tv Oral Histories Vietnam War Nurse Virginia Lee Dornheggen CSPAN April 16, 2021 9:31pm-11:03pm EDT
american history tv on c-span 3 every weekend documenting america's story funding for american history tv comes from these companies who support c-span 3 as a public service. next virginia lee dornigan recounts her time as a us 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 veteran's history project and was conducted by the atlanta history centers, kenan research center. i was born and raised in a small town called gettysburg, pennsylvania. very historic place, very small town. my whole family was there aunt's uncle's grandparents. so it was really 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 he was in the army corps of engineers served in alaska his brother john dear door was a physician and he served in the european tour in belgium and in rhineland and also in the korean conflict and then my mother's brother uncle his name was jim slabaugh and served on the aristocony oriskany, he's i went to call it something else for a long time. so so i did have service people in my family one of the real highlights of gettysburg is memorial day when i was a little girl they had the grade school kids march in the memorial day parade caring flowers, and we would march in our classes and it was a long march but back
then it didn't seem like it. we would go to the we would march towards the gettysburg national cemetery and when the taps started playing we were stirring flowers on the unknown soldiers grave many of them were from the civil war. i remember these semicircular gray stones had flags where we were supposed to lay the flowers and some of them had names on them and some of them didn't and i remember thinking how sad it was that we didn't know everybody who died, but they had a burial ground, but that was a very very special day and 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 very active in girl scouts from brownies on up. i was very adventuresome loved excitement and loved finding out what the world was like in nature things like that, hence,
i think. why i also decided to eventually join the army nurse corps. but we in the girl scouts one of the things that we did was i was one of two girl scouts chosen in pennsylvania to do a three-week by hiking backpacking hike through nantahala national forest. so we had billy no communication with the outside world. we were on our own we had to find our food we did pack some things that were like see rations, but i it rained so much the sea rations were gone. we peanut butter and prunes mostly so but we learned how to survive out there. i also went to church camps where we did outpost camping where we built lean twos and we did hiking also so my background for adventure was already set. i went to school at gettysburg area high school graduated in
1966. a new 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 and i remember her at 96 years old and i would help take care of her at my grandmother's house. so the the nursing idea was very strong and i knew exactly what i wanted to do. i entered nursing school in basically. i think it was august of 1966. it was a three year nursing school all year round. pretty intense you you did your five days a week at that point in early times, but it was very very strict. you had to be in at quarter till 7 every night monday through friday to study you did get a ten o'clock 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's going on in that other part of the world? i didn't dwell on it because i was so involved with my studies that you know, every you couldn't help it here on the news. but i do remember hearing it and i had friends from high school that had already enlisted and gone. they weren't drafted but they went ahead and went over. my junior year of nursing school one of my upper class when it was very good friends with was talking about the army nurse corps. i thought wow. that sounds interesting tell me more. and so she said well you get education benefits you travel. she said, you know. the experience of going someplace else other than staying in harrisburg or gettysburg was really intriguing to me, but the most important thing was i would she was going to get paid $300 a month just
for promising her two years for active duty and that's what really was like, oh travel and money sounds pretty good to me. i went home and talked with my mom and dad about it and they were 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've been in the world in the world war ii and i had no boys that were going to have to go and here you are you want to be an army nurse? i said daddy. i think i really want to and he said well, let's talk to somebody. so a recruiter came to our house. she sat down on 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's how you got involved with
it, especially because you didn't go to the walter reed rain program. she also said now there's a 95% chance that she'll go to vietnam and i just looked at her. i thought not me. i'm not going to vietnam, but you know the army sounds really still good. okay? so i did sign the the contract so to speak for the army student nurse program. i was inducted as a pfc and so that senior year of nursing school. 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 did 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. we i was commissioned to a second lieutenant in january. i think it was january the 6th if i'm not the january 6th comes back a lot and i'll tell you why later what year this was in 1970 january 6 1970 and i was commissioned as a second lieutenant and then i needed to be at fort sam houston by the next week. so fort sam houston is where i did by basic training. it's where most in fact i think all medical people do their basic training there. um, it's a six week long course you learn not anything about nursing because they expect you already to know that but we learned the army protocol. we learned the the nato alphabet which is still ingrained in your brain alpha brava charlie to echo foxtrot hotel, etc. etc. we learned how to march which was really hysterical when you
think about women and men not really caring whether they want to march and you're fluent we were in i my platoon with the words in marching worse. i loved marching. i love the music and most of my plutoon didn't know the rifle from the left foot. we learned how to wear uniforms how to salute how to shoot a 45 we learn triage procedures. for the worst areas. we learned how to wear a metals. another thing that was exciting was camp bullis, and that was you four clock in the morning you get up and you are in a bus and you go out to the desert of access and they give you a map and a grid scale and a compass and said, okay, you have to find a b and c when you get back to c. that's when you get lunch. well, there were only five of us in this and i was really good at that so i didn't have any problem, but it was a stitch because we were running to make sure we won one of the first
