Greg Horton is a widely published freelance writer and an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City Community College. With a new generation of veterans struggling to deal with emotional and physical wounds from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to find meaningful work in a challenging economy, this story of a father’s 30-year nursing career after his return from the Vietnam War is particularly relevant today.
My father started us on M*A*S*H soon after his return from Korea in 1973. The Vietnam War was nearing its end, although we did not know it at the time. A combat medic during his tour of duty in Vietnam early in the war, on this most recent tour my father had been stationed in Korea for a year at a hospital that received the grievously injured. “Spaghetti and meatball surgery,” he called it.
Our family had moved to Maud, Oklahoma, in 1972 to be near my mother’s family while my dad was in Korea. The endless countryside around our small town, combined with the local dump, gave us more than enough adventures to keep our minds off the war in a country of which we knew little.
M*A*S*H, the legendary television show featuring Alan Alda as the sarcastic antihero, started the year my father left for Korea. We were not a television-watching family, as such. My mother’s Pentecostal background instilled a deep-rooted distrust for the medium, unless Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard was preaching.
However, on my father’s return, that changed. I was nine years old when he got back, so I know I wasn’t aware of the political statement Larry Gelbart, the program’s creator, was making. My father would later explain to a 12-year-old me that it was only ostensibly about Korea; really, it was about Vietnam.
Every week, the family gathered around to watch. Many of the laughs required no intricate knowledge of the military or war or medicine, but my father, whose experience as a medic in Vietnam and doing triage in Korea lent him special insight, functioned like an expert annotator, dispensing information that opened up new vistas of meaning in the politics of war, gender, sex, death, and dying.
We were used to the motions of life required of a military family: relocation orders, moving without notice, upended friendships, new schools, new housing, new temporary friends. We had suffered all of it with aplomb, so my father’s newfound cynicism about war was disturbing to our routine.
I am almost certain he decided to be a nurse in the wake of Vietnam. Discontented with the calculus by which countries go to war and horrified to the point of nightmare by what he’d seen, he looked instead for a way to heal rather than harm.
My family did not survive the 1980s intact. The diagnosis later known as PTSD was unheard of at the time, but my father had it. An attempt to view Apocalypse Now led to a near breakdown; he shouted and cried out in the middle of the night for days afterward. Except for his U.S. Army work in the hospital, he couldn’t keep any of the two dozen side jobs he attempted. His attempt to help us understand M*A*S*H was his way of trying to help us understand what it had really been like, but like any war virgins, we were dealing with abstractions, not spaghetti and meatballs.
After my parents’ divorce, my father devoured nursing school. An early pregnancy and enlistment in the Army had delayed the application of his intelligence to academic work. Once exposed to it, he thrived. He used his retirement benefits to live on—he’d completed 20 years in service—while the old G.I. Bill helped pay for his education. He retired from the military at 37, and achieved his BSN before 40.
The next step was also difficult. His experience with medicine had been limited to two milieus: U.S. Army hospitals and war. What do you choose when the choices aren’t limited to what your commander tells you you must do?
It took nearly 10 years for my father to work through the options: coronary care, intensive care, post-critical care, ER, oncology, pediatrics, OB-GYN, and every other floor available at every hospital he worked. He even worked a stint at a state mental health facility, back when such things existed. Four broken ribs and a superstitious fear of full moon night pushed him out of mental health care, but that’s another story.
Serendipitously, he found his niche. He was scheduled to work a shift on a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1987. I was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma at the time, following my stint in the United States Air Force—he’d threatened an “ass-kicking” if I joined the Army. My father had secured me employment on the hospital switchboard at the same hospital to help pay for school.
He worked his shift, which, as I recall, was to help a friend who needed off. While on the floor, he discovered that many of the patients were military veterans. Their experience had driven them to abuse alcohol, cocaine, heroin, pills, as well as other types of escapism. Alway a nurturer, my father found in those men and women the opportunity to apply an ancient principle—redemption, to bring something good and whole out of something ugly and broken.
From then on, my father never worked another unit. He was a drug and alcohol rehab nurse until he retired 25 years later.