Skip to main content

tv   Oral Histories Vietnam War Nurse Virginia Lee Dornheggen  CSPAN  April 3, 2021 1:59pm-3:31pm EDT

1:59 pm
>> virginia lee dornheggen the
2:00 pm
counter time as an army nurse during the vietnam war. she describes injuries she treated, the night the hospital came under fire, and the impact the job had on her life. this interview is from the veterans history project and was conducted by the atlanta history center. virginia: i was born and raised in gettysburg, pennsylvania. very small town. my whole family was there. aunts, uncles, grandparents. it was easy to have a family relationship. it was my mom and dad and three girls, i was the middle of the three girls. my dad was in world war ii, the army corps of engineers, served in alaska. his brother john was a physician and he served in the european tour in belgian and in the korean conflict.
2:01 pm
my mother's brother, he served on the are skinny, so i did have service people in my family. one of the highlights of gettysburg is memorial day. when i was a little girl, they had the grade school kids march in the memorial day parade carrying flowers and we would march in our classes and it was a long march, but back then, it did not seem like it. we would march towards the gettysburg national cemetery, and when the taps started playing, we were eschewing flowers on the unknown soldier's grave, many from the civil war. i remember the semicircular gravestones had flags where we were supposed to lay the flowers
2:02 pm
and some of them had names on them and some of them did not. i remember thinking how sad it was that we did not know everybody who died, but they had a burial ground. that was a very special day. i bring that up because later on, i will talk about seeing the wall the first time and in comparison with that. i was very active in girl scouts , from brownies up, i was adventurous, loved excitement, loved finding out what the world was like and nature. hence i think is why i decided to eventually join the army nurse corps. in the girl scouts, one of the things we did was i was one of two girl scouts chosen in pennsylvania to do a three week backpacking hike through a national forest. we had no communication with the outside world, we had to find
2:03 pm
our food. we did pack some things that were like rations, at a rate is so much, the rations were gone, we ate peanut butter and prunes most of the week. but we learned how to survive out there. i also went to church camps where we did output camping where we did hiking also. my background for adventure was already set. i went to school at gettysburg area high school. graduated in 1966. i knew from a little girl that i wanted to be a nurse. i helped take care of my great grandmother who lived during the civil war. i remember her at 96 years old and i would help take care of her. the nursing idea was very strong and i knew what i wanted to do. i entered nursing school and i
2:04 pm
think it was august of 1966. it was a three year nursing school, all year-round, pretty intense. you did your five days a week at that point in early times, but it was very strict. you had to be in at a quarter to 7:00, you did get a 10:00 curfew on saturday night, but other than that, as a freshman, it was pretty strict. i remember back then, the escalation of the vietnam conflict and thinking, what is going on in that part of the world? i did not dwell on it because i was so involved with my studies. you cannot help but hear it on the news. but i do remember hearing it and i had friends from high school who already enlisted and were gone. they were not drafted, but they
2:05 pm
went over. my junior year of nursing school, one of my upperclassman who i was good friends with was talking about the army nurse corps and i thought, wow, that sounds interesting, tell me more. she said, you get education benefits, you travel. she said, the experience of going someplace else other than staying in harrisburg or gettysburg was really intriguing. but the most important thing was she was going to get paid $300 a month just for promising her two years are active-duty, and that is what was like, travel and money sounds good to me. i went home and talked with my mom and dad about it. they were shocked. i remember my dad looking at me and said, i never thought i would have anybody say they wanted to join any service, especially since i have been in the world, in world war ii, and
2:06 pm
i had no boys that were going to have to go, and here you are, you want to be an army nurse? i said, i think i really want to. he said, let's talk to somebody. a recruiter came to our house. she sat down in our living room and she was very honest about everything. i would be applying for the army school of nursing nurse program, army student nurse program. that is how you got involved, especially since he did not go to the walter reed program. -- especially since you did not go to the walter reed program. she said, there is a 95% chance that she will go to vietnam. i thought, not me, i'm not going to vietnam. but the army sounds still good. so i did sign the contract, so to speak, for the army student
2:07 pm
nurse program. i was inducted as a pfc., so i did get paid $300 a month and i was loving it. i thought that was terrific. i graduated in august of 1969 from nursing school and i immediately get a postgraduate course with intensive care, surgical care, and coronary care, which was extremely valuable in the rest of my 43 years of nursing. it also put me where i was when i got into the army. i was commissioned to a second lieutenant in january, i think january 6. january 6 comes back a lot. >> what year? virginia: this was 1970. i was commissioned as a second lieutenant. i needed to be at fort houston
2:08 pm
by the next week. forcing houston is where i did my basic training, it is where -- fort houston is where i did my basic training, it is where all medical people do their training. you learn not anything about nursing because they expect you to already know that. but we learned the army protocol, we learned the nato alphabet, which is still ingrained in your brain. we learned how to march, which was hysterical when you think about women and men not really caring whether they want to march. my platoon was the worst in marching. i loved marching, i loved the music. most of my platoon did not go there right foot from their left foot. we learned how to wear uniforms, how to salute, how to shoot a .45, we learned triage
2:09 pm
procedures, we learned how to where -- wear medals. another thing was camp wallace, you go out to the desert of texas and they give you a map and a grid scale and a compass and said, you have to find a, b, c, and when you get back to c, that is when you get lunch. they were five of us and i was really bad, but it was a stitch because we were running to make sure we were one of the first ones back. after you get back, you go through this building that has the gas in it and you had to throw off your gas mask without rubbing her eyes were breathing or anything. that day was memorable. the other things that were memorable were the immunizations that you got, because he stood in line, just like you always did when it came to the army, and it was hurry up and wait,
2:10 pm
but you did not get a single shot. they said, do not move your arm. you are sitting there and watching everyone else almost faint, but they put this round thing up to your arm and get five injections at one time and it is no needle, it is done by air. if you move your arm, you could have lacerations. you walk away thinking, oh my gosh. you are thinking, that is not bad, then your arm goes numb, but you got typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, the plague, and tetanus at one time. we were down and out the rest of that afternoon and hopefully you took some aspirin, tylenol, whatever to get through the night. we also had smallpox and polio, just to make sure all of us were vaccinated for whatever was going to, -- whatever was going to come up.