ones back and then after you get back there then you go through this building that has the gas in it and you had to throw off your gas mask and say your name rank and see your number and get out without rubbing your eyes or breathing or anything so that that day was very memorable. down the other things that were memorable were the immunizations that you got because you stood in line just like you always did when it came to the army and it was hurry up and wait, but you didn't get a single shot. they said do not move your arm. and so you're sitting there you're watching everybody else almost faint, but they put this round. thing up to your arm, and you get five injections at one time and it's no needle it's done by air and it's if you move your arm you could have lacerations. so you walk away thinking oh my gosh, i mean all of a sudden you think oh, that's not bad and then your arm goes numb because but you got typhoid yellow fever
cholera play the plague and tetanus all at one time. so needless to say you were kind of down and out the rest of that afternoon and hopefully took some aspirin tylenol, whatever just to get through the night, but we also had smallpox and polio just to make sure all of us were vaccinated for whatever was going to come up. um one of the things that in the six weeks, they always talked about vietnam always it was like they were preparing all of us to go whether we were going to be assigned that or not. they were pushing for nurses to be or nurses. i knew i wasn't going to do that because i'd already done a postgrad of intensive care and coronary care. so but my very very close friend that i had met the first day wanted to be an or nurse so she knew then that when after our six weeks she was going to go to colorado and have a three-month training intensive training for our nursing 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 else like that. you know, i didn't really want to go to vietnam. so my roommate that i actually die in mumper became my roommate she also in pennsylvania, but we had not known each other basic training, but when we found out that the two of us got walter reed together we decided well, we will get our woq. well the issue was when we got to walter reed. there's no such thing as billeting because walter reed had his 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 dc area. well, you have to realize that we were secular lieutenants on very small amount of money and trying to find a place to live
that was appropriate for us was harder than what you'd ever think and you only had a week to find your building. we did find one. it was in silver spring which was still quite a drive in the morning to get into walter reed, but diane was in the medical field. and so she went to the wards and i was assigned the recovery room. typical icu on the soldiers that we took care of there were coming back from korea or japan after they had already been they had been wounded in vietnam and then they had to go to their secondary place before they would come back to the states and the way that worked is not everybody came back to the states. it depended on the degree of their wounds and their recoup their rehab whether they were going to be able to be sent back to war or not many of them after they went to korea and japan were sent back, but they never went back to their same units, so they always had to learn new
people and stuff like that it was very challenging for the young soldiers. well to read i can't say enough about the old walter reed. it was a beautiful place. i loved working there. i even got to take care of general westmoreland's wife and i could say that now since she's gone and so is he but we took care of civilians that had service ties most of them though were in the service. we were very very busy. there was no such thing as an eight-hour shift. we always worked more than that. we learned. or i learned a lot quickly you had to and you did a lot, but i will have to tell you is challenged as i was there to learn and did 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 of them that worked 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. i you know had found somebody that i thought was the person in i didn't want to leave because he had already come back and he had been injured but as it turned out diane my roommate and i both were sent and got orders and sent at the same day and another major joan snell front that worked at walter. reed was sent. um before the trip. i i just remember being anxious
excited my thoughts were. the challenge am i going to be okay with facing wartime injuries? i felt pretty secure at that point and i had only been out a nursing school one year so i felt pretty secure about my nursing ability but i just didn't know what war was going to do. so there was some anxiety there. i just turned 22 as i said and here i was in a foreign country we our trip over basically, very, you know insignificant i should say. i mean, i remember the anxiousness the saying goodbye to my parents and we flew out a mcguire air force base and then we went to alaska and then japan and finally into vietnam. and i had soldiers tell us when we got into vietnam. you might have a rough ride because of the mortars being shot at you. so, you know, nothing like that happened. it was a very smooth landing we
landed in benoit. and we got off the plane and the heat hit you. with like oh my and it was an odorous heat. i don't know. well how else to explain it, but it was and they shuffled this quickly off the plane just because of the fact that we were on an airstrip and we were prime targets for mortars. so this was a true. yes, this was a true. yes, the true fairy diane and i were the only i guess major snow was on and we don't remember that for sure, but she and i were the only females that we knew on the plane and all the guys were younger than us. i mean they were drafted and they were 18 years old and we felt old compared to them. so we we all got off the plane very quickly identified our bags and we were put into school buses that had barbed wire they
