Unsung Heroines–the Nurses of the Vietnam War

I’m scared.


No, make that terrified.  I’m terrified about writing my new book, INCENSE & PEPPERMINTS.  And it’s because I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.


For months now, I’ve been researching material about the Vietnam War, and specifically about the heroic Army nurses who served there.  Their stories will be imprinted in my mind for the rest of my life. 


I look back on 1971, the year I joined the Air Force, a naïve, frivolous girl just out of high school.  I didn’t join the military out of any sense of patriotic duty as many of those Army nurses had done.  No, my motives were more selfish.  I wanted to get out of my home state of Indiana, and since my father had no intention of paying for college, the military looked like my only option.  My best friend, Susie, had gone off to Goshen College to major in nursing, and I hoped for a career in the medical field as well, but I went into the Air Force with no guarantee of career choice. 


Luckily, after taking my aptitude test in basic training, I was assigned to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas for medical technician training. 

I guess it was while serving at Sheppard that I came the closest to a Vietnam experience.  Near the end of the four month course, each med tech had to participate in an exercise known as “bivouac training.”  From the moment of my arrival at Sheppard, I’d heard these two words uttered in ominous tones from previous students.  The horror stories relayed to my innocent ears grew in proportion with each telling.  Stories of mock plane crashes where instructors could flunk you and immediately send you back to Sheppard because your incompetence had killed a “patient.”  Stories of crawling through obstacle courses on your belly, dragging a “patient” on a litter as smoke bombs exploded overhead.  Stories of being left in the wilderness without food, awaiting troops to find you.  By the time I climbed aboard the bus transporting us newbies to Oklahoma where the three-day exercise would take place, I was a trembling mass of nerves.


And it was every bit as awful as I’d heard.  The obstacle courses and smoke bombs were for real.  They did leave me out in the cold Oklahoma forest (it was December) where I shivered for hours until I was “found.”  The mock plane crash was gruesomely realistic—the fire from the fuselage lighting up the night sky, injured survivors scattered on the cold ground, screaming (quite convincingly) in fear and pain.  And then the final test—an evaluation of our emergency care skills. This final exam was set up like a relay race—ten stations, each of which held a medical dummy with a specific injury—sucking chest wound, snake bite, shock…etc.  An instructor stood at each station with his clipboard, evaluating our treatment of our “patient.”  Our decisions had to be immediate and correct or our patient would die.  A dead patient meant failure—and a return to bivouac training the following month—something no one wanted to do. 


Somehow, I sailed through the final exam, attending my “patients” on some kind of medical auto-pilot.  And in those three days in the Oklahoma wild, I metamorphosed from a young scared student into a medical technician in the United States Air Force.


I look back at my sense of pride back then, my feelings of accomplishment for surviving—and doing well—during that bivouac training, and an overpowering sense of irony settles upon me.  During those days of “play-acting” in Oklahoma, young nurses—most of them in their early 20’s, just a couple of years older than I was–were being thrown into real mass casualty situations on the other side of the world.  They were working on soldiers in real life-or-death situations. Many of them held dying soldiers in their arms as they called out for their mothers.  They were the last faces those young men saw as their lives slipped away. 


And I feel humbled.  And heartbroken.  Those young women lived through experiences that would send today’s typical young woman into a catatonic state from which they’d never recover.


Those nurses, most of them, anyway, still walk among us.  God knows the scars they carry with them from their experiences in Vietnam.  Their lives were irrevocably changed by what they saw, the soldiers they lost, and the ones they saved for what most certainly would be an uncertain future.  Many have been treated for Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  The Vietnam War occurred over forty years ago, but for these brave women who served there, it is still with them every day.


So, that’s why I’m scared.  I want to write a novel that will make them proud.  That they’ll read and say, “Yes, that’s what it was like!”  I want to write a book that will be as heroic and human and vulnerable and heartbreaking and beautiful as the souls of every nurse who served there.


Can I do it?  I don’t know.  But I will try.  I owe them that. 


Congratulations to Diane Fondelheit of Dayville, CT, my April website winner.  Come by my website and enter this month’s contest.  www.CaroleBellacera.com. 






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3 Responses to “Unsung Heroines–the Nurses of the Vietnam War”

  1. Tim Roberts Says:

    Thanks for covering such a unique topic. It’s always good to see the stories that don’t make it into the populist presentation of Vietnam and the veterans.

    I will be adding this to a new list of resources on The Vietnam War Timeline next week.

    Once again, thanks.

  2. Jude Mullennix Says:

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  3. Walker Says:

    Thanks, that is a very good article. I found it via Google and immediately incorporated into my feedreader. I am pleased to soon be back here to read again! greetings

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