2:11 pm
they always talked about vietnam, always. it was like they were preparing us to go whether we were going to be assigned or not. they were pushing for nurses to be o.r. nurses. i knew i was not going to do that because i had done a post in intensive care. my close friend wanted to be an o.r. nurse. she knew that she was going to go to colorado and have a three-month training and she would definitely be sent to vietnam. i, on the other hand, my wish list was for walter reed, which was close to home, hawaii, which i always thought would be great, or something like that. i did not want to go to vietnam. my roommate, diane, she also was from pennsylvania. but we had not known each other basic training. when we found out that the two
2:12 pm
of us got walter reed together, we decided we look at our woq. walter reed had its own campus for the hospital, but no place for us to live, so we were given -- and i still have it to this day -- my approved places of living in the washington, d.c. area. you have to realize that we were second lieutenants on a small amount of money and trying to find a place to live that was appropriate for us, was harder than you would think. you only had a week to find your building. we did find one in silver spring, which was still quite a drive to get into walter reed. diane was in the medical field, so she went to the wards and i was assigned the recovery room surgical icu. the soldiers that we took care
2:13 pm
of were coming back from korea or japan after they had already been wounded in vietnam and then they had to go to their secondary place before they would come back to the states. the way that worked is not everybody came back to the states, it depended on the degree of their wounds and their behalf, whether they would be sent back to war or not. many, after they went to korea and japan, were sent back, but never went back to their same units, so they had to learn new people. very challenging for the young soldiers. walter reed, i cannot say enough about the old walter reed. it was a beautiful place, i loved working there. i even got to take care of general west moreland's wife, and i can see that now since she is gone and so is he. we took care of civilians that
2:14 pm
had service ties. most of them were in the service. we were very busy, there was no such thing as a maid hour shift, we always worked more than that. i learned a lot quickly. you had to, and you did a lot. i will tell you, as challenged as i would -- as i was, i thought i was prepared for all of the challenges that i would meet if i was sent to vietnam. i worked with the walter reed army institute of nurses. there were many that work with me in that area and they all volunteered for vietnam, so i figured, i am sure not to go. however, i was sent. i got orders on the 16th of september, 1970 and i think i cried for three days.
2:15 pm
i found somebody that i thought was the person who i did not want to leave because he had already come back and he had been injured. as it turned out, diane and i both were sent, got orders and sent on the same day and another major, joan, that worked at walter reed was also sent. before the trip, i remember being anxious, excited, my thoughts were the challenge, am i going to be ok facing wartime injuries? i felt pretty secure at that point about my nursing ability, but i did not know what war was going to do. so there was some anxiety there. i had just turned 22, and here i
2:16 pm
was, in a foreign country. our trip over was basically very insignificant. i remember the anxiousness of saying goodbye to my parents, we flew out and went to alaska and then japan and finally into vietnam. i had soldiers tell us when we got into vietnam, you might have a rougher because -- you might have a rough ride because of mortars. nothing like that happened. we landed and got off the plane and the heat hit you. it was like, oh my. it was an odorous heat. i don't know how else to explain it. they shuffled us quickly off the plane, just because of the fact that we were on an airstrip and we were prime targets for mortars. >> this was a trip plane?
2:17 pm
virginia: yes. diane and i, she and i were the only females that we knew on the plane. all the guys were younger than us. they were drafted, they were 18 years old, and we felt old compared to them. we got off the plane quickly, identified our backs, and we were put into school buses that had barbed wire on the roof, but they had wires along the windows. it was rather eerie driving, then begot to the place where we were going to spend the night. which had cots, and after you having up 24 hours, you thought you would lay down and crash. not so much. i remember the flares going off.
2:18 pm
i knew about flares, but never knew what they sounded like. the whoosh that you hear woke you up in the light would stay on for five minutes and you would finally say, ok. this would go on all the time. then the sirens. we did not get much sleep that night. i do remember that the next day, we started processing, we still did not know where we were going to be assigned. believe it or not, diane and i and the major were all assigned to the same place. we ended up -- we finished our processing and we were taken to when jan on a c-130. the hospital was rather large. i think, at one time, it probably could hold 300 patients, maybe more.
