Nurses in Vietnam
The Best and Worst of Times: American Nurses in Vietnam
Paula Bailey, M.S.E.
Henderson State University
The war in Vietnam has always been a source of controversy and anger to Americans--both for the reasons it was fought, and its outcome and consequences. The nature of the guerilla warfare in Vietnam left many emotional and physical scars on its veterans. For many years after the war, American women who served as military nurses in Vietnam were ignored by their government, as well as by the ordinary citizens of the
United States. These nurses, most of whom at that time were young adults recently
graduated from nursing school, volunteered to go to care for the wounded American soldiers. The reasons they went were usually patriotic in nature, although the strength of their patriotism often failed to see them through the grueling nature of their work. These Nurses had to contend with the threat of physical danger, overwhelming casualties and mental stress, only to be ignored by their government once they returned to civilian life, especially when they tried to apply for veterans benefits.
While in Vietnam, they were generally very successful in their work. The new helicopter evacuation to various army hospitals and Navy ships achieved an unprecedented success in saving wounded soldiers. So effective were they that A less than 2% of [the] casualties treated died as a result of their wounds.” This paper seeks to reveal the lives of these nurses, who worked successfully under extreme conditions, to examine the extent to which the war affected their emotional and physical health, and to assess the often permanent damage caused by the failure of their government to provide adequate counseling or mental and physical therapies they needed to be able to have successful and meaningful lives.
A review of the secondary literature reveals that there were no studies about nurses in Vietnam until the early 1980s. There were a few newspaper articles about local veterans, but overall, nurses were ignored by scholars and government veterans programs. Jennifer Schnaier‟s master‟s thesis was the first scholarly study asking women nurses about their experiences, and then comparing them to the then current mental health research regarding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in male veterans. Her work, and the successive studies done on female Vietnam veterans, show that women nurses were highly susceptible to PTSD symptoms, problems with depression, and relationship problems. Her methodology was to get a sample of about 400 nurses from the Vietnam Veterans Association, and have them fill out an extensive questionnaire. After her work, there were several studies, including those by Kulka et. al, and Paul and O‟Neill, and Elizabeth Norman‟s Ph.D. dissertation, assessing problems women were having in the years after the war.
Books by Keith Walker and Kathryn Marshall first gave voice to the women‟s experiences by recording their interviews. Overall, the secondary literature reveals that much is still unknown about the emotional and physical problems faced by women nurse veterans, and much more research needs to be done. Most of the articles and books written about Vietnam nurses are written for professional nursing journals, or psychiatric journals, and written for the medical profession in general. There has been no historical work dedicated to these nurses.
This paper attempts to give an overall historical account of American nurses who served in Vietnam, with the hope that more research will be done to give credit to these women.