Women at War

Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam

ELIZABETH M. NORMAN
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 238
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhsqj
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  • Book Info
    Women at War
    Book Description:

    Norman tells the dramatic story of fifty women-members of the Army, Navy, and Air Force Nurse Corps-who went to war, working in military hospitals, aboard ships, and with air evacuation squadrons during the Vietnam War. Here, in a moving narrative, the women talk about why they went to war, the experiences they had while they were there, and how war affected them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0297-7
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    This book grew out of the rigors of the academic process—in short, it picks up where my doctoral dissertation ends. Seven years ago, I became interested in the military nurses who served in Vietnam. I was doing some summer reading—a popular book about Vietnam. In it, there were two accounts of nurses who had served in the war. It had never occurred to me, a nurse, that there had been women in the war. I was intrigued. That fall, as part of my work toward my Ph.D., I was assigned to write a paper for a nursing course...

  5. 1 Volunteering for the Vietnam War
    (pp. 7-16)

    Why would a woman choose to go to war—especially the war in Vietnam? Men did not line up at the recruiting stations and women did not gather under the sign of the Red Cross. We remember men as draft resisters and women as draft counselors. And yet, as figures from the Department of Defense show, the great majority of those who served in Vietnam—men and women—volunteered.¹ They did not shout about their choices. They went quietly. The fifty women in this book all volunteered for military service. Some joined the military to begin a career, some to...

  6. 2 Arriving in Vietnam
    (pp. 17-26)

    The twenty-four-hour flight to Vietnam was more than an endurance test of cramped legs, unappetizing food, and a sleepless night. It was, for many, the first time they thought of danger and death. Boisterous passengers, especially those men returning for a second tour in the war, suddenly became quiet when the coast of Vietnam came into view. A few soldiers began to put together their M-16 rifles. For the nurse, often the only female officer on board the aircraft, the last hour in the air was a time when fear began to mingle with the curiosity she had felt during...

  7. 3 The Professional Strains and Moral Dilemmas of Nursing in Vietnam
    (pp. 27-44)

    There is a timelessness to a nurse’s recollections of war. Whether she served near the trenches of France in World War I, in North Africa during World War II, or in Cu Chi, South Vietnam, each remembers long hours working with grievously injured men. The recollections that follow in many ways correspond to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her account of World War I nursing, or Theresa Archard’s G.I. Nightingale, a record of nurses in the North African and Italian campaigns of World War II.

    Wartime nursing is particularly stressful because of the age and the severity of injury seen...

  8. 4 The Rewards of Wartime Nursing in Vietnam
    (pp. 45-52)

    In Vietnam, nurses could easily become overwhelmed by work demands, fears, loneliness, and losses. But the same stress-filled world that produced so much strain also provided a balance. There was a rewarding side to the work and life in a war zone. The soldiers they helped heal, the feelings of being needed and appreciated, and, most importantly, the camaraderie that developed between nurses and other Americans helped individuals survive their wartime journeys.

    The great majority of the patients, or course, recovered and their recoveries gave the nurses’ tour a balance. Helping to save lives was the basic reason most nurses...

  9. 5 Personal Experiences in Vietnam
    (pp. 53-64)

    Even though they did not fight battles, the nurses saw the need to develop survival skills. Survival was more than living through enemy attacks. It was a need to preserve emotional and personal integrity in a world where people were torn loose from community and home moorings.

    Friends helped one another, but each nurse came to realize she had to cope with wartime stresses alone. Friends became involved in their own concerns. Friends went home. Friends became casualties.

    Sometimes, men they socialized with, or, in two instances, husbands and men they planned to marry, were killed. Most of the casualties...

  10. 6 The Status of Female Military Nurses in Vietnam
    (pp. 65-74)

    There is a maldistribution of the sexes in war. Combat and war are masculine experiences. No one is sure of the total number of nurses who served in Vietnam, but estimates indicate they were a small minority in the overall American effort.¹ Their needs seemed inconsequential. Official emphasis was on combat, tactics, and men.

    Military leaders knew women were serving in Vietnam.² But they did little to provide them with the necessities. For example, the military PX stores located on the bases where the nurses lived carried soap and shampoo but not tampons. These same stores carried nylon stockings, but,...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Different Experiences in the Army, Navy, and Air Force Nurse Corps
    (pp. 75-90)

    All military nurses experienced certain strains and rewards in Vietnam. Every nurse knew the stress of caring for young patients freshly injured in combat. Every woman learned to adjust to the confinement of ships or military bases. Most nurses enjoyed the special camaraderie that developed among Americans overseas. Regardless of where or when they served in the war, the nurses felt that their skills were appreciated and their judgments about patient care were respected.