2:19 pm
the unit i was in had capacity for 50. our unit -- the hospital itself was shaped so that it was concrete block for most of the buildings, they were huts that looked like chicken coops that were also there that we used, and then it had a large runway right beside it and it also had helicopter pads so the pilots could land right outside our emergency room door. the emergency room was called r &e. there was a squared-type building made out of wood and the rooms are made for two people and a bathroom and
2:20 pm
between another room for two people, so you shared the bathroom. from the aerial view, there were red crosses painted on top of the hospital and we always laughed. that was something the geneva convention had put, you always had a red cross under hospital. it was like, let's see if we can hit the red cross. i will tell you, there was no hospital in vietnam that was not in the battlefield area. there was never anything being an hour away from where they were injured. the pilots, when they would bring our patients and, it would be anywhere from two minutes to 20 minutes until they could get their wounded to the hospital, which is phenomenal. that did not happen in world war i or world war ii, it was the first time ever. one statistic i read was 95% of
2:21 pm
the soldiers that were wounded that made it to the hospital lived. what their lifestyle was like was a different story, but the fact that they were so readily got into the hospital was incredible. the sleeping quarters, they were made out of wood, they had a sandbanks in front of them. there were no windows. there was a joint air conditioning vent that went around, so if the air conditioning was out, everybody was hot. that did not happen a lot. however, it did happen. the type of patients we got where right in from the field. -- were right in from the field. the stories you see with the pilots and the choppers, they had the red cross on them, i fit had not been for them, we would never have been able to save as
2:22 pm
many lives as possible. the medics in the field -- i cannot even begin to give them the credit that they deserve. knowing when the soldiers were hurt, they would come in and say , when we got on that helicopter, we knew there was a chance for us, and they would come into the receiving emergency room, they were triaged. if they had any chance of all -- chance at all, they were treated immediately and we took care of them quickly by putting an iv in them, starting blood, getting the blood work. we as nurses did thing that, after 43 years of working, i still was not allowed to do. i will go into that later. the pathway for the soldiers
2:23 pm
were coming into emergency, going to preop, their wounds were being taken care of immediately by trying to clean them out. by the time they got to o.r., they did the procedures of cleaning the wound even more. however, because of tetanus, the wounds were never closed, they always had open wounds. it was called delayed primary closures. when they had the shrapnel wounds and things, they had open wounds when we got to the icu. three days later, they would go back and clean the wounds again, then they would suture them shut if the wound was ready for that to happen. the fellows that we served were our own soldiers.
2:24 pm
we were partial to our own soldiers. however, we had other koreans, filipinos, people that supported us also that we took care of. we had vietnamese civilians, soldiers, the army of the public of vietnam. we even had pows from the north vietnamese army nbc's -- and vc's. the core men were not allowed to take care of them without one of the nurses with them. it got to the point where some of the vc would know how to say things to your take us, things like, i just shot one of your friends, things like that. the corpsmen could not handle it because they had friends out there. it was up to us, who made our oath that we would take care of them. we were very professional, always took the best of care of them no matter what because they were going to go in for
2:25 pm
interrogation. they were very heavily guarded. we had, in the medical boards, which diane had been in, basically it was malaria patients, and there are four stages of malaria. she would come back and tell me how bad things were for one of them and you go through with your chills and fevers, and fevers would be very high, they would be so high, and you would think of brain damage. then it was like a cycle and they got better and they went out, but you were supposed to take your medication for malaria, especially where all of us were in the malaria area. i cannot take it because it gave me gumbo vision, so i use whatever i could for mosquito repellent which, who knows. >> are you talking about the orange pill? virginia: yes, the cp pill.
2:26 pm
skin disease and fungus were always an issue, especially during monsoon season. dehydration was also a problem because they did not have portable water. that was always an issue. our nurses' schedule, 12 hour days, unless we had mass casualties, we would have anything like 15 to sometimes 50 people come in at one time. everyone was on duty and you would work sometimes 24 hours, try to sleep four hours, then come back. we were always trying to be the best that we could be. the nurses and doctors i work with, i cannot say enough about. everyone worked together so well , better so that even in
2:27 pm
civilian life. i cannot say enough about the camaraderie that we had david -- that we had. it was the best experience as a nurse that i had in my career. you learn fast, you did things, things like jake yes to me's -- things like take yet amazed -- soldiers came in with no arms. where are you going to put in the iv? we did arterial sticks, which is a no-no, they have lab people do it now. we did our own bloodwork which tells the volume of the amount of blood in the body, so we knew whether to give more fluids, whether to give blood. we had a lab but they were always so busy, we had to do other things.
2:28 pm
some of the soldiers came in with severe neck injuries, back injuries, and it was not related to being wounded. they would get a day off and go to the south china sea and they had a riptide and undertow and they would try to go out and come in body surfing and they would break their neck. we would get them, there would be a striker frame, which is pretty scary, it is like two pieces of bread, only narrow, and he strike them in. -- and you strap them in and every two hours, you had to turn them they would -- turn them. the feeding tubes, the ivs -- one of the doctors that we worked with nicu had just -- in
2:29 pm
icu had just read an article about a new treatment. he said, we have start giving these guys that the protein levels are so low -- because protein is needed for wound care , you cannot heal unless you have a good protein level. he found out the formula or made it up himself, i'm not sure which, but there we were, nixing this formula up. today, it is called tpn, it is made in the pharmacy. i am thinking, we made it with roaches crawling around. it did help, but you have to put it into a major vein, so there goes the jugular again. i put in tubes. the first time i put it in, the doctor said, this is yours. i'm looking and i said, are you kidding me?
2:30 pm
he said, you will feel when the pop is and you will know when to stop. i'm like, oh my gosh, are you kidding? i did put in chest tubes. we also sutured, we did a lot of other things. there were times when we had to depraved of wounds ourselves -- debrief the wounds ourselves. there would be maggots. maggots are good for wound care, believe it or not. back then, we did not want it to get overdone, so we would remove the maggots. there were intestinal worms because they were out of the jungle, so we had to get rid of those. i think i'm going to deep into that one. there were several burns. there was a little boy that got a hold of a flare and flares are
2:31 pm
made with phosphorus, so when they popped, they had that white, bright light. this one was a dud and he opened it up and got burned very severely. he was probably 90% of his body. we treated it with a burn cream, and antibiotic burn cream. the problem with phosphorus is it gets into the cell and reacts with potassium and we did not have dialysis at our hospital. the little fella was with us for about a week and a half and then he went into cardiac arrest and never made it out. his mom was allowed to stay with him. it was 24/7 care on him. there were other children we took care of they would -- took care of.
