NURSES IN VIETNAM
The Forgotten Veterans Edited by Dan Freedman
And Jacqueline Rhoads
Texas Monthly Press. 164 pp. $16.95 IN THE COMBAT ZONE
An Oral History of American Women In Vietnam, 1966-1975 By Kathryn Marshall
Little, Brown. 320 pp. $17.95
THE NAMES of eight nurses appear on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. But until recently, their stories -- and the stories of the thousands of women who served in Vietnam during the war years -- have been subsumed in the larger waves of anger, confusion and sorrow that flow from the stories of the men who served there. "Women who have served in the military have historically been ignored," wrote Myra MacPherson in her seminal study of the war and its effects, Long Time Passing.
Two recently published books attempt to add the voices of women to the fractured litany of Vietnam experiences that we finally seem to be accepting as part of our history. Nurses in Vietnam: The Forgotten Veterans, edited by journalist Dan Freedman and former Army nurse Jacqueline Rhoads, focuses on the experience of Army nurses, while novelist Kathryn Marshall's In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam, includes a broad spectrum of women, including intelligence officers, journalists and Red Cross volunteers.
The authors of both books have chosen to let the women tell their own stories. And in both books, the words seem to flow in a torrent of long-suppressed emotion. As Kathryn Marshall observes, "The need to talk was perhaps the single overwhelming need of the men and women who had gone to the Vietnam war." And in Marshall's case, the need to listen was just as compelling. One of the "haunted generation" who had been affected psychologically by the war even though she had not served there, Marshall felt a need, as she expresses it, to make sense of the war's "nightmare geometry," which "overwhelmed and undermined everything."
Even now, however, few of the women chosen to tell their stories have been able to make sense of their Vietnam experiences. Unlike most male veterans, many of them had actually volunteered for Vietnam -- some for adventure, some to play Florence Nightingale, some to serve as peacemakers. Many came from conservative religious backgrounds that included a respect for God, country and authority. But as they tell it, most arrived in Vietnam totally unprepared.
They stumbled, literally, into war, deplaning in high heels and idealism. As Jacqueline Rhoads describes it, "So here I am with my dress uniform, stockings, shoes, and skirt, and suddenly I'm lying down on a cement pavement at Tan Son Nhut wondering, 'My God, what did I get myself into?' "
THEY WERE unprepared for the heat, the smells, the noise, the danger. And least of all, for the horror. In the Vietnam War, both sides used methods designed to inflict maximum injuries -- napalm, landmines, "antipersonnel" bombs. And improved medical evacution techniques resulted in the survival -- at least temporarily -- of soldiers with extraordinarily gruesome wounds. One nurse interviewed by Marshall tells of new terms devised by nurses to deal with these horrors. "We used to call them horribleectomies and horridzomas," says the nurse.
Somehow, the women managed to cope -- with the wounds, with the absurdities, with the bombings, with the drug addictions. Some began to drink heavily, but most simply anesthetized their feelings. Most came to question the conduct and the meaning of the war. A few came to hate the Vietnamese. "Before long I started thinking of them as gooks," says one nurse. But others came to see the terrible damage inflicted on the country and its people by the war.
Julie Forsythe, a Quaker interviewed by Marshall who worked with a civilian rehabilitation project, describes the destruction of a verdant country and an entire way of life: "The U.S. came in with bulldozers and plowed down the hedgerows, right through the irrigation system. We messed up the fields and left Agent Orange in the hills, so every spring there were floods. . . . You can't wreck an environment the way we did and not leave a lot of nasty footprints. . . . Yeah, it used to be a beautiful country."
Perhaps the worst shock of all, however, was returning home. Like the male veterans, the women were out of sync, out of place. Their experience in Vietnam had taught them to become independent and resourceful; for some, it was their finest hour. Says one nurse, "Like you say you had your moment of greatness, and it comes and goes and you don't even know it happened." But in America, they had to return to ordinary roles and to rigid hierarchies. And like male veterans, they suffered severe flashbacks. As one one nurse puts it, "Nam never goes away; I don't know what to do with it."
Books like these undoubtedly will help in the healing. But as one nurse observes, there are larger lessons to be learned. "I think the only way we're ever going to have peace," she says, "is if we can recognize our shadow side."
Carol Flake is the author of "Redemptorama: Culture, Politics, and the New Evangelicalism" and the recently published "Tarnished Crown."