WASHINGTON – As the air raid sirens and mortar blasts went off, medical evacuation crews dropped the wounded off at a hospital near the demilitarized zone. Young nurses worked around-the-clock to treat the injured despite attacks from the Viet Cong in South Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War.
Some of the nurses never made it back and are honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Many of the other women gather each year at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial for camaraderie and to share stories of the past. This Saturday several of those women will celebrate the memorial’s 30th anniversary in Washington.
Call to Service
Many female combat veterans were following in their family members’ footsteps when they joined the Army.
Two former first lieutenants described their family connections. Patti Ehline’s father served in World War II and Vietnam. Her future husband was also joining the Army and would serve in Vietnam with her. Mary “Edie” McCoy Meeks commissioned into the military because her brother joined the Marines.
Capt. Diane Carlson Evans became an Army nurse because her brother served in the 101st Airborne Division, and then her other brother was drafted. Mary Breed, also a first lieutenant, joined after losing family members and a friend. Her brother was injured in Vietnam in 1968; a friend from her church was killed; and her girlfriend’s brother died.
“I was closely affected by the war,” she said.
Eileen King, then a second lieutenant, didn’t have any family members who served but felt a call to service. “There was a lot of criticism about America, what it stood for, especially about our military,” she said. “I wanted to serve my country. I felt very protective of my nation and the military. I wanted to do my bit.”
Jobs for women were limited in the 1960s. Many of the female nurse candidates were in nursing school when Army recruiters contacted them about joining the Army Nurse Corps.
“They were desperate for nurses over in Vietnam. They were desperate for stateside nurses to take care of the wounded because the Army hospitals needed staff,” Breed said.
As a student nurse, Breed received permission from her parents to enlist and sought out an Army recruiter. “I said, ‘I’m going to graduate next year as a registered nurse. How do I go to Vietnam?’” Carlson Evans said. “The Army offered the Army Student Nurse Program because there was a shortage of military nurses. They paid my tuition, my books and my uniforms my senior year in college. It was nice.”
They all said they passed their state boards, enlisted as private first classes for basic training, and then commissioned into the Army Nurse Corps.
In the trenches
The Viet Cong dug tunnels under the hospitals and stole equipment while the nurses worked in shifts that lasted 12 hours or longer. Soldiers would go into the tunnels to retrieve equipment but some would die from fatal cobra attacks.
The nurses learned techniques such as starting intravenous lines in the dark, performing amputations and working with burn patients.
“We had to measure up. When a Soldier came in and his life depended on us, we learned quickly,” Evans said. “We were the youngest nurses ever sent into battle. We had energy and stamina. We wanted to do our job. We were given a mission. We wanted to get each other home alive.
The men sandbagged the hooches and hospitals as they were rocketed and mortared. They were in the guard towers, some standing guard, getting killed, protecting us. We were in the hospitals saving lives.”
She said they heard artillery rounds 24 hours a day.
“We got used to the sounds of war, but we pulled together as a team. The men valued our service, and we valued theirs,” Carlson Evans said.
Breed worked at the 18th Surgical Hospital, which sat close to the demilitarized zone, and the 95th Evacuation Hospital.
“Sometimes you would have at least four doctors [working] on the same patient at the same time,” she said. “In the U.S., doctors take turns. Everybody had to work at once as quickly as possible to save the patient’s life and then move on to the next patient.”
“There was a tremendous team effort in caring for our patients,” Capt. Elaine Niggemann added. “We worked long hours but everyone pitched in. Some days were very hard but the camaraderie among us was great. It was enlightening to go from a college atmosphere to a war zone caring for patients.”
While nurses remember quite a few of their patients, each of the nurses have memorable patients from Vietnam.
King worked with a pilot who had lost both of his legs and one of his arms.
“It was obvious he was going to die. I don’t remember his name; I feel so guilty about it,” she said.
She said she went to the bathroom and when she came back, she saw that someone had left a letter for him.
It was from his wife and had a photo of his wife and child in it. “She told him she loved him,” she said.
Although King was tired from working a double shift, she said she didn’t want to leave. King finally had to rest for a few hours before her next shift. The pilot died 20 minutes later.
“For years, I wondered if I had just stayed, would he have lived longer? But I did my best,” she said.
Edie Meeks said an encounter with a young Soldier from Kansas still haunts her.
“I read a letter to him from his mom. She talked about his dad just coming in from pheasant hunting with his dog. At the end, she said, ‘We’re so proud of you, son.’ Three days later, he died,” she said.
Breed said she was in civilian clothes shopping at a shoe store on Fort Dix, New Jersey, when a former Soldier approached her.
“He said, ‘You were my nurse in Vietnam,’” she said. “He told me I took off his leg. I took off so many legs. I couldn’t remember each patient at that time and didn’t want to tell him that. I was still grieving the loss of my father at the time. I didn’t even hug him.
“Now I would give him the biggest hug in the world,” she said. “I asked him how he recognized me, and he said, ‘When you’re dying, you remember the last person you heard. You said to me, ‘I’ll take good care of you.’”
Ehline grew attached to a 10-year-old Vietnamese boy named Mai Van Bo. “It was the only day I cried in Vietnam,” she said. “It was the day I had to send him back to his village. I had become very close to him in the months he was at our hospital. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and I feared he wouldn’t survive in the village. His mom and I both cried.”
Niggemann worked three consecutive 12-hour shifts while caring for a young South Vietnamese man in the burn unit. On day four, he had a cardiac arrest and passed away.
“It was very sad and one of the few times I cried at work,” she said. “I will always remember him and the delightful conversations we had before he died. He told me about his family and children.”
Five years ago, she found his sister while searching the internet and spoke to her on the phone. “It was an emotional conversation,” she said. “I was able to answer some of the questions she and her family had regarding their loved one [and] tell her how much the nurses cared for and liked her brother; and that he did not die alone. It was an incredibly healing phone call for both of us.”
Life After Vietnam
Because of their hands-on experience, many of the Vietnam nurses went on to become physicians, dentists, civilian nurses and other high-ranking positions which were uncommon to women in the 1960s and 1970s.
Evans served as head nurse in a surgical intensive care unit and recovery room at Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, and then founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington.
Ehline serves on boards for the Vietnam Veterans of America to fight for the rights of veterans with PTSD.
Niggemann went to medical school and became a doctor.
Breed worked as an ICU nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 15 years, as a missionary nurse for two years and then in the operating room.
King went on to practice law for 10 years, then she sat on the Superior Court of California. Now, she serves on the California Court of Appeal.
Advice for the Next Generation
Nurses faced mortar attacks and worked long shifts from Vietnam to Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. For these Vietnam nurses, they said they’d do it again in a heartbeat and recommend service to the next generation of nurses.
“It was an honor to serve in the Army Nurse Corps. I would do it all over again,” Niggemann said.
“Those two years changed my life, and I’d do it all again in a minute. Don’t just sit on the sidelines of life. Step up and participate,” Meeks said. “For the nurses after me, talk to each other, get help if you need it. We don’t have to carry everything alone.”
“I encourage young people to think about the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, some area of service,” Evans said. “I’m biased. I liked the Army. I liked boots on the ground. I wanted to be close to where the fighting was. Serving our country makes us more united; taking that oath to protect the Constitution and our democracy.”