968. "I hardly remember how I cam back." Like so many Vietnam returnees, McGoran felt an alien displacement, like the medic who once told me he somehow felt "safer" in Vietnam than at home. "I felt totally alone," continues McGoran. "Everything was a blank. I'd been home a day and a half in Los Angeles when a siren sounded and I went right to the bottom of the car. We had been shelled a lot."

McGoran returned to college in California for her bachelor's degree. Hers is the universal story of veterans in college who were made to feel outcasts. "I was the ENEMY. I didn't tell ANYONE I was a Vietnam veteran."

But her mind would not leave Vietnam. "I went to two therapists and neither was able to help me. About that time I had my flashback. One day on the freeway, I saw an Army truck in front of me. I locked in, and I 'saw' bleeding bodies. I almost crashed.

There was a recurring nightmare. "In my dream there was a hospital on one side - and a nightclub on the other. All these beds, just FULL of bodies, five or six in a bed, and they all had these bleeding eyes. You know how eyes bleed in death? And on the other side - everyone was partying. And that's how it WAS. Every day, there would be broken bodies and pain - and on the other hand the way we coped, not to FEEL, was to drink beer and have a party." It was echoes of "M*A*S*H." "I did it so well, I cut off all my feelings."

A year later, in college, "I couldn't relate to the guys burning draft cards. COULDN'T RELATE TO ANOTHER WOMAN ON CAMPUS. All they wanted were short little answers. I couldn't give the short answers. I feel they may have been the smart ones. They saw what we couldn't see."

Perhaps it was inevitable, but McGoran married a Vietnam veteran. They have two children, and both have eye problems. Like many Vietnam veteran parents, when there are abnormalities in their children and no family history of problems, there is always that wonder. "At first I never thought of Agent Orange - but they were spraying it where I was."

McGoran's salvation from her deep depression and crying spells was a women veterans' rap group. "I was afraid to go, but glad later. We told our stories - it help me understand."

And finally, McGoran was at the Vietnam veterans' reunion for another bit of understanding, another bit of closure on life that was Vietnam. "I HAD to know what the men felt about what we did."

"In the Twenty-fifth Division reunion suite everyone was coming up and saying thank you. FOR FOURTEEN YEARS, I NEEDED TO KNOW THAT. I went to the memorial today and all I could do was go from panel to panel and cry for the ones I didn't know. I never knew their names."

A veteran came up. "I got hit hard by a mortar round in '67. A little nurse, she held my hand and cried all the way to the O.R. with me. Kept saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' I know she saved my life. A swell bunch of gals. They did a better job than anybody. Worked twice as hard as the doctors.."

McGoran interjects: "The doctors were drafted. Didn't want to be there. We volunteered." Why? "I was single, there was a war and American boys were in it, and they needed American nurses."

The veteran can't stop praising "the girls." He has his hand on her shoulder. "They were shelled and everything. A little girl, no bigger than you are, pulled me out of bed during mortar rounds, so I wouldn't get hurt."

The hulking veteran leans down. The circle was slowly being closed. "Thanks a lot, little lady." He gives her a hug, and they rock back and forth, holding on to each other, holding on to a memory, lost in a time and place of long ago.

Lynda Van Devanter tells her story with the flair of an actress now. Since 1980, when she became a national VA spokeswoman for Vietnam women veterans, Van Devanter has told it on television shows and in Congressional hearings and for journalists. To those who have heard it often, there is a staginess to the tremble, the tears, the melodramatic catch in her voice. And yet for years it was not this way. Buried deeply, locked away were her memories of Vietnam. From 1969 to 1970, Van Devanter was an operating room nurse in Pleiku. Years later, she sought psychiatric help. She never dreamed of mentioning Vietnam as any cause of emotional problems. That, she thought, would be "overdramatizing. Vietnam was years ago. It must just be me." Today, she recalls that in those "closet veteran" years, "I had a recurring nightmare that scared the absolute sh*t out of me. There are tons and tons of black, napalm-burned skin about to crash down on me. The dream always starts with this 'plop, plop, plop,' and I always think it is rain. And then I look up and everything over me is covered with black, bloody, STINKING - I can still smell it - burned flesh. And it's all coming down and I think I'm going to drown in it. I would wake up screaming and realized I'd better get into
therapy real fast - but I'd sure better not tell him about THIS because he might think I'm crazy, might commit me."

