To Vietnam and Back Again: A Nurse’s Tale


By Marilyn Knapp Litt ’74, © 1998
(Written for DePauw Magazine and used with their permission
and the kind permission of Judy Hartline Elbring)

Qui Nhon, An Khe, Chu Lai, Da Nang, foreign sounding names that would become as familiar in the ear as Greencastle to Judy Hartline Elbring ’64.

She had not planned on being a nurse. Elbring says she may be the only "science area major" from DePauw. Her credits in chemistry, psychology and zoology did not quite add up to a major, so DePauw created a special major for her and she graduated after three and one-half years.

Nursing school became her objective after graduation.

"I knew about the Vietnam buildup, I was interested in medicine, and I wanted to do something that was fairly fast [to complete], which was not medical school. Only the Army Nurse Corps would subsidize my education."

She enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis. "Wash U. prepared me to be an extraordinary theoretical nurse, but I did not have practical skills." Her estimation of her pre-Vietnam nurse self: "I looked like I knew what I was doing."

After she graduated, she reported to Fort Gordon in Georgia. The first day there she applied for a transfer to Vietnam. After two months of practical nursing and basic training, she was still a "novice nurse," but it was February 1967, nurses were needed and she was a second lieutenant with orders for Vietnam.

Elbring speaks of those early days at Qui Nhon with a wistfulness. "Much of the country was relatively untouched," she said.

"It was a beautiful, exquisite country," she remembers. I was the first American woman many had seen, and the Vietnamese were very, very sweet. I was invited into homes and villages and felt safe in the early days. The first two or three months didn’t feel like a war."

She spent some of her time out in the countryside, flying or driving on civilian medical missions, conducting clinics for villagers and volunteering at a leper hospital. Then, Elbring received orders to report to An Khe in the central highlands. She still worked with civilians off the base, but now it was "despite warnings," and she saw many more wounded American servicemen.

An Khe was home to the largest helicopter port in the world. Her description of the occasional shelling on the perimeter, small-arms fire and rocket attacks belies her calm tone and her assertion she felt safe.

"Helicopters made an attractive target," she said, reflecting on the hospital’s proximity to such valuable military equipment. "I sometimes thought the Red Cross meant ‘aim here’ rather than ‘don’t shoot.’"

Her next stop was a return to Qui Nhon where they needed someone to run the POW ward, she said. "I ran the prisoner ward and trained the next group of replacement staff."

Her bachelor’s degree gave her an advantage in rank. She was credited with six months toward promotion to first lieutenant, giving her seniority over most other nurses who joined at the same time, but she took naturally to the added responsibility. "It was easy for me to be a leader."

The war was intensifying in the north and Elbring was transferred to Chu Lai. During the bloody Tet Offensive of February 1968, she was head nurse on the ICU recovery unit, night supervisor of the hospital and head of triage.

The hospital staff felt the brunt of Tet. "Casualties varied from a trickle to a downpour," she remembers. "We were under assault fairly regularly. "There was no such things as working shifts. It went on for endless days and days and days. I didn’t know where they could be coming from. I didn’t know there were that many people in country."

"I hated the war and loved my job." Elbring re-upped for six months. "I spoke the language and knew my way around the country.

"I thought, ‘why end this?’ I’m needed here now. There was a hepatitis epidemic and plague."

But as sometimes happens in the military, after one month, through some error, she was sent back stateside.

Her association with the military might have ended with one tour of Vietnam, but her brother John, who was a Marine helicopter pilot, received orders for Phu Bai. She knew Marine helicopter pilots had a 50 percent casualty rate. Elbring’s three year enlistment was up the month he got orders for Vietnam.

With her seniority and rank of captain, she was able to re-enlist and specify assignment to Da Nang, as close as she could get to her brother.

Elbring’s brother was able to fly into Da Nang and visit her fairly often. Their respective commanding officers agreed that if he were injured, she would be transported to treat him.

The call came. Her brother had been on a mercy mission to extract a crew that had been shot down. His helicopter reached the position and landed but was not able to evacuate the other crew.

They stood and fought, calling in an air strike on the enemy just in front of them. A helicopter pulled them out in baskets, but Elbring’s brother was wounded in the chest during the firefight.

Another helicopter ferried her to the hospital where her brother was being treated. He had received emergency medical attention, but had not been cleaned up and still had the mud of the field on him. She performed that duty and stayed with him, sleeping on a cot by his side.