    There were two factors, however, that colored the nurses’ experiences in the war and resulted in different wartime memories. The first factor was the branch of...

  13. 8 Factors Associated with the Year the Nurse Served in Vietnam
    (pp. 91-104)

    Year by year, the war ebbed and flowed. The nurses stationed in Vietnam during 1965 at the start of the major U.S. build-up had different experiences from the nurses who served in 1971, when the United States was in a period of de-escalation. Public support and opinion back home directly affected troop morale. Earlier, when civilian support for American objectives and goals in Vietnam was strong, military men and women had accepted the battles and their subsequent casualties as an awful but necessary price to win the war. But later in the war years, everything changed. Widespread vocal public criticism...

  14. 9 Leaving Vietnam
    (pp. 105-112)

    During the last three months of their tours in Vietnam, the nurses sensed a change. The war for them was ending. It was time to go home, back to the “world.” The change was subtle and unconscious. Feelings and thoughts the nurses had suppressed to get through the year began to surface. They started to think about themselves again. What they discovered were a variety of feelings: fatigue, vulnerability, pride, and ambivalence.

    The twelve-hour days, the heat, and the suffering had taken its toll. There was a weariness that had sapped their strength and left little energy for anything besides...

  15. 10 Homecoming
    (pp. 113-124)

    In Washington State or California, the nurses wearily walked down the exits and headed for the customs offices located at the military air terminals. Once they completed customs inspections, they found taxis to civilian airports. It was all routine. There were no signs, no one to say “Welcome home.”

    The taxi rides gave the nurses an opportunity to look at their homeland. Cars drove at fast speeds. There was no concertina wire. There were doors and pay telephones everywhere. “I went into the airport coffee shop for awhile,” said one nurse. “I was amazed at the color and all the...

  16. 11 The Years Since the War
    (pp. 125-140)

    More than half of the women interviewed for this study chose to remain in the military. This world was a familiar one. Military life offered professional advancement and a solid career. Twelve women stayed on active duty. Fifteen others opted for reserve duty, which required one weekend a month and two weeks a year of active duty. They all received an unexpected benefit from their decision to accept another commission: the military provided a sense of camaraderie the civilian world did not.

    Friendships among people in the postwar service never reached the intensity they had in Vietnam, but the Vietnam...

  17. 12 Coming to Terms with the War: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
    (pp. 141-154)

    The nurses who served in Vietnam thought their work would be just another professional job—more intense and more exciting perhaps but, they reasoned, nursing was nursing. Wartime literature and movies had reinforced this belief. Books such as G.I. Nightingale (1945) and A Nurse’s War (1979), the movie So Proudly We Hail (1943), and the 1970s television series “M*A*S*H” all showed nurses functioning and surviving in war zones. During the Vietnam War, U.S. Army General Neel reported, “The highest quality of nursing care was given despite the constant threat of attack.”¹

    One exception to this notion of normalcy was Vera...

  18. 13 Lessons Learned from the War
    (pp. 155-160)

    If the nurses in this study were asked to draw a diagram of their lives, they most likely would sketch a straight line: the beginning of the line would represent their births and the end would be the present. The line is a continuum and represents a life filled with the usual landmarks—homes, children, husbands, friends. Like other women, they enjoy watching their children grow. At the end of the day, they are tired. There is a predictable pace to their lives.

    Their Vietnam experience, however, does not fit into this rhythm or follow this straight line. The nurses...

  19. 14 Conclusions
    (pp. 161-168)

    The results of my study of fifty veteran nurses support the findings of previous research conducted on nurses who served in Vietnam.¹ and echo personal accounts of nurses who served in World Wars I and II and Korea.² But there were three unique aspects of the Vietnam War: public antipathy toward its participants, the lack of a homecoming for its veterans, and the defeat of the South Vietnamese and the American “causes.”

    The inability of most of the nurses to return to Vietnam and see it at peace left the war unfinished. Some women expressed a desire to visit the...

  20. Appendix: Information on the Fifty Military Nurses
    (pp. 169-184)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 185-196)
  22. References
    (pp. 197-206)
  23. Index
    (pp. 207-211)