2:32 pm
wonderful people came in from the hills, the hill country people that would fight along with us, but in a nonconventional way. they did not have weapons other than cross bows and arrows. they had spears that they would use, but they did not have guns at the time. when their children were hurt, they brought them in. they were the most loving people of their children. we did see some vietnamese children that were used as -- i don't want to say guinea pigs. soldiers love to give candy to the kids and behind the kids back would be a grenade, or the parents would push the kids in front to get money from our government because our government wounded than they would -- wounded them. these are some of the hard things that you think, how can people do these two kids?
2:33 pm
they did not care about their kids, it seemed that way. i would not say all of the ones we saw was like that. one of the things that i found, and even to this day, we had no computers. you had to look at a patient and talk with the patient and find out what was wrong with him. our critical thinking skills were sharp. we could pick up things in a nanosecond of what was going on and have a doctor there to help us if we did not know what to do. that, today, i think is a wonderful thing to still be able to have, critical thinking skills. i think computers take too much out of that for you. some of the other wounds the soldiers would have would be -- it was like an ambush way to injure, and the viet cong felt that if you injured soldiers, it
2:34 pm
was better than if you killed them, because that way, it took the money from our government, took time to heal them, so they would build these traps in the ground and then they would stick -- they would sharpen bamboo sticks and stick them in their, and a lot of times, they would put poison on or even manure. when the fellows would go to the jungle, they would fall into these things in the sticks would go through their lives and a lot of times, the bacteria and the infection was so bad, the fellows lost their legs because there was too much injury due to the muscle tissue. one of the most frightening things that ever happened to me was on that january 6 date, i talked about being commissioned. this was the january 6 of the next year, 1971.
2:35 pm
the busy -- the vc hit a spot near our hospital. every time we were hit, i was on night duty. i don't know why, but that is the way it happened. it was the first time that i remember any enemy activity near us. i had been in country about a month and a half and i was walking to work and i was getting a little complacent at that point because i was thinking, you know, this is a long tour. i thought, sometimes things are slow -- i want to say you got bored, but he did not work as hard. >> comfortable. virginia: yes. i was walking to work thinking, this is not so bad. and that night, we got hit. i had just taken my last patient from the book cover the room into icu and i said, i will be
2:36 pm
right back, i'm just going to straighten up. all of a sudden, the loudest explosion i ever remember hit and i thought the mortar hit the building next to our hospital, where the doctors slept. i was so scared, i hit under the metal desk thinking, we are being overrun. i trembled, i could not believe, i prayed, and then i heard the yelling of the two nurses in icu and realized i could not stay there, so i grabbed my jacket and helmet. it was just a 10 foot walk between recovery room and i see you. -- and icu. we had 12 american soldiers at that time. we had civilians and a pow. our soldiers came first. we picked them up, put them on cots, shove them under the beds.
2:37 pm
we left their mattress on top of the bed and got other mattresses to shield them so no other flying glass or shrapnel could hit them. we did it for all our soldiers first, then we did -- they were two women civilians, then we did the men be enemies. last but not least was this p.o.w. who had shipped a landmine and was anybody caste -- and was in a body cast. it normally took five people to took care of him. another nurse and i shoved him under the bed. we did not have anymore mattresses so we figured his body cast was going to protect him that way. i have a picture that i can show you what our unit looked like if you would like me to show you at this time. did you want to -- ok.
2:38 pm
i will show you the picture of what our unit looked like before , and then what the unit looked like the night of that explosion. this is what our unit looked like before. >> just told it up next to your chest. there you go. virginia: you can see, they have lights, we have windows on the upper parts. the windows had tape on them so in case something like this happened, the glass would not explode through, but the doors where wooden doors. you can see the beds in the unit. this is what it looked like afterwards. i'm sitting on a bed, we used one of the mattresses, and the doors are blown in david we put a sheet over that -- blown in. he put a sheet over the door. all the emergency power went off. one of the nurses put her head
2:39 pm
down on thedesk. -- the desk. we were taking a break before everything happened to get ready for the day shift. this wonders and i would crawl on our hands and knees and we were suctioning this one fellow. i can show you that here. we had a mattress beside his bed. we had to put the mattress down and we had the suction machine at the head. i am suctioning him and the other nurse is -- when you suction, you take out the oxygen , so we had to put the oxygen in. as i said, every time we got hit, it was night duty. there were a few other times, but nothing was as bad as that. the ammunition -- there was 5000 tons of ammunition that were exploded that night.
2:40 pm
it lasted into the wee hours of the morning. we got used to hearing it and realizing that it was not at our hospital, which was the main thing that was a comfort. but it made me realize that complacency is not a place in war zone. >> where their unexploded devices that blew into the hospital area? virginia: no, it was the sound wave. the blast wave itself, which also was a learning experience. i had no idea that the percussion could be that great. of course, with 5000 tons, i should have realized that. we did not realize that at the time. one of my favorite stories is bob hope could not come to our area, we were too hot, we did not have an amphitheater big enough for him to do his show, but they sent phyllis george, who was miss america 1970, i
2:41 pm
believe. she later become -- became the first lady of kentucky. she was so beautiful and so -- all of her entourage. they came to our icu and talked with every single shoulder -- single soldier, which was awesome. one of the soldiers was a double-amputee, both of his arms were amputated from the elbow down. so he could not hold himself up. i was holding him up and she spent a lot of time with him. when she was leaving, i laid him down and said, wouldn't it be great if all of us looked that good? he looked up at me and said, they don't hold a candle to what you look like to us. i just could not believe he said that and i leaned down and kissed his forehead and said, i will never forget you, thank you. here he was, supporting me, when
2:42 pm
i was supposed to be supporting him. another story that i never forget, there was an ambush right near where we were up in the mountains. for whatever reason, strategy had that we needed that pass for the soldiers and they let it go and the vc would take over, it went on and on. one of the nights i was in recovery room, one of the soldiers came in and the doctor looked at me and said, he has lost his one eye, the left eye, and the right i had blood in the, so he was not sure if he was going to be able to see out of it, but both eyes were patched. he lost his left arm above the elbow and his right arm was totally off.
