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Kim Heikkila tells the story of Minnesota's Vietnam War nurses

Kim Heikkila
Kim Heikkila

To the thousands of women who have worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, the recent Pentagon decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat isn’t life changing; ban or no ban, thousands of women have served in a wide range of roles in these wars, contributing the same efforts and taking on the same risks as men. One-hundred and fifty  have died while doing so.

This isn’t a recent development. In “Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam" (Minnesota Historical Society Press), Kim Heikkila explores the significant role women played in that war. (The book is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards.) She notes that more than 250,000 women were in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, and about 7,500 served in Vietnam. Eighty percent of them were nurses; 68 of them died.

This group played a significant role in that war zone, providing high levels of care under extremely difficult conditions. They also returned home to the same unfriendly reception male veterans famously suffered, and often with the same psychological trauma.

“It took us a while to realize even nurses were vulnerable to PTSD," Heikkila said in an interview. "They took on tremendous responsibility, suffered in much the same way and participated in the same kinds of heroic, patriotic acts other veterans did. Then they came home and felt so abused and misunderstood that many women simply never talked about their experiences, or were very cautious about talking to people about it.”

Interviewed many veterans

Word is out in veteran circles that Heikkila can be trusted to tell their stories with respect. For this book and other projects, she has interviewed numerous veterans, and her reading events are filled with veterans of many wars as well as families of veterans, looking for insights into the silences with which their loved ones came home.

In “Sisterhood of War,” Heikkila tells the stories of 15 Vietnam War nurses from Minnesota. She found that most of the nurses were young girls from modest backgrounds, often farm girls, looking for a way to serve their country and get nursing experience. Instead, they found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Young nurses took cover from military strikes and worked under fire, sometimes before they’d even set foot on Vietnam soil, attacked as their aircraft arrived in the country. They dealt with war wounds no training could have prepared them for, including chemical weapons. Nurses watched human bodies, still alive, literally come apart in their hands, and held soldiers as they died. They also healed and sent home very high percentages of veterans.

“As a result of what they saw in Vietnam, many of these nurses are very anti-war,” says Heikkila, who writes about the struggle nurses experienced healing soldiers and then sending them back into war. Some of the nurses participated in anti-war efforts when they came home, while others remaining in the military. One of the nurses she interviewed, Kay Bauer, returned to Minneapolis and continued to work as a Navy nurse recruiter. She became the target of several attacks in this country when the building she worked in and the house next door to hers were bombed. One person died in that second attack, which remains an unsolved case.

'A time of profound despair'

“There was so much drama involved in that whole era of the ’60s. It was a time of profound despair, with a terrible war, a brutal civil-rights fight, poverty and huge social upheaval in this country,” said Heikkila, who has made the ‘60s the focus of her career as a historian. She teaches courses in U.S. history, the 1960s, women’s history and the Vietnam War at St. Catherine University.

“But it was also a time of profound idealism and hope," she said. "That interplay between hope and despair is really powerful. Vietnam is a really compelling human story and that whole generation of veterans, men and women, are still working through that experience.”

Events

  • Feb. 21, 7 p.m. Grand Rapids Area Library. Grand Rapids, Minn.
  • Feb. 23, 10 a.m. Lake City Public Library, Lake City, Minn.
  • Feb. 26, 7 p.m. St. Charles Public Library, St. Charles, Minn.
  • March 21, 7 p.m. Ramsey County Library, Roseville.
  • May 2, 5:45 p.m. Lyngblomsten’s 5-5-1 Club, St. Paul

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