were school like buses barbed wire on the on the roof, but they had wires along the the windows. it was rather eerie driving through long bin and then we got to the place where we were going to spend the night. which had cops and after you've already been up 24 hours. you thought you would lay down and crash not so much. i remember. the flares going off now. i have i knew about flares, but i never knew what they sounded like and the bush that you hear what just woke you up and then the light would stay on for five minutes and then you'd finally say, okay, but this would go all this would go on all the time and then the sirens will go on so 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, but believe it or not dying and i and me just now we're all
assigned to the same place at the 67th back hospital in quinyon. so we ended up we've finished our processing and then we were taken to vietnam on a c-130 sumi qu on a c-130 the 67th of our hospital was rather large i think at one time it probably could hold about 300 patients, maybe even more after mascals and whatever but the unit i was in had capacity for 50 and our unit. the the hospital itself was shaped so that it was concrete block and for most of the buildings there were quonset huts that look like chicken coops that also were there that we used and then it had a large runway right beside it and then
it also had helicopter pads so that the dust off pilots could land right outside our emergency room door the emergency room. there was called rne receiving an emergency. the nurses woq was a square type building that was made out of wood and the rooms were made for two people and then there was a bathroom in between another room for two people. so you shared the bathroom. the let's see. from the aerial view there were red crosses painted on top of the hospital and we always laughed and that was something that the geneva convention had put you know that you always had a red cross in your hospital. well, that was just like mortar practice, you know, it was like, let's see if we can hit the red cross but i i will tell you that there was no hospital in vietnam at all. that was not in the battlefield
area. there was never anything being you know an hour away from where they were injured the the dust off pilots when they would bring our patients in it would be anywhere from two minutes to 20 minutes until they could get us get their wounded to the hospital which is phenomenal and that didn't happen in world war i or world war ii it was the first time ever. and the one statistic i read was 95% of the soldiers that were wounded that made it to the hospital lived. now what their lifestyle was like was a different story, but the fact that they were so readily gotten to to the hospital was incredible. the the sleeping quarters were as i said, they were made out of wood. they had sandbags in front of them. there were no windows in it. there was a joint air conditioning then that went around so if the air conditioning out everybody was
hot, but we were very fortunate that did not happen a lot. however, it did happen. the type of patients we got were right in from the field the stories that you see with the dust off pilots and the dust off choppers. we called huey's had the red cross on them. they were if it hadn't been for them. we would never have been able to save as many lives as possible the medics out in the field the the dust offs. i i cannot even begin to give them the credit that they deserve and knowing when someone when the soldiers were hurt, they would come in and say, you know when we got on that helicopter, we knew that there was a chance for us. and they would come into the receiving emergency room. they were triaged if they had
any 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 things that after 43 years of working in civilian life. i still wasn't allowed to do. i'll go into some of that later but the the pathway for the soldiers were coming into emergency going to pre-op their their wounds were being taken care of immediately by trying to clean them out there. so by the time they got to or they they did the procedures of cleaning, you know the wound even more however because of tetanus the wounds were never closed. they always had open wounds and it was called delayed primary closures. we call them dpcs. so when they had the shrapnel wounds and things they just had
open wounds when we got to them in icu and recovery room and then i see you. then three days later, they would go back and they would debride the wounds again or clean them out and then they would suit them shot if in fact the wound was ready for that to happen. the fellows that we served were our own soldiers. we were actually partial to our own soldiers. however, we had other koreans filipinos people, you know that supported us also that we took care of we had to vietnamese civilians vietnamese soldiers the arvinds which is the army of the republic of vietnam. we even had pows from the nva north vietnamese army and we had vcs. they were very heavily guarded. the korman were not allowed to take care of them without one of the nurses there with them. it it got to the point where
some of the vc would know how to say things to irritate us things like i just shot one of your friends things like that and the corpsman couldn't handle it because they had dear friends out there. so it was up to us who had made our our oath that we would take care of them. so we were very professional always took the best of care of them. no matter what because they were going to go in for interrogation and they were very heavily guarded so um we had in the medical wards which diane had been in basically it was malaria patients the and there are four stages of malaria and the she would come back and tell me how bad things were for one of them and you know you go through with your chills and your fevers and the fevers would be very high for them. they would they would be so high and you would think of brain damage and things like that, but
then it was like a cycle and then they got better and then they went out but you were supposed to take your medication for malaria, especially with you know, all of us were in the malarial area. i could not take it because it gave me a vision so i used whatever i could for mosquito repellent, which who knows? you talk about the orange pill. yes, the cp pill the chloroquine important. so skin diseases and fungus were always an issue especially during monsoon season because they couldn't dry the boots out. dehydration was also a real problem because they wouldn't they didn't have potable water and so that was always an issue. our nurses schedule we work 12-hour days unless we had mass college which was mass casualties. we would have any more anything like 15 to sometimes 50 people come in at one time.