Her real stories were hardly different from the nightmares.  "Napalm burn just reeks - REEKS. If you try to brush napalm off, it continues to roll down, it just oozes fire along the skin. Burning-flesh smells are so beyond description. Add to that the smell of napalm, a petroleum distillate, AND the infection, which happens with really bad burns, the infection gives off a very distinct odor, a little bit like a sewer. The combination of these three smells you will NEVER EVER lose the memory of."

Another memory, so a part of Van Devanter now that it is told by rote, in present tense, is the death of one young man. "It is the largest trail of blood leading to the table that I have ever seen.  I slip in it because my eyes are drawn to the gurney. As they move him to the operating table, I watch in horror as the lower portion of his jaw, teeth exposed, dangles from what is left of his face." She chokes. "I have to catch myself to keep from getting sick. He is drowning in blood. I grab a tray of instruments. For the sake of speed, we perform the tracheotomy without donning gloves.... The surgeon grabs instruments from the tray to clamp off the largest bleeders in the face and jaw. The soldier is bleeding so fact that it is necessary to start four large needles in his leg, neck, and both arms and pump blood into all of them simultaneously." For several hours Van Devanter does this, moving around the body, continuously pumping blood into those four large needles. "During one of my circuits around the table, I kick his clothes to one side, to get them out of the way, and a snapshot falls out of the pocket of his fatigues." It is a picture of the soldier and his girl - dressed for a prom. He is straight, blond, and tall in his tuxedo. She has shining dark hair and is wearing a long pastel gown. The tears come to Van Devanter again. "Love for him shines in her eyes."

For months, Van Devanter had tried to feel as little as possible. "There had been that veneer of unreality. Suddenly, now, he was REAL to me.

"Finally, after six hours of surgery, the surgeon decided it was hopeless. He packed his head in pressure dressings and sent him to the post-op intensive care unit to die. After making the room ready for the next casualty, I walked over to post-op ICU to see him. His bandages had become saturated with blood several times over, and the nurses reinforced them with more rolls of bandages, and now his head was grotesquely large under the swath of white."  Still, the red stains seeped through. Van Devanter held his hand and asked if he was in pain. He squeezed her hand weakly. Van Devanter called for pain medication. "I held his hand until the life just literally drained out of him. He literally bled to death..."

Van Devanter's quest today is to find the thousands of nurses who came back from Vietnam with their own troubled memories, only to receive the same hostility and indifference she and many others found. These women are truly the forgotten Vietnam veterans nobody knows.

And, like male veterans, they have diverse feelings about the war. Last year Van Devanter wrote the first account of the war by a woman veteran, HOME BEFORE MORNING (Warner). The autobiography sparked an emotional debate among nurses who said she exaggerated and distorted conditions to bolster her antimilitary political views.

But her descriptions of Vietnam are substantiated by other women veterans, and one reader, William Baffa, wrote a letter representative of most. "I read with horror the article about the young soldier who bled to death of head wounds... the tiny children with arms and legs blown off... the pregnant woman and her child who entered the world with a gunshot wound in his belly.

IT RUINED MY DAY! My hope is that it ruined the day for many readers... Can anything short of ridding our civilization of the periodical insanity of war really honor the sacrifices that countless millions have made to do what remains a "to-be-continued" cause? How long can we continue to demand this devastating sacrifice of the young and innocent?"

