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Vietnam War nurse: ‘I saw people do stuff they’d never do at home’

Edie Meeks, a former Army nurse, is one of 10,000 women that served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  When Diane Carlson Evans, her former hoochmate, asked her to join a campaign for a memorial for female Vietnam vets, Meeks was at first hesitant but joined the cause and later became a Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation board member.

Why did you enlist as an Army Nurse?

I have two younger brothers. One was in the Marine Corps and one was draftable age. I figured someone who wanted to be over there should take care of them, so I volunteered to be in the Army Nurse Corps, as did all the nurses in Vietnam.

How did you feel about being there?

I ended up in the ECU in Saigon in July 1968. It was like a year out of time. I came from Minneapolis where it’s green, there were cows and people talked to each other and went to church. Vietnam was an intense 24 hours a day. You had to shut your emotions down anyway. There were so many traumatic things that happened. I hadn’t seen a movie in a long time when I finally saw “Apocalypse Now.” It wasn’t what happened in the movie but the feeling that it gave. … That intense insanity felt like Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola nailed it. I saw people do stuff they’d never do at home. It wasn’t the real world.

What was your relationship like with other women?

If a nurse finished her tour, another nurse went in. We had to regenerate a whole new relationship. My Saigon roommate Judy Harrington and I were very close. She worked in ECU. Before she went home, I went to Pleiku. The day I arrived there was the day Diane arrived. Diane and I kept each other sane. Being from Minnesota was a big tie because we have the same thought process and morals. We became very close and could talk about anything.

How did you deal with the politics of the Vietnam War while you were still in service?

We would get North Vietnamese prisoners in Saigon. We had to stabilize them to be interrogated. I had to stop myself, you are not the judge and jury. You are a nurse and you’ve taken an oath. That is who you’re going to be no matter who the patient is. It was hard because at the time, I was so angry at the Army for what it was doing to its own people. They wouldn’t let them win. The Viet Cong had no rules at all and yet our guys had rules about where they could and couldn’t go. Soldiers who came in were so frustrated by that. I expected the Army to value them and not just use them up. That was a tough thing for me when I got home because I felt our government wasn’t taking care of us.

How did you reenter civilian life?

When I got out of Vietnam in July 1969, it was the height of the anti-war movement and we were told to take our uniforms off immediately because we would not get a good reception. I was so disgusted with our government and the army for what they were doing. I went to the ladies room, took off my uniform and I threw it away. I came back a different person and everyone expected me to be the same. I expected to be the same and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t.

When did you first hear about Diane’s idea to make a memorial dedicated to women?

I got a call from Diane. She said, you know, I think we need a Women’s Memorial. I’m organizing and how would you like to be the East Coast person? I told Diane, I don’t know how you can talk about this. I literally cannot speak about it. Every once in a while, she’d call and I’d tell her, Diane, I just can’t. I thought that if I looked at a memorial, I’d start crying and I’d never stop.

What was the turning point for you?

In 1992, my daughter was at Mount Holyoke College. She was taking a class on 1960s American history and her professor told her class, “You women will never know what it’s like to be in war.” My daughter was horrified and asked her professor if I could come and speak. I stood up in front  of her class and my daughter introduced me: “This is my mother, Edie Meeks. She was an Army nurse in Vietnam. I’m so proud of her.”

It was the first time anyone had said that of me about Vietnam. I told them that I didn’t know the history of the war but I could tell them what it felt like to be there, as a woman. A bunch of women came up afterwards and the last told me she would have welcomed me home. Because my generation is still conflicted about that war, I think it took the next generation to truly welcome us home. I went back to my room and called Diane. It took 23 years for us to finally talk about it together.

How have you supported Diane since?

The interviews helped a little bit. I decided I would go down on Veterans Day to see Diane. I got more at ease with it. Diane had been given a rough time by some people against the memorial. I told her I would come every Memorial Day and every Veterans Day to watch her back. If you’re alone, I told her, come to me and I’ll set your head straight about how great you are. She said she needed me on the board and so every Memorial and Veterans Day, I go down.

What was it like seeing the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in person?

The difference between that feeling and how I felt at the memorial dedication was 100 percent turnaround. The corpsmen came out with flags and the band and I stood up and I thought for the first time since Vietnam, I can say that I’m proud that I was an Army nurse. I still didn’t like what had happened and how it had happened but I was proud of my service. I participated in life instead of complaining about it.

How have other veterans responded to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial?

I can remember this one fellow who had never been to D.C. He was a Vietnam vet who had come to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial first. The other one might be too difficult, he said. But I feel safe here. I met another vet who went through Bridgefield Hospital in Saigon around the time I was there. This vet had returned, has a family of three daughters and started his own business. It’s good for him obviously and it’s good for us to see what happened to our boys.

The first year, I saw a note on the bulletin board for the event. It said, “Edie, if you’re here, here’s my room number. It’s Judy.” We’d been roommates and best friends but I had totally forgotten her name, which was not abnormal. We reunited for the first time since Vietnam.

What has living with PTSD been like for you?

From what I observed, the women shut down when they came home and dispersed. Once when I was working at a hospital in the U.S., a patient asked me what Vietnam was like. I turned around and left. No sound bite could tell him what it was like. I went to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for help and I found out I was living half a life emotionally. In being with all these women who served, I felt like I was with family that spoke the same language, a family that I didn’t have to explain anything to.

Can you tell me about a challenge you’ve dealt with post-Vietnam?

This is a big, big thing for me. Six years ago, Diane and I were asked to speak at Massachusetts General Hospital. We were out for dinner the night before. We were talking about things that had happened to us in Vietnam and I suddenly recalled being raped while I was there. My psychiatrist later told me it wasn’t uncommon to suppress your memories and forget. I was in shock when it bubbled out of my mouth and the memories came back. But Diane had understood. You couldn’t tell your commanding officer. It was Diane who talked me down and gave me purpose. I’m used to having my act together from day one. But your mind protects you from things you can’t deal with.

I’m so sorry you had to experience that. Is there anything you want to share?

The perpetrator was an Air Force pilot. At that time, pilots were gods. Somebody had set me up for a date. I thought we would just go out and have fun. We went and ate on the local economy, which I knew nothing about. I was pretty new to Vietnam then and when I got back to where I was staying … I was so upset. The next day, I was in the hospital for food poisoning. He visited me and brought flowers. I thought it was so bizarre. He probably didn’t even know he had done anything wrong.

Has remembering that changed how you feel about your service?

I think in remembering that, it explains my fear of talking about Vietnam. I must have been afraid that it would come out. Since I remembered and talked about it with my psychiatrist. I’m more free. When I feel down, I call my kids. When you hold it in and you only have yourself to depend on, that’s when you despair.

Has the Department of Veteran’s Affairs been helpful to you?

When I first felt the need to go someplace, Diane had said go to a vet center. Vet centers are funded but not run by the government. It was started by Vietnam vets so that vets would feel safe. I’ve talked to different psychologists and psychiatrists but when the rape came out, I started going to a specialist who deals with those issues.

I’ve had wonderful care from the Hudson Valley vet center but they vary from area to area depending on who the management is. It’s been an adventure. But every woman that I know said that they would do it in a heartbeat. Including me, even though it changed my life 100 percent.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read an interview with Diane Carlson Evans: “We weren’t shrinking violets.”