everyone was on duty at that point and you would work 16 to 18 hours. sometimes 24 go back and try to sleep four hours and then come back. we were always trying to be the best. and that we could be i the nurses and the doctors i worked with i can't also say enough about in the corpsman everyone worked together. so well better so than in even in civilian life. i mean, i just can't say enough about the camaraderie that we have. it was the best in experience as a nurse that i ever had in my entire career. i learned so much. you learned fast. you did things things like tracheostomies we learned how to do it in basic training on a goat. well, he ended up having to do it when a doctor wasn't there. the soldiers came in with no arms. we had you know where you're going to start an iv. so we put it in the jugular the subclavian. well that that was just a no-no back in the civilian nursing.
cream. but the problem is with phosphorus it gets into the cell, and then i reacts with the potassium, and we did not have dialysis at our hospital. and the little fellow was with us for about a week and a half, then he went into cardiac arrest and never made it out. but his mom was allowed to stay with him, and it was a 24 seven care on him. so there were other children that we took care of, some of the wonderful wonderful people came in from the hills. they're basically country people that would fight along with us but in a non conventional way. they did not have weapons other than their own crossbows and arrows. they had spears, they would use, but they did not have guns at the time. and when their children were hurt they brought them in. they were those loving people,
loving with their children. but we did see some vietnamese children that were used as i was a guinea pigs, but soldiers always love to give candy to the kids, and then behind the kids back would be a grenade. or the parents would push the kids in front of them, just so they would get money from our government, because our government wounded them. these are some of the horrid things that happened there. you think how can people do that kids. the countries in war, didn't have any toys or anything else, and they don't care about the kids either. at least seen that way. i would not say all of it but a lot of it was like that. one of the things that found and even to this day, we had no computers, we had no you know you have to look for the patient and talk to the patient find out what was wrong with him. so our critical thinking skills were sharp. we could pick up things in a
nanosecond of what was going on, and having a doctor there to help us if we didn't want to do. and that today i think is a real wonderful thing to still be able to have is those critical thinking skills because i think computers take too much of that out of it for you. something other things that the the wounds that the soldiers would have is, these are an ambitious way to injure them. and if yet conch, really felt like if conjured soldiers it was better than if you kill them. because that way it took the money from our government and the time to heal them, so they would build these traps in the ground. then they would stick bamboo, and they would sharpen the bamboo sticks and stick them in there and then a lot of times they would put poison on or even maneuver. so when the fellows would go
through the jungle, they would fall into these things, and the sticks would go right through their legs and a lot of times the bacteria and the infection was so bad that the fellows lost their legs because there was too much injury due to the muscle tissue. so one of the most frightening things that ever happened to me believe it or not, was on that january 6th date and we talked about i talk about being commissioned, while this was the january 6th date of the next year 1971. the v c hit an ammo dump, which is about a mile from her hospital, and every time we were hit i was on night duty i don't know why but that's how it was. but it was the first time that i remember any enemy activity near us. i've been in the country about
a month and a half, and i was walking to work, and i was getting a little complacent at point. because i was thinking you know this is a long tour, and i thought sometimes things are slow and i will say you got bored, but you can work is hard. and i was walking to work thinking this isn't too bad, i've got ten half more months, and that night we got hit. it is 2:00 in the morning, i had just taken my last patient from the recovery room. into icu. i said i will be right back i just want to straighten up, and all the sudden the loudest explosion i have ever ever heard and i remember it hit. and i thought it hit the building next to our hospital where the doctor slept, and i was so scared. i hid under the metal desk in the recovery room. and i was thinking we were
being overrun. i trembled, i could not believe you know i prayed, and then i heard the yelling of the two nurses that were in icu, and realized i could not stay there. i grabbed jacket and helmet, and it was only a ten foot walk between the recovery room an icu, and there we had about 12 american soldiers at the time. they had civilians, and p.o.w. 's, so our soldiers came first. we pick them up, put them on cots, put them under the beds, we left their mattress on top of the bed, and govern other mattress to shield them. so no shrapnel or glass could come and hit them. we did it for all of our soldiers first, and then we did the women and there were two women civilians, and then we did the men, and the vietnamese, and last but not least, was this p.o.w. who had tripped a land mine, who is in the body cast. it normally took five people to