2:43 pm
as he was waking up from anesthesia, he went, i can't put my arm down. he was lifting his chest up trying to put his right arm down. another nurse and myself were working these patients and i talked with him and i said, you are just waking up from anesthesia, do you remember what happened? he said, yes. he said, i -- and then he never finished. i sit, are you in pain? no, i'm not in pain. he was almost defiant. almost angry. why can't i see? why can't i do this? are you having me tied down? i laid my hand on his chest and i said, you are in recovery room, you have been injured. what are the extent of my injuries? i looked at the other nurse because i knew we were not supposed to tell him much. i said, well, your arms have been injured. how come i cannot put them on
2:44 pm
the bed? she and i looked at each other and she says, tell him now. she was a more seasoned nurse than i, she had been there a lot longer. i called him by name and i told him about his arms. he says, why can't i see? i said, both eyes are patched right now. i said, the doctors are going to come in the morning and check your eyes. he says, great, now i'm going to have to sit and sell pretzels on the side of update walk -- the side of the sidewalk. i said, no, someone as determined and strong as you are, we will get you through this. i'm going to give you some pain medicine and talk with you and we will see how things go. the next morning, the doctor looked at his eyes. the doctor was pretty hopeful
2:45 pm
for that one eye, but he was still upset, obviously, that he lost everything except his legs. he was with us at least two weeks, which is usually -- 14 days is usually the amount of time someone that is seriously injured would be with us. every day, we would like a letter to his newlywed wife, then his wife did get some letters to him, so we would read it to him and write some more letters for him. he was finally met to japan and ended up back in colorado and he was one of the first bionic arms from the army so he bowed back to us to tell us this. this was so important to us because we never knew what happened to the fellows after they left us. here he was, supporting us, letting us know that he did ok, even though he has already been to hell, he said, i cannot go
2:46 pm
any further, but i'm going to make it. something like that gave us hope that maybe we can continue helping these fellows that are so young. we felt old, 22 years old and you feel old because these kids were 18 and 19. one of the statistics i looked up, the age of 20 was the most that had died. it was over 30,000 20-year-olds that died in vietnam. it just seemed kind of unreal to me, only 20 years and they had to be on the wall. >> let me interrupt for a second. listening to you describe the stress, how did you destress? virginia: that is a good question. when you went off duty, you partied hard. [laughter]
2:47 pm
if we had worked nights, we went home to sleep, but we would have volleyball games and we would play jungle rules. it is nurses against the guys. when they would go up for a spike, we would hit them in the gut and be woodwind. that was one of the ways -- and we would win. that was one of the ways. the officers club had a terrific band -- a lot of times they had -- there would be philippine people come in and they sang the songs like the americans would. but you ask them a question and they did not know how to talk to you, they only knew the american words. the closeness of friends that you make when you are in a war area, it is so different than when you are in the states or when you are not in a war zone. because you depend on everybody so much and you become so close.
2:48 pm
it was such a terrific experience to have that camaraderie and the love one another. the photos i have and things kind of spell it out. we were always there for each other and worked so well. distressing part -- the stressing part, you did get tired of seeing that injured and having the kids so young, but i don't remember any of the names of my patients, none. i have been to the wall a few times and i don't remember anybody i took care of other than their faces and what they had long with them. i truly believe that was my way of protecting myself. i did not get that involved with their life, because the minute i would see i -- read -- i read
2:49 pm
somewhere, a nurse took care of a soldier, he had his west point credentials and pictures of his kids and things and he did not make it and she lost it, she could not even work after that. i read this since all that. i did not do that. i did not do it. i did party hard. >> you maintain a professional relationship. virginia: absolutely. that is the one way that they knew they could count on us. when a patient was dying, we never ever left our soldiers to die by themselves. we were always with them. one of us would be assigned to that patient and we would be with him the entire time, holding hands, talking with him. if he wanted us to write to his mom or dad, we did. [choking up] it was tough.
2:50 pm
we just wanted to make sure that their mom and dad or their loved ones knew that they were not alone. we did not have that opportunity when they died on the field, but we had that opportunity when they were in the hospital. on my days off to relieve stress , i would go on what they called a medcap mission and we would go to the leprosy area. believe it or not, leprosy was still in that country, which you hardly hear of leprosy anymore, however, it was there. we would go over there, the french nuns would be there because they had this beautiful place, a chapel. they had an operating room and be with you invitations on the
2:51 pm
lepers because they did not had feeling if the disease spread to their limbs. we would operate on them, we would help them with some bandages, and then that would be usually the first thing in the morning. you took your life in your hands going because we had no guards, we had no ammunition. it was about two miles or more, i can't remember the exact mileage, from our hospital compound. you were on your own. some of the missions had sniper fire at them they would we did not, -- them. we did not. we changed into the operating uniform there and then if we went to go swimming, it was a beautiful south china sea beach, clean and wonderful. the nuns always fixed as the
2:52 pm
most fabulous meal. that was one of the reasons you always wanted to go. [laughter] i had pictures of how beautiful the place is. you think, how can this still be after the french left and communism was coming in? i don't know whether it is still there or not. the tiles that the lepers made and designed some of the buildings were incredible. but that was a very meaningful way of helping someone else besides our soldiers, and it gave us kind of a respite from seeing the war wounds. one of the other things that happened that i have mixed emotions about, it was fun but -- i was a little bit disgusted about the whole thing. early on, it might have been march of 1971, my roommate and i
2:53 pm
were called into the chief nurse's office and i thought, uh-oh, because diane was always in trouble. we were invited to go to a general's dinner. there was one other nurse named barb and she was also invited. my roommate being -- asking why did we have to go, i did not say a word. she said, because you were invited and you will go because you are representing the 67th hospital. the time came and a couple of the guys made this banner called the general's girls, so we had our picture taken in front of that. we were flown and it was a lovely, lovely experience.