Together, they wrote a letter to their parents, their words side-by-side on the same page, to give credibility to its reassuring contents.

She remained with him until he was ready to go to the next medical facility. A Marine should have gone to a Naval hospital, but a friendly registrar altered his air evacuation tag, and he went to her hospital. From there, he eventually was sent to a hospital out of the country and did not have to return to the war. He made a full recovery.

Elbring remembers her return to the states in 1970 at the end of her tour. "I was not welcomed home, except by my family," she said. It was the weirdest thing in the world. One day you are there, and the next day you are not. I wanted to ask, ‘Don’t you know what’s going on half a world away?’ Everything seems normal, but everything’s not normal."

Leaving the service, she worked on a master’s degree at Vanderbilt University and ran its hospital medical surgical unit at night. She was not feeling fulfilled.

"I had more authority and responsibility in the military," she said. Now she spent what in her view was too much time filling out forms. She saw herself headed for "administration land," no longer touching patients.

"I wanted to be intensely involved with patients." Leaving Vanderbilt, Elbring enrolled in the Barnes School of Nursing to become a nurse anesthetist under the GI bill. She met her husband, Randy, a Vietnam veteran, there. They married in 1974.

In retrospect, she considers him a "casualty of the war – but not right away. He liked taking chances." He died in a private plane crash in the middle of the night. It was a late spring storm, and the small plane in which he was a passenger, hit a mountain. The pilot was a friend, who also liked taking chances. Elbring was six weeks pregnant at his death in 1976.

She credits the DePauw Alumnus magazine with changing her life. It was 1980, and she was lonely. "Who wants to date a widow with a little kid?," she thought.

A letter from DePauw invited her to send in an Annual Fund gift and contribute to the class notes section of Alumnus magazine.

Her response to the letter still amuses Elbring. "I sent in a carefully worded paragraph. Bill called me the day he got the magazine. We talked and talked."

‘Bill" was William K. Elbring ’64. They were sweethearts at DePauw. Now they are married and business partners in Life Partners, Inc., a successful relationship mentoring company they formed in 1989.

The company credo is: "Healing ourselves, healing relationships, healing the earth." Elbring says she has found her life’s work in helping others heal relationships, but first she had some unfinished business to do healing herself.

"Going to war changes you forever," Elbring said. "I share something with veterans you don’t have if you weren’t there. I always feel real special."

She feels privileged to have cared for the soldiers, kids really, whose average age was 19, even though she in her mid-20s, wasn’t much older.

Her tone turns rueful as she recalls these young boys: "They were full of fun and full of life until they weren’t.

"If you know they are going to die, there’s nothing you can do. You put them to the side. You can’t stop the dying."

But she was able to be there. "No one ever died alone in my hospital."

Her dying soldiers didn’t stay to the side forever, though. In the mid-’80s she realized something was wrong. "Why – when my life is so wonderful, why do I feel so bad?"

At that point women were the invisible veterans. There was a sense that nurses could cope. It was part of their job.

"In many ways we were cushioned," she said. Men in the field saw their buddies blown apart."

The sense of danger for nurses was not the same as being in the infantry, but nowhere was safe in Vietnam. There are eight women listed on the Wall. One is a nurse killed at her hospital during a rocket attack on Chu Lai.

There was also danger in witnessing the unremitting stream of young men with grievous wounds. It is only within the last 15 years that we have recognized how damaging this stress could be to the nurses who served.

Elbring was fortunate to find an outpatient discussion group for women veterans. The Women’s Combat Study Group was one of the first programs for women, and she was in the first group of participants.

It became an important foundation for subsequent treatment of veterans. In gratitude, she and the other veterans in that group, had their expenses paid to attend the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on Veteran’s Day, 1993. It was an emotional trip. Elbring cried when she saw the Wall.

"I was so sobered," she said. The sections for my tour were huge. Tet was huge. I recognized names. ..."

She took part in the parade as part of the dedication, thinking she didn’t need a parade or a ‘welcome home,’ but she found out differently. Her healing process wasn’t quite complete.

"The welcome home got to me. I didn’t know I hadn’t come home. It completed a circle."

Welcome Home Judy!

Judy Hartline Elbring and her husband, Bill, live in Penngrove, Calif., where they run Life Partners, Inc. ( Her son Scott is 21.


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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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