take care of him. about two nurses, even to turn him. another nurse and i pick them up and shoved him under his bed. we don't have any more mattresses around, so we figured the body cast would have protective that way. but i have a picture, that i can show you what i can looked like if you'd like to see that at this time. i will show you the picture of what our unit look like before, and then what it looked like the night of that explosion. this is what our unit look liked before. that's what look like. >> just hold it close your chest. >> okay right there that's even better. >> yes. >> you can see we have lights
and windows on the upper part, and the windows had tape on them, so that in case something like this happen, the glass would not explode all through. but the doors were wooden doors, and you can see all the beds in that unit. this is what it looked like afterwards, and i'm sitting on a bed that we'd used one of the mattresses, and the doors were blown, we put a sheet on the door, the windows are blown out, we are an emergency power at that point. all the power gone off. my other fellow nurses are sitting on the desk, and we are just taking a break before everything happened. just to get ready for the day shift. one of the fellows had a tracheotomy. so this one nurse and i would crawl on our hands and knees, and we are suctioning him. but we had a mattress right
beside his bed, we have to put the mattress down, that we had the suction machine at the side, so there i am suctioning him, and the other nurses -- him. so every time we got hit it was night duty. there were a few other times, but nothing was quite as bad as that ammo dump. the ammunition, there were 5000 tons of munitions that were exploded that night. and it lasted into the wee hours of the morning. we finally got used to hearing it, and realized it wasn't at our hospital, which was the main thing and it was a comfort. it made me realize that complacency is not something you can have in a war zone. >> so were there unexploded devices that flew into the hospital area? >> no it was the sound wave. >> it was a blast.
>> yes it was a blast wave itself, which also is a learning experience. i had no idea that the percussion could be that great. of course i guess with 5000 tons high guess i should've realized it, but we don't we didn't know it wasn't the time. one of my favorite stories, is bob hope, he could not come to our area. we were too hot. we don't have an empty theater big enough for him to do a show. but they sent phyllis george. who is miss america 1970. and she later became the first lady of kentucky. but she was so beautiful, and so you know so we're all of her entourage. they came to our icu and talk with every single soldier. and that was awesome. and the soldier, one of the soldiers i was taking care of that day, was a double amputee.
both his arms were amputated from the elbow down. and so he could not hold himself up. so i was holding him up and she spent a lot of time with him. and when she was leaving, i laid him down and said want to be great if all of us look that good. and he looked up at me, and he said they don't hold a candle to what you look like to us. i just couldn't believe he said that, and i kissed his forehead and said i will never forget that thank you. here he was supporting me, and i was supposed to be supporting him. so you know. another story that i never forget this one, there was an ambush and that was right near where we were near the mountains. so for whatever reason, strategy had that we needed that path for the soldiers, and then it was taken over and went on and on. one of the nights i was in the
recovery room, and one of the soldiers came in and into the recovery room, and the doctor looked up at me and said, he has lost his one eye i think it was. and his right i had with a couple high fema in it. so it wasn't sure if he was going to be able to see out of his right eye. he lost his left arm, above the elbow. and his right arm was totally off. as he was waking up from anesthesia, he was saying nurse i can't put my arm down. and he was lifting his chest up trying to put his right arm down. there was another theirs and myself working, and i went over and talk to him and i said you are just waking up from anesthesia, do you remember what happened? he said yes, and he said i i i and he never finished.
so i said this just try and relax are you in pain? >> he said no i'm not in pain. and he was almost defiant, he was angry it was like why can't i see, why can't i do this, why can't i do that you have me tied down. and so i lay my hand on his chest, and i said to him you're in the recovery room, you have been injured. and he said whatever the extent of my injuries? and he looked at the other nurse we looked at each other, because we were supposed to tell him much, and i said well your arms have been injured. and he said how come i can't put them on the bed and both the other nurse and i looked at each other and she said tell him now. so she was a more seasoned nurse than i, and she had been there quite a lot longer and i called him by name and i told him about his arms, and he says well why can't i see? i said well will pfizer patched
right now, and i said the doctor is going to come in the morning and check your eyes. and he said great now i'm going to have to sit and sell puzzles on the side of the sidewalk just to make money, and i said no no no. someone is determined and strong as you are has gone through this you look at we will get you through this i'm going to give you some pain minister now and talk with you and we will just see how things go, okay? the next morning the doctor came and looked at his eyes and the doctor was pretty hopeful for that when i. he was still pretty upset. he lost everything except his legs so he was with us at least two weeks, which is usually 14 days is usually the amount of time for someone that seriously injured would deal with this. we would sit down and write a letter to the wife.