2:54 pm
i think where i got disgusted was when i was sitting -- i was in address, i was not in my fatigues, but we were not the only females, they invited other ones from all the hospitals. the general wanted to have some nurses, or female participants, in this dinner. so they talked about different things. then they came around and asked me if i wanted red or white wine, and that is when i about had it. i was like, i am here saying what kind of wine i want an hours hospital is shortstaffed because three of us are here -- and our hospital is shortstaffed because there are three of us here, and here we are in this dinner. i was excited that i was able to
2:55 pm
participate, but i was disgusted with the whole idea. my roommate was even more disgusted. however, we did get to go on the ship hope and they showed us around because they were just getting ready to leave to get out into the ocean because they did not want to be mortared. then we flew back and try to live with ourselves for the next couple days. i will tell you that that type of wine that we drank was nothing like what we got up there. the newest wines was blue none -- blue nun, which is quite prevalent after duty. that seems to be how the parties went. i was never a beer drinker, but the wine did flow. for the most part, those are the main stories that i can share
2:56 pm
with you that have always stayed in my mind. emotion-wise, i sat down to think about all of the emotions that you experience as a nurse. one of the first ones was excitement, because of the challenge and of the adventure and the travel. i had never been to that part of the world. believe me, when we were laying there in the sun on our days off and when we were able to have a break, we were thinking, 20 years from now, this is going to be a vacation spot. how many of us will come back? this soldier is not going back. however, i do have friends that have gone back. i just think there are other places to see, i'm not doing it. the anxiety i felt, that was short-lived. after you get there and you
2:57 pm
realize that you cannot be fearful for yourself because you have too many other things to do. so you throw yourself into learning and taking care and you don't have time to be fearful. the only time you get fearful is her last 30 days. short time in country and nothing has happened to you so far, believe me, things happen the last 30 days that can really jolt your self-esteem for being self-confidence. anger, i had anger. anger towards our government for putting us there when, at that point, the time of this war, the vietnamese people, it almost seemed like they did not care. the black market was really big. they would take things. we were never paid in american money.
2:58 pm
our money was always deposited back in a bank or something in the united states, but they had nbc's -- mpc's. you did not dare have american money because that is great for black-market. anytime we wanted to give our moms something, you had to write a note, but he did not know if they were part of the vc. we all watched soap so they would wash our clothes and uniforms and iron them. you would go by and it was a communal wash and you never saw suds. they were taking our soap. i learned to open the jar of the bottle that i would give and for some in and that way they could not sell it for a full bottle. the issue with the communal washing with no soap is that if somebody had an infection, most
2:59 pm
all of us got an infection. it was not a fun thing. so i was angry about that. and i was angry about the vietnamese people not caring. i know that was not all of them, i do realize that, but just the complacency, they wanted us to do the fighting, then you would meet the army republic, and they cared, they cared about their family, but for the most part, in the villages around our compound, it did not seem that way. also, the drug use was being escalated by our soldiers because they never knew who the enemy was. and enemy was winning at that point. they may tunnels we did not know about.
3:00 pm
these kids would be out in the jungle in the cold, not having water to drink, but they could find drugs. i was up in a guard tower one night. -- not one night, when afternoon, taking pictures, and i took pictures of our soldiers getting drug through the barbed wire fence. it was too easy to get. the posttraumatic stress syndrome we now know about, it was not diagnosed. it was called depression that the guys had or shellshocked. but after eight months of being in intensive care, i felt like i lost my concentration and several things happened. my very dearest two friends, my
3:01 pm
roommate was leaving early. so she got to leave after being there for six months. and then my other friend laura, who was there three months before me -- i was very dumb. there were other people around. i still talk to them today. you can get down and out, but i never used the drug, ever. but these guys had nothing to turn to. after eight months in icu, i said, please, can i go to another unit? and then at the very end i was in emergency for the last three months.
3:02 pm
but the orthopedic ward, bed after bed after bed and you are thinking, oh, you will never see anything like that. but the other half was the drug cage -- i hate to say it. they put wire up, built a drawer and one night i kept hearing the sound, i thought -- what is it? a guy in the drug unit took a knife and took the hinges off the back door and escape. and he did it so quietly -- i looked in and saw him in his bed. it was not him. since then, we learned that there were plastic knives. things like that. i said, all right, get me off of this.