"What haunts me," says Van Devanter, "is that nobody knows of the contribution of these women. The major legacy study of Vietnam veterans does not include ONE woman. The mother of the boy who lost his face has no idea that somebody was standing and holding her son's hand. Even the ones who were triaged out, the 'expectant ones,' were not just shunted over to a corner.  Somebody would always go and take their hand and speak to them quietly, just in case they COULD hear. The people of this country have no concept of that. Their sons might have died in vain for a cause that was horrendous - but they didn't die alone."

One of the few research papers on Vietnam nurses is sobering. Eighty-nine Vietnam veteran nurses were asked to complete an exhaustive survey in 1982. An astounding 97 percent complied. Approximately one third of post-traumatic stress symptoms were identified by 25 percent or more of them as PRESENTLY occurring between 10 and 30 times a month. Some 27.6 percent reported having suicidal thoughts between one and nine times a month; 19.2 percent reported feeling depressed between 15 and 30 times a month; 16.1 percent reported feeling an inability to be close to someone they care about between 15 to 30 times a month. And 70 percent of those who reported having experienced stress symptoms stated that those symptoms are still present today.

So little is known about the nurses of Vietnam that there are not even accurate statistics on how many were there. Official guesstimates ranges anywhere from 7,500 to 55,000. So it is not surprising that as vets they often feel invisible. "Although animal studies show that females are more susceptible to the reproductive side effects of dioxin, not one female has been included in Agent Orange studies," says Van Devanter." (In February (1984), Congressman March Kaptur (D-Ohio) was joined by more than 100 members of Congress in urging the Veterans Administration to include female Vietnam veterans in Centers for Disease Control epidemiological studies on the effects of Agent Orange on humans. The group also called on the VA to conduct a birth-defect study with the children of women Vietnam veterans. Congresswoman Kaptur is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. --Editors of Ma.) In each town I visited I've made a point of calling the VA hospital and stating clearly that I am a service-connected veteran of Vietnam and I require gynecological care. I was told by nearly every location that they did not have a gyn clinic or a gyn physician." The response of the VA is that since women comprise such a small number of veterans it would not be feasible to provide such services - but that the women were entitled to receive government paid service with a private gynecologist. Yet, Van Devanter claims, "in no case save one was I told that I was entitled to receive that care by contract service with a private physician - and that was only because I pushed it."

That was in 1981. Two years later, in March, 1983, for the first time there was finally a General Accounting Office report and a Congressional hearing that indicted the VA for its lack of services and outreach for women.

Countless nurses did not know they had been entitled to GI education benefits. Unfortunately for most, the 10-year time period for qualification after leaving the service had expired.

Van Devanter and other Vietnam nurses still bristle at the image of nurses in Vietnam. "To many in the States, I was either a lesbian or a hooker. The 'did you have a good time, honey?' sneers."

Later, Van Devanter found out that even World War II nurses had experienced similar reactions. World War II movies portrayed them as bravely waiting for their gallant lovers to return, with intermittent forays to the operating table. Or they were given saintly roles - epitomized in one movie where Veronica Lake walks towards a nest of hated Japs, a grenade inside her blouse, a sacrificial kamikaze blond beauty would save the rest of the hospital.

In actuality, World War II's massive mobilization brought 350,000 women into the service as well as many others who served in quasi-military support units such as the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) whose 800 women pilots ferried war planes around the world. Women drove trucks, changed tires, repaired planes, rigged parachutes, were gunnery instructors, air traffic controllers, naval air navigators, and nurses. The first Women's Army Corps (WAC) unit landed in Normandy 38 days after D-day. And 65 women were taken captive as POWs on Corregidor. Nurses were on
the beachhead at Anzio.

Studies of World War II women in service showed that they developed psychological disorders less frequently than men, their venereal rate was negligible, and their disciplinary rates were much lower.

During Korea, and then again, during Vietnam, the unpopularity of the wars brought far fewer women into the military.

In all wars, women have been killed, maimed, disabled, and injured psychologically. No Vietnam nurses argue that they have a corner on this. However, Vietnam had its special characteristics.
Nurses often suffered a more severe emotional mauling than soldiers who had respites from combat. They saw waves of the mutilated fresh from the battlefield, who in previous wars would never have been saved that long.