his wife did get some letters through to him so we would reach it to him. we'd write more letters for him. be he finally made it back to japan. then back to colorado. he was hurt one of the first bionic arms and so he wrote to us and wrote back to us and this was so important to us because we never knew what happened to the fellows after they left us and he was supporting us and letting us know that he did okay even though he's already been to hell he, said i can't go any further. he said but i'm going to make it. so something like that just gave us hope that maybe we can continue helping these fellows that are so young. we felt old. we felt old. doug these kids were 1819 years old coming in. bought the age of 20 was bought
the most that had died. it was over 30,020 year olds that had died in vietnam. so it just seemed kind of unreal to me -- >> let me interrupt you for just one second. just listening to you describe the stress. how did you de-stress? >> that is a good question. when you went off duty you partied hearty. if we had worked nights we would have volleyball games. we would play jungle roles. it is nurses against the guys so when they would go up for -- that was one of the ways. there were the officers club -- they always had a rift terrific
band. there would be philippine people and they sang the song just like the americans would but you ask him the question and it would not know how to talk to you. they would only know the american words. but the closeness of friends that you may think, it's just so different then when you are here in the states and not in a war zone because you depend on everybody so much and you become so close. it was such a terrific experience to have that camaraderie and love from one another. i mean the photos ahead and things kind of spiraled out. we were always there for each other. it worked so well. the stressing part, you did get tired of yuck seeing the injured and having the kids so
young. but i don't remember any of the names of my patients. none. i've been to the wall a few times yuck. i don't remember anybody took care of other than the faces. what they had wrong with them. i truly believe that that was my way of protecting myself. i did not get that involved with their life. the minute i would see -- i would read somewhere that one of the nurses found the back of one of our soldiers. he had his best point ignore. credentials there. yet his pictures of his kids and things. he did not make it. she just lost it. she could not even work after that. i read that since all that but i did not do that. i did not do it. i really did party hearty. >> but you maintained
professional relationships with your patience? >> absolutely. absolutely. that is the one way that they knew that they could count on us, and when a patient was dying we never, ever left our soldiers die by themselves. we were always there with them. one of us would be a timed to that patient and we would be there with him the whole time, holding hands, talking with him. if you wanted us to write to his mom or died, we did. it was tough. it was tough. we just wanted to make sure that their mom and dad or their loved ones knew that they were not alone. we big didn't have that opportunity when they died on the field, but we had that opportunity when they were at the hospital. on my off, to relieve stress i
would go to what they called a mid cap missions. we would go over -- believe it or not leprosy was still there in that country, which is -- you hardly hear of leprosy anymore, however, it was there. we would go over there. the french nuns would be there. the french nuns had this beautiful place. it was a chapel. the -- they had an operating room. they would do invitations. they did not have any -- the disease had spread to their limits. they didn't have any feeling. we would operate on them. we would have them with some bandages. then that would usually be the first thing in the morning. you would take your life in your hands going there, because we had no guards. no ammunition. it was about two miles, i
believe, or more, i can't remember the exact maryland from our hospital compound, so you were on your own. some of the mid caps -- i never experienced that. but we went into our uniforms and we changed to the operating uniforms there and then if we wanted to go swimming it was a beautiful beautiful beach. it was clean and wonderful. the nuns always fixed us the most fabulous meals. that was one of the reasons why you always wanted to go, but i had pictures of how beautiful the place was, because you think how could this still be, after the french left, communism was coming in and i don't know whether it's still there or not but the tiles --
designs -- some of the buildings were just 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 rooms and one of the other things that happened and i really have mixed emotions about it, it was fun, but i was a little bit disgusted about the whole thing. early on, i think it might have been march of 1971. there -- we -- my roommate and i were called into the chief nurses office. i thought oh no. we were always in trouble. i thought, i wonder what she got me into this time. we were invited to go to the neighing for a general -- dinner. there was one other nurse. she also was invited.