3:03 pm
for eight months i took care of the most nikole people. and i ended up in the emergency room. so -- i'm trying to think if there's anything else there -- i did go r&r to hong kong. that was a little different. i'm supposed to be going to taiwan. then i took a plane to hong kong and i did not realize i was awol at that time. ok? there were two other guys i did not know. and we were sitting in the plane going to taiwan. i said i want to go to hong kong. they said, so do we. i found a letter, we stayed at this beautiful hotel, and i had
3:04 pm
my own room and it was a sweet. and i thought, how much is this. it was 21 dollars a night and i could not afford it. i asked for a smaller room. they put me in a single -- not sweet and i was allowed to stay there. they had a convention coming in. i had no idea where i was going to stay. the agreement that the three of us made, we would set a day where we had to connect where we knew that we were all ok. i had saved all of this money because i did not have anything else other than sears and roebuck's catalog to shop from. then we got back to taiwan --
3:05 pm
oh, i know. we were supposed to leave hong kong. i even wrote a note to my parents. the issue was he needed a visa. none of us had visas. we were like -- oh, my gosh? there was an army captain. we felt that he had more clout, so we asked him to call the consulate and tell them that we needed to get back to taiwan. so the consulate was able to get us out. i just know we ended up with emergency visas. we got out. we got on the plane and all of a sudden, the plane started to turn around.
3:06 pm
and i looked at this guy named gaeta -- named gary. i said the plane is turning around. now we were really in deep do do . we had to get out of there and to taiwan because our plane left the next morning. so we were boarding the plane to get out of hong kong. we got out, had no place to stay . i asked the taxi driver to give me a place that was reputable. my room had no window. i got up, got on the plane back to taiwan. we landed in danang got on
3:07 pm
another -- we landed and i dining -- we landed in danang, got another plane. i have flown the claims before with the guys there. i was in the back this time and we were landing quickly. so i am like, this is not good. so anyway, they got things under control. there was something with the hatch that did not latch or something. that was my 30 days before i left, because i wanted to have my r&r before i left. the last month -- as i said, you prepare yourself mentally -- you can't wait.
3:08 pm
there's a little anxiety because there's a little -- i don't have a job when i go back, but i'm a nurse. i will get hired. the town was in michigan. i had a friend there. i thought, i will get a job, which i did. leaving the close friends -- i had to make new friends for three months. they were friends, but nothing as close as the friends i had before. they were all there to see me off on the c-130. you also will your refrigerator, your hotplate, your whatever to whoever, so i got rid of a lot of stuff.
3:09 pm
not my real to reel. in fact, i still have that. my reel to reel and all of my tapes, i still have them. but i remember getting -- i think it was saigon i finally flew out of. it was still a troop carrier. i was the only female on that flight. the flight attendants ignored me all over the place. who knows. but the atmosphere was so totally different than when we got there. the minute we took off, there was a loud cheer. we flew to japan and to fort lewis washington -- fort lewis, washington.
3:10 pm
and i only had until january 6 to get out. i was not reassigned. and i knew i wanted to get out. i had had enough of the puppet spring -- puppet strings. i just want to go into civilian nursing. i remember getting home. my parents were so excited. and then in january, i left for kalamazoo and started civilian nursing. it was not as challenging. and to this day, nothing was as challenging. i did 18 years of critical care i had done 12 years of home
3:11 pm
health. i did three years of neurology office nursing. i did wound care. i did full circle. i started with critical wounds and i ended up doing the same thing. when i would talk to high schools, i was actually asked to talk about nursing. so i would tell him all the different experiences, but the one that caught their attention the most was our military career -- my military career. finally people started asking me to just talk about vietnam. the one time i said i would do it, i got a letter thanking me to do it.
3:12 pm
and it said, please meet the keynote speaker. they said, we would love to hear a female story. so, it was a small high school, but it took me a month and i have to write the speech, which you've heard some of it. i walked into the auditorium and they had the music of gettysburg playing. so i'm feeling right at home at this point and i look at the stage and i am seeing all of these chairs and i am like -- who else is here. they said, we have veterans from desert storm and world war ii. i said, you chose me to talk? they would be much better.
3:13 pm
the students planned the entire program and they had invited all these people. i said, i would like you all to understand -- to stand. i figured the kids would just clap for about 10 seconds and sit down. we are talking high school. they kept clapping and clapping and clapping and i was like -- my gosh. finally -- i'm basically choking up. but when i planned this speech, i planned it so i could see the audience. i would just cut it off. no one moved. i couldn't believe it. i finished the whole thing. no one moved.
3:14 pm
at the end, they just stood up and started clapping and that was the beginning of my healing, because i finally told my story, and it was only after the women's memorial in 1993 that i could finally start telling people what happened. the healing process has continued. the wall was my first traumatic experience. i went with my son and his sixth grade class and i went to the wall, and i thought we had saved so many kids. so many kids. you start with the walk -- with the well-being solo and you get
3:15 pm
all of these letters and names and grades and it jolted me back to being at gettysburg at memorial day and it was just this was the most traumatic part coming and seeing that. you just sat there and could not believe it. the next time was during 1993 and i was prepared than. it was the memorial for the women was an incredible week. laura, my very dear friend and i , decided that we would go with dark kids without our husbands. i was married 20 years at that
3:16 pm
point. i was kissed more that week than in the 20 years i have been married. he just laughed. there were soldiers that came from all over the country to say thank you. i never thought i needed to hear that. never. i was sent to do a job. i volunteered to do a job. and it felt so good to be thanked, that i never anticipated that feeling. there were soldiers who held up signs with their nurses' names and looking for them. there were the different companies we served, like the one 73rd and i guess it was the airborne or whatever -- they were there. they were looking for us. it was just incredible, the
3:17 pm
feeling of warmth -- i guess we did do a good job. by that time it was like -- ok, i can talk about it. my husband did not even know i had a bronze star. it was in the back of my dresser drawer. he found it and said, what is this? i told him. he said why did you get this? i said, i'm not really sure. he said, you got one for some reason. i truly believe every nurse should have gotten one. if you serve there and went through everything, you should have gotten one, but that is the way it happened. i'm very proud. i even where the lapel pin.
