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The Ghosts Are Still There
By John Crandell (reviewer)
Vietnam War Nurses at the Ready: Seventeen Personal Accounts
edited by Patricia Rushton, RN
A decade later comes a second volume of personal witness to human costs of warfare, edited (once more) by Barbara Rushton, a retired professor of nursing and a veteran of both Vietnam and Desert Storm. She only edited her publication and did not give witness to her service within this volume, having authored a piece in her first publication: Gulf War Nurses, Personal Accounts of 14 Americans, 2010.
There is no haunting in these seventeen sketches, no ghosts— as there are in the stunning 365 Days published half a century ago by Doctor Ronald Glasser. Yet, as we all know, ghosts will always remain — until the last of us is gone. A maquette of the projected women's memorial was on display at The Wall during the 1991 Veteran's Day ceremony. Emotion was on many faces gathered around the sculpture, forming three nurses attending to a soldier wounded from combat. The completed memorial was dedicated two years later, and one still wonders—the service of medics under combat—in reflection, has their devotion been taken for granted?
Most of the stories are given by members of the Naval Nursing Corps describing service in Europe, stateside, in the Philippines or Japan, directly below the Marble Mountains near Da Nang, and aboard hospital ships along coastal South Vietnam. Those with far greater resonance are recollections of the latter. Drama abounds aboard either the USS Repose or the USS Sanctuary as nursing personnel became mothers and sisters to those in agony, despite protective mechanisms employed—to quote one writer: "You know how there's a curtain that goes up in your life." Casualties during Tet were so high that she wouldn't learn that US forces had prevailed until years later. Another writer feared seeing a young man die and declared the wrong code. Things immediately got put into perspective when she was confronted with, "The only thing we can give this guy now is a good death." There is the jangle of chains at night with men in traction trying for a comfortable position for sleeping. Pseudoma bacteria rented the air in trauma wards until new medicines were developed. Senior corpsmen were taught to debride wounds to supplement when surgeons were hard pressed. One doctor yelled, "Why does everything have to be multiple trauma?"
Dressings were replaced twice a day. Patients would say with a smile, "Hey, nurse, I have pain." even though some wanted to go back into combat. Such sentiments desisted as the war deepened. And there was "influx"—the sound of dustoffs approaching, mainly on the 3 to 11 shift. Patients were taken aboard off of Quang Tri only in daylight. A dustoff had previously crashed on the landing pad in darkness. Discipline was meted in the orthopedic wing at Subic Bay when patients returned from liberty without whatever plaster casts they'd been wearing upon being released to have fun. Medical corpsmen are lauded with great marks across the board.
One story in particular includes resentment over celebrities visiting Hanoi. An ironic sensibility regarding violence in southeast Asia is implied by two nurses attesting to having been or knowing individuals being spat upon upon return stateside (always at airports, it seems). One of these two writers served aboard the USS Sanctuary yet does not mention a single medical case or battle injury. But she otherwise speaks of the "many" veterans who got spat upon after arrival back in the world. Another writer had been engaged to a guy who enlisted, went through jump school, and later was severely injured in combat. Get this, people: she visits him in a VA hospital and gives him back his engagement ring. Unfortunately, most of the writing concerns (repetitive) shop talk and the paths of individual stateside careers.
A nurse assigned to the NSA Hospital at Marble Mountains alludes to her stained shoelaces and surgeons working forty-eight hours straight. The ancient Marine vs. Army antagonism surfaced whenever an Army casualty was brought aboard the ships. There was limited space in triage back then. After the dustoffs departed, the flight deck would be utilized for intake of heavy casualties. Multiple trauma victims required three surgeons working at once—neurologic, general, and orthopedic. Patients with the deadly form of malaria had to be cooled in the showers to control dangerous temperatures. Predictably, the ship's captain would complain about the vessel's supply of fresh water being consumed.
After recovery, no negativity was expressed by combat personnel, healed and ready to be lifted back to the greenery. Whether corpsman or grunt, they'd sit reading, distracted with comic books while waiting for transport by Slick. Still, there was fun: off of Quang Tri, the lifeboats would be lowered for a "hull inspection." The lifesaving craft were then piloted round and round the hospital ship. Officers drank cocktails. Enlisted personnel were restricted to beer, and no one should doubt which craft led the parade.
Finally, we learn of a corpsman medevac'd from Iraq to Joint Base Andrews bused to Bethesda and off the bus, walked away from the group, and was accosted. Then he dropped to the ground and kissed the earth back on American soil. Still, I wonder about the location of that sculpture in the light of an indelible memory of one surgeon on the edge of breaking down standing at my window at Camp Enari in II Corps.
The importance of that story was that it could not become about him; it had to remain about his patients, period. Therein laid the rub in serving others. Whether nurse, surgeon, corpsman, or medic, let them—as King Henry said at Agincourt—"be in their flowing cups, freshly remembered."
John Crandell served in II Corps with the 4th Infantry in 1969. Camp Enari, then the division's base of operations, is now solidly covered with uniform rows of tea plants. Only the faint trace of the base perimeter remains. Any reader of The Veteran who spent time at the Army's 4th Infantry base camp circa '69-'70 perhaps mailed a package or got a money order at Crandell's window at APO 96262.