so my roommate being fierce -- asking why did we have to go? i did not say a word. anyways, she said because you were invited and you will go because you are representing the 67th hospital. so the time came in a couple of the guys made this banner in front of me -- for the generals girl. so we have our picture taken in front of that. we were flaunted in naming. it was a lovely, lovely experience. i think where i got disgusted was where i was sitting. i was in a dress. i was not in my fatigues, but we were not the only females there. they hadn't invited other women from all the other hospitals. the general wanted to have some nurses or female cough and this dinner. so they talked about different
things and then they came around and asked me if i wanted red or white wine. that is one i -- i was like, i am here saying what kind of wine i want and our hospital is short staffed because three of us are here. and they are asking me how i want my state. and i am like -- all those guys that are eating rations and here we are at this dinner. i was excited that i was able to participate, but i was really 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 there. they were just getting ready to leave port to get out of the ocean, because they didn't want to be -- that was an experience. then we flew back and tried to
live with ourselves for the next couple of days, but i will tell you that the type of wine that we drank was nothing like we thought about there. the newest winds at that point was blue none, it was quite prevalent. that seems to be how the parties went. i was never a beer drinker, still not a beer drinker, but the wind did flow. but for the most part those are the main stories that i can share with you and have always stayed in my mind and emotion wise i kind of thought about all the emotions that you experience as a nurse and one of the first ones was excitement because of the challenge and of the adventure, the travel and i had never been to that part of the world and i
thought believe me when we are laying there in the sun on our days off and we were able to have a break we were all thinking that 20 something years from now it's going to be a vacation spot of the world. how many of us will come back? but this soldier is not going back. however, i do have friends that have gone back. i just don't think i can't. there are other places to see, then there, done that. not doing it. the anxiety i felt, that was short lived. after you get there and you 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 that you get fearful is your last 30 days, because you are short timed any country. nothing has happened to you so far. and believe me, things happened the last 30 days that can
really chilled yourself esteem for being self confident. anger. i had anger. anger towards our government for putting us there when at that point, at the time of this war, the vietnamese people, it almost seemed like they did not care. and they -- the black market was really big. they would take things as an example, we were never paid in american money. our money was always deposited back in a bank in the united states, but they had and pcs. military payment certificates. and we did not dare have american money because that's great for black market. they could get much more money for it. and every time we wanted to give our moms something we had to write a no. we didn't know if the mom
assigns were part of the bc. with all of that so so that the law mama songs would wash our clothes and our uniforms and iron them. we would go by and it was a communal wash and you never saw the suds. they were taking our soap. i've learned to open that jar of the bottle that i give and pour some in, and that where they could not sell it for a full bottle. but the issue with the communal washing tub with no soap was that if somebody had an infection, most of us got an infection so it was not a fun thing. i was angry about that. i was angry east's, just as i said, about the vietnamese people not caring and i know that was not all of them and i realize that but it's just a
complacency, that they wanted us to do the fighting and and you would meet these full army of republic, and they cared. they cared about their family that for the most part and the diligence around our compound, it did not seem that way and also the drug use was being escalated by our soldiers because they never knew who the enemy was. and the enemy was winning at that point. they had made tunnels that we did not know about and these kids would be out in the jungle in the cold not having any water to drink and whatever, but they could find drugs. the heroine was one of the big he's. i had -- i was up in a guard tower when night when afternoon taking pictures and i took pictures of our soldiers east drugs through the barbed wire fence.
it was too easy to get. the post traumatic stress syndrome that we now know about was not even diagnose than. it was called oppression that the guys had, or it was called shell shock or depression. but after eight months of being in intensive care, i thought i was losing it. i lost my concentration, and several things happened for it to happen. my very dearest to friends, diane who was my roommate was leaving early because her brother was a career and the wouldn't have her in the country the same time he was. she got to leave after being there six months. my other friend laura, who is their three months before me, she left in august. so i was really down. yes there were other people around, but they were very dear
near and i still talk to them today. so it was you know, you can get down and out, but i never ever used a drug never. but these guys had nothing to turn to. after the eight months of icu i thought is there any way i can get out of it. can i go to another unit. so they had me on an orthopedic unit for one month. then at the very end i was in the emergency room the last three months. but the orthopedic ward, you can see from some of the pictures, it's bed after bed after bed after bed. you are thinking oh my gosh, you have never seen anything like that in hospital. but the other half of the orthopedic ward was the drug cage. i hate to say it but they put wire up, built a door. i remember one night, i kept hearing the sound and i thought what is it. well this guy who was in the