3:18 pm
it was incredible healing, and it still is happening, helping the high school kids with their programs. i think the last year, laura and i went to d.c. for veterans day, and we went everywhere. we got permission to go to the white house. we got permission to go to the pentagon. we went to arlington. we saw the wreathlaying. it was just an incredible time. and we never stop talking. i have not seen her in 12 years and we picked up right where we left off. we call each other. she wrote a book called round eyes, because that is what we
3:19 pm
were called over there. she wrote the book, and i am in it. some of the stories are not the way i remember them. but i am not named in the book because i believe that she was asked if she got my permission and she said no? so she changed my name to cindy. there were times -- i was like, she really did cause a lot of trouble. that was her way of dealing with the past. so, here will be the 25th anniversary, and we are going
3:20 pm
back to celebrate and see if we can find some of the nurses that served with us again. >> what were some of the events that occurred -- virginia: i have in my scrapbook. [laughter] we had a huge gathering on the mall. linda -- sorry, the sculptor? they were incredible. they had of book about it. we got to go to -- what is the four right near -- >> fort meyer? virginia: it is where they have the old guards. they had a beautiful ceremony.
3:21 pm
i hope they do that again. that would be awesome. it has been an incredible life i have had. i am very pleased. >> toward the end of your tour, late 1971, did you have any idea what was happening back in the night -- back in the states? virginia: my mother would send me "the gettysburg times." but it would be very sporadic that i would get it. we did have some television. it had no commercials on it, ok? and some of the nurses would go on top of the mountain and do
3:22 pm
the weather report. that was interesting. we knew what was happening. we knew enough that when we landed, we did not go out in our uniform. we changed into civilian clothes right away. i had no one spit at me. i was always treated with the most respect. i think that -- the thing that was hardest to understand -- won't people said, where did you work before? i was an army nurse in vietnam. >> that was it. i was able to use skills that were allowed for civilian nurses. i was never allowed to do a
3:23 pm
tracheostomy. now a nurse can do that, but they have to be nurse practitioners. i did not use the educational g.i. bill. i just didn't want to go back to school at the time. i have learned so much from the experiences i had. i did not want to be in administration. i wanted to take care of patient and that is what i did? i loved being a nurse. just a good old nurse? >> tell us about your husband and your family. virginia: ok, he was doing his residency and i was working in the heart unit, and i'm not
3:24 pm
going into this in detail or he would shoot me, but he was new to the hospital and i had been there for about 10 months at that point. i looked and thought, i wonder who that guy is. i asked the administrator who happening to be a retired army colonel who loved me and called me hot lips all the time, which back then was fine. he told dave that that was his assignment and that's how we got together and he had in order -- dave said, i hadn't order to meet you. i have a son who is 41 years old now and never had to serve. and i'm actually thankful for that. he is married to a beautiful woman and i actually talked with
3:25 pm
the girls -- i had them all last week. they are identical twins who are 11 and so, i was showing them things that i was donating because they will not see them and we have a daughter was 38 years old and she is an artistic theater director in chicago. she trained for that in college. >> great. we are about to move toward the closing here. i would like to give you some editorial time. it's your opportunity to say whatever you like about whatever
3:26 pm
topic. this is your time. virginia: i will talk briefly about ptsd. when i came back, i never felt i had ptsd. i was not out there fighting. i never shot a gun over there. yes, i was jumpy. but i never associated it with posttraumatic stress syndrome. couple things happened though. as i was dating my husband, a car backfired and i was on the ground. he had no idea where i was. a cherry bomb or something went off and i was in my bed when i woke up -- these are learned things from war. so i accepted that. i think it happens more, different smells -- i have never
3:27 pm
smoked in my life. i never smoked marijuana. i didn't do any of that stuff. but because so many people did over there, i can pick it up endlessly -- instantly. helicopter sounds. i play golf there are certain helicopters. i stop what i'm doing. i cannot hit the ball until the helicopter has gone away. also, my poor husband -- if i didn't hear him come into the house, i would literally scream or jump. i remember one time being scared so much that i just started hitting him. i said, don't ever come up on me like that again without letting me know. and this is 45 years ago.
3:28 pm
i was not active fighting, some of the things that affected me, what happens to these young men -- my age men, who had to cope? i'm very proud of the fact i have served my country. i would go back to vietnam again if i was young again. it was the best learning experience i ever had. the only thing i hope and pray is that our government to learn that our people go up and say thank you for your service. i go out of my way. my husband has learned that if i wander off in an airport it's because i've noticed someone in a uniform. because it is so important that they know that people care and that's not happened to those young guys.
3:29 pm
[captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2021] >> american history tv on c-span three. funding comes from these companies that support c-span3 as a public service. >> weekend -- weeknights this month, we are showing programs as a preview of what's available. monday night, depictions of slavery in hollywood films ranging from earth of a nation and gone with the wind to free state of jones. he talks about how early films glorified the lost cause and argues that while recent films show the horrors of the slave trade, the idea of the white savior is often still central to the narrative.
3:30 pm
watch monday and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span3. >> the first white house easter egg role was staged by rutherford b hayes. next, an interview with landscape historian jonathan pliska about the easter egg roll. we talked to him at the decatur house, the home of the white house historical association, which published the book. this is about 30 minutes. >> jonathan pliska, you've worked with the white house historical association to write a young readers book about the white house easter egg roll. before we get into history, tell me about it today. how large is it in 2018?


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on