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“Maybe I Couldn’t Have Done That”: (Almost) Memories of Being a Nurse in Vietnam

May 5, 2009
Vietnam Women's Memorial, Washington, DC. Courtesy of Kay Schwebke.

Vietnam Women's Memorial, Washington, DC. Courtesy of Kay Schwebke.

I attended nursing school between 1967 and 1971, when the war in Vietnam was raging. I spent a good part of 1968 at the Manhattan Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, where I did much of my medical–surgical clinical rotation. Two days a week, I provided care for injured soldiers who were my own age. In the evening, I watched newscasts filled with images of freshly wounded soldiers and napalmed villagers and dutifully listened to the nightly body count, feeling not much better when “we” had fewer than “them.”

I was often moved by the quiet courage and determination of the men I saw in the beds at the VA. Some were angry, some sad, but often these feelings were kept under wraps—these were not the times where such feelings were acknowledged. They would “suck it up” and be good soldiers. They dealt with feeling in other ways: many self-medicated with liquor and other drugs.

Often they were raucous and fun-loving. They knew the nursing students they saw during the day lived across the street on the 6th and 9th floors and they would hang bed sheets with messages to us out the windows, or flick the lights on and off to say goodnight. We called them “the guys on 13,” and they were more like hurt friends than patients. I gave serious thought to enlisting in the army nurse corps when I finished school. It seemed the least I could do, and I also thought it would be a great experience.

In my senior year I met the man I would marry, and thoughts of leaving home quickly disappeared amidst the busy-ness of my first job as a Bellevue ER nurse, my first apartment, and wedding plans. When the shows MASH, and then later China Beach, were on television years later, I watched them faithfully and thought, “I could have done that.” After all, I was competent and at home in one of the country’s busiest ERs.

This month’s article by Kay Schwebke, along with the audio files of the nurses who did go to Vietnam (here’s nurse anesthetist Penny Kettlewell reading her poem “Coffee Room Soldier”), reminded me of my waylaid plans . . . but in a different way. For the first time, it occurred to me, “Maybe I couldn’t have done that.” I’m not referring to being a competent combat nurse, but rather: Could I have witnessed horrific injuries on a daily basis and returned home unscathed? Could I have assimilated the experience and then continued my life without nightmares or guilt? I know I have a few ER experiences that will always haunt me; I doubt they can even compare to what nurses in war zones recall.

This month includes National Nurses Week. I know nurses’ feelings about this week are mixed—mine are, too. Who needs trinkets and free ice cream? But we should take time somehow to openly celebrate and bring to light the incredible work nurses do. I urge you to read Kay Schwebke’s article and listen to the podcasts. It’s one small way to honor the work and contributions of our colleagues.—Maureen Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, AJN editorial director

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One comment

  1. Interesting post Shawn- I’m working toward my BSN, but am sure that I wouldn’t able to handle these types of duties in a war zone. I can’t even imagine enlisting in the military and attempting to learn everything while at the same time being worried about getting attacked!

    I don’t know how they do it!

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