Many nurses tended to overinvest emotionally in their patients, even when their chances of living were poor. One, who worked in hospitals in Da Nang and Long Binh, recalls that on a 7 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift, two nurses and two medics would take care of 78 men. Exhaustion and trying to build a wall around their emotions led to deep depressions for many.

"People don't want to hear about the blood and guts," said Cissy Shellabarger,   [poem to Cissy] "but that's all I know about. The grief. It was the first time I've ever been that frightened." In the emergency room of an evacuation hospital in Cu Chi she worked around the clock during the Tet Offensive of 1968. [ Cissy if you read this.]

Many Vietnam nurses still recall how affected they were by working on men so young, in this teenage war, where the average age was 19.

"I've never seen so many wounded in my life. It reminded me of that scene in 'Gone with the Wind' where all the wounded are lined up for miles around the railroad station," says Shellabarger.  "And the rumors were so bad - that Saigon had fallen, things like that... Not knowing the truth was the worst."

There are eight nurses' names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but that small number of dead does not represent the daily fear of death or injury. There were no front lines and few rear areas. Although the antiwar movement made much of American pilots bombing North Vietnam hospitals, enemy mortar rocket attacks on U.S. hospitals were by and large overlooked in the States and formed no part of antiwar rhetoric. For nurses, mortar attacks meant the nightmare of trying to get the wounded under cots, of working in horrifying condition, of not knowing if they would be hit.

"Oftentimes, they would bomb the hospitals intentionally," said Van Devanter, "trying to kill a high-ranking POW who had been taken, who was injured and in the hospital. You knew if you had
any officer in the North Vietnamese Army over the rank of major, you could COUNT on rocket attacks all night long."

Many of the women went because they believed in their government, believed in a Florence Nightingale role, or for adventure, for the sense of helping. Many seem to have been Roman Catholics trained to believe in authority. "If our government said we were helping to stop Communism," said one, "who were we to question?" Many returned pacifists, others upheld the view that the war was right but that the toll was terrible. A rather typical reaction was that of a nurse who cannot recall whether she was for or against the war when she went. "I just wanted to go and nurse." After her second day in the emergency room "you look at one more of those boys and you knew we were in the wrong place."

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My Vietnam Related Websites:
button Women in Vietnam ~ Read about ALL the women who served . . .
The Irish on the Wall ~ An effort to locate the Irish who died in Vietnam
button Tim O'Brien's Home Page ~ National Book Award Winner and Americal Vet

button Emily's Poetry ~ By a Red Cross Donut Dolly
button Shrapnel in the Heart ~ The most moving book you will read on Vietnam
button All About Vietnam    ~ An annotated bibliography of books about Vietnam for sale thru Amazon Worldwide!
button Battle Dressing ~
button Project Hearts and Minds ~ Help put Viet Nam back together
button Photos from a Holts' Military History Tour ~ My trip to Vietnam, February 1998

My Other Websites:
Maybe Later . . . ~ My Creative Nonfiction
Irish in Korea ~ Irish men and women who gave their lives in the Korean War
Literature of the Korean War ~ Don't let the literature be forgotten
Samuel Pepys ~ One of my favorite authors
Chicago Theatre Z - A ~ This is the best theater town in the country!
Soccer Literature ~ I'm a fan and I read
O'Leary Lantern ~ Fire! Fire! Fire!
Gil Thorp ~ THE Coach (apologies to The General!)
Poetry of the First World War ~ Owen, Hardy and others
Chi-COW-go ~ Cowz plus Commentary (this used to be a cow town)
Graham Fulton, Scottish Poet ~ Charles Manson Auditions for the Monkees

Other Important Websites:
The Truth About Caroline ~ a  really good Young Adult book by my niece, Stacey
M. Lane Grosh
Remember Oklahoma City
The Civil Service and Military will NEVER forget!

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