Vietnam-era nurses remember their patients as Wall monument marks 25th anniversary
About 265,000 women served during the Vietnam War -- all volunteers. Eighty-five percent were nurses. Many of them still struggle with the pain and tragedy they witnessed.
For these nurses, The Wall -- the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., that is 25 years old this week -- brings back memories of the men they cared for and comforted. And it helps them to heal.
Tears for the first time
Diane Carlson Evans, originally from Buffalo, Minn., joined the U.S. Army as a student nurse and volunteered to go to Vietnam, arriving there in August 1968. It was not until 14 years later that she cried for the first time about Vietnam -- at the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial, where she found the name of Eddie Lee Evenson engraved on the V-shaped monument.
Eddie was from Minnesota, and Evans, now living in Montana, cared for him at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau. While his wounds healed, he followed her around the surgical ward, "What can I help you with, ma'am? What can I do?" After recovering from his injuries, he returned to the field and was killed.
Evans went on to become founder and chairwoman of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, dedicated in 1993 on the National Mall.
A way to reconnect
For nurse Suzanne Constantini, who now works at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul, it was 21-year-old Steven, from Iowa. Despite extensive injuries, she was certain he would live. But three days after telling Suzanne he was afraid he would drown in his own blood, a major artery to his head and neck ruptured. She remembers his pleading look as he died. It was the only name she remembered and looked for when she visited The Wall years later. And when she found his name, she felt the sense of reconnection she needed.
Lynn Bower, who worked as an emergency room nurse at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, promised to remember the patients she treated. She felt comforted by The Wall. "There are their names," said Bower, of Andover. "I don't have to remember them anymore because we finally did it as a nation."
The dedication of The Wall in 1982 allowed Americans to finally see Vietnam veterans for the heroes they were and the losses they suffered, Evans said. The nurses, who coped with death and devastating injuries, saved lives and provided comfort.
Caring in combat conditions
Nursing in combat conditions takes an emotional toll beyond being under fire, said Margaret Carson, who has a doctorate in nursing and has studied post-traumatic stress disorder in women nurses who served in Vietnam. Even though many were under personal attack during the war, memories about taking care of patients were typically the most traumatic memories for nurses, said Carson, of the St. Anselm Department of Nursing in Manchester, N.H.
Bower recalls a young man brought into the emergency room on a stretcher at Long Binh. Although she was good at starting intravenous lines, she struggled with his. The top sergeant told her the young man was dead. He looked fine, until he was rolled over. "And from his shoulder down, it was like somebody had scooped him out," Bower said. "He was 19. He was younger than I was."
St. Paul native Valerie Buchan, the emergency room head nurse at the12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi, remembers a young man with severe chest wounds. He died despite extensive efforts to save him. When she picked up his identification card, she realized it was his 21st birthday. After that, she never looked at another identification card.
Penny Kettlewell, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, remembers the "expectant ones," those expected to die who were placed at the end of the line. She would sit with them, whenever she could. "They would pull pictures out of their pockets or out of their hats and tell you about their mother, their sister, their girlfriend," said Kettlewell, a longtime Minnesota nurse who now lives in Antigo, Wis. "They all had pictures."
58,256 names being read
On Saturday (Nov. 10), the Vietnam Veterans of America is sponsoring a 25th anniversary parade celebrating the dedication of The Wall, on the National Mall.
The Reading of the Names, hosted by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, began Wednesday. The names of 58,256 service members inscribed on The Wall are being read for 65 hours, over a four-day period, by approximately 2,000 volunteers. This event has occurred three other times in The Wall's history.
Kay Schwebke is a physician and a health journalism graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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