There were few fathers in our neighborhood in 1944, and no uncles left at all. When they reappeared, singly and too briefly, in strange, crisp uniforms, my sister thought they'd all become mailmen. They brought gifts of helmets, toy battleships and planes, thrilling to a household of little girls, and went away again. Those who never came back became all-powerful, invisible allies in neighborhood squabbles. We worshipped them all, and ran to wave at every convoy that rumbled past the house, treasuring each answering salute. Armed with wooden guns, we played at war with the boys next door, and every little girl on the block dreamed of being a nurse when she grew up.

Twenty-four years after my own childhood, Lynda Van Devanter and her best friend Barbara Kaplan, fresh out of nursing school, joined the Army to go to Vietnam. "There were brave boys fighting and dying for democracy," Lynda thought. "And if our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again." To apprehensive friends and family, Lynda and Barbara quoted the recruiting sergeant's assurances: "Nurses don't get killed . . . They're all in rear areas. The hospitals are completely safe." A few hours before Lynda's plane descended under fire toward Saigon, 1st Lt. Sharon Lane became the first Army nurse to be killed by hostile fire in Vietnam.

"Home Before Morning" is Lynda Van Devanter's deeply moving account of her one year in Vietnam, the patriotic and religious convictions that drove her there, and the disillusionment and despair spawned by a season in hell and its shattering aftermath. More than 7,000 women served in Vietnam, 4,500 of them in the Army medical corps. Yet despite their invaluable service and courage, women veterans became forgotten statistics, silent among the 2.8 million male veterans of the war.

Confronted daily with an endless assembly line of broken bodies to patch together under the stress of rocket attacks and primitive conditions, women nurses saw the war from a perspective never shown on the evening news. Witness to the grimmest end of combat, Lynda Van Devanter articulates the collective experience of those who survived Vietnam.

One of five daughters in a comfortable, middle-class American family, Van Devanter fulfilled a childhood dream when she entered Baltimore's Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in 1965. Three grueling years later, traveling cross-country with her friend Barbara on a last fling punctuated by vehicular and financial catastrophes, Lynda anticipated their San Francisco enlistment ceremony with pride, her parents' patriotism and the noble rhetoric of John F. Kennedy echoing in her memory. She was 21 years old. Following basic training--a "joke" after the strenuous regimen at Mercy Hospital School--Lynda was sent to a "M*A*S*H-type facility" in Pleiku Province, close to the Cambodian border, an area of heavy combat and "endless" casualties.

Here, in a dusty compound of ramshackle structures known as the 71st Evacuation Hospital, Lynda Van Devanter began what became for her--as for most survivors of Vietnam--a year of no return. A young, idealistic girl from a world of Catholic schools, family vacations, baseball teams and student pranks, eager to serve her country, she landed with a flak jacket and helmet in an alien world of blood and body bags, mortar attacks and relentless, often futile surgery on young men as recently torn from childhood as herself.

In Vietnam, Van Devanter discovered, survival demanded a toughness that transcended gender. She adopted quickly the boisterous cynicism of her male colleagues, their only armor against unending weariness and carnage. In their camaraderie, rowdy parties and defiant humor, she found bleak comfort. Tenderness or grief were mortal handicaps during 72-hour stints of surgery on the maimed and dying.

From the immediacy of combat, the Vietnam veterans returned to a world where suffering and death shared equal time with aspirin and Coke ads. To their peers, they were "baby-killers," to their elders the debris of an embarrassing political mistake. They were expected to write off the most decisive experience of their lives as a bad joke and return to business as usual. Van Devanter vividly articulates for countless other Vietnam vets the lonely, decade-long battle to play the charade of "business as usual" while the war still ruled her dreams and reflexes. It was a losing battle until she encountered kindred spirits in Vietnam Veterans of America.

"Home Before Morning" is an awesome, painfully honest look at war through a woman's eyes. Her letters home and startling images of life in a combat zone--surgeons fighting to save a Vietnamese baby wounded in utero, the ever-present stench of napalm-charred flesh, a beloved priest's gentle humor and appalling death, the casual heroism of her colleagues, a Vietnamese "Papa-san" trying to talk his dead child back to life, a haunting snapshot dropped by a dying soldier with no face--tell the story of a young American's rude initiation to the best and the worst of humanity.

Her book is an eloquent guide by one "who knows dearly the cost of war," a courageous parable for restoring both our national integrity and the lost honor of military service.