drug unit, he took a knife and took the hinges off the back door and escaped. and he did it so quietly and i looked in and i saw him in his bed. it was not him, he had folded up sheets and made it look like him. he was caught and brought back, but since then we learned they were only allowed plastic knives. so was things like that. and i thought all right get me off of this. for eight months i took care of the most critical people, now you're giving me this. then i ended up in the emergency room. so. let's see here, the i'm trying to think if there's anything else there that i did think. oh yes i did go on our in our to hong kong. that was a little different because hong kong was off limits at the time and i was
supposed to be going to taiwan but then i took a plane to hong kong and i did not realize i was a wall at that time. i thought nobody is going to know. and there were two other guys that i didn't know, one was an army captain another one was an air force captain. we are sitting on the plane going to taiwan. and i thought i really don't want to be in taiwan, i want to go hong kong. so they sit totally, and the three of us went to hong kong. and we got a letter, my mother saved all the letters, we say we stated this beautiful patel beautiful hotel. i have my own room. and it was a sweet. and i thought oh my gosh, i went down and said how much is this. and they said it was 21 dollars a night, and i couldn't afford it. and seriously i asked for a standard room. they put me in a single room, not sweet but i was allowed to stay there until wednesday night. and i needed to stay on
thursday, but they had a convention coming in. so i had no idea where i was going to stay. and one of the agreements that the three of us made, is that we would set a time each day that we have to connect so we all knew that we were all okay. but i shopped, i shopped all week. i had saved all this money because i didn't have anything else other than a sears and robotics catalogued by things from. so everything was being shipped back home. i was so excited. then we got back to taiwan, and we were supposed to leave hong kong ok. and i even wrote in my note to my parents, i got into hong kong with my passport no problem. but the issue was getting out of hong kong, you need to have a visa. and none of us had visas. so we are like oh my goodness. so of the three of us, i was the first lieutenant, there was an army captain, and an air
force captain, who thought they had more clout. so we asked him to call the consulate. and tell them that we need to get back to taiwan or we were going to be a wall. and we didn't realize it then but. so the consulate was able to get us out so we got out. and we got on the plane and all of a sudden the plane started to turn around and i looked at this one guy and i said what is going out what's going on the plane is turning around? and we have to go back into hong kong because there was a crash at the taiwan airport. now we know we are really in deep trouble because the hong kong airport closest at midnight. we had to get out of there and into taiwan because are playing for vietnam left the next morning. so it's at 11:55 we are
boarding the plane to get out of hong kong. we got out and we arrived in taiwan at two in the morning. we had no place to stay. i asked the taxi driver to get me a place that was reputable. and my room had no window. it was a closet but i have a bed. i did not sleep much. got up, shopped around the hotel, got on a plane so all to say i wasn't awol. we landed and got on another plane, and we took off and all of a sudden the plane decompression rise. and i'm in the back of the plane, and usually they leave the nurses in the front, but i have flown these planes before with the guys there. and they don't like women in the back, but i was in the back this time. and they were like we are leaving quickly. so i'm like, oh this has been a trip and a half.
so we know they got things under control, and there was something with the hatch that didn't latch, then we get back to vietnam. and that was my 30 days before i left the country because i want to have my are right before i left. so the last month as you say you prepare yourself mentally for leaving and you can't wait, but then there is a bit of anxiety because it's like well i don't have a job when i go back, but i'm a nurse i can get a job. and i wasn't going back to gettysburg other than to see my parents. i was going to go to kalamazoo michigan, because i had a friend there and i thought i could get a job there which i did. but leaving the close friends, and you have to understand that
most of my close friends left in august. i had to make new friends for a few months. and they were friends, but nothing as close as the friends i have had before. and they were all there to see me off on the c-130. and you also will your refrigerator, your hot plate, your whatever to whoever. or for the best price. so anyway i got rid of a lot of stuff. but not my real to real, and that all that stuff i still have. so my reel to reel and all my tapes i still have that. but i remember i think it was saigon, and the frida bergh was a pretty thing i've ever seen. it was a true carrier. i was the only female on that
flight, and the flight attendants attendants ignored me all over the place. i guess that's cause i was a female. but the atmosphere on the plane it was so totally different than when we had got there. flying over. the minute we took off there was a loud cheer. i'm sure you could've heard on the ground. then we flew to japan, then we flew to washington and because i was so short, i only had until january six to get out of the service. and i was not reassigned so i knew i wanted to get out. i had had enough of the puppet strings from the government, saying this is what you have to do. i just want to go into civilian life. and i remember getting home and
my parents were so excited, and it was thanksgiving time, i got to see all my family. then in january i left for kalamazoo. and starting my civilian nursing. and it wasn't anything as challenging. and to this day, nothing was challenging. i did 18 years of critical care with open heart recovery nursing. i have done 12 years of home health. i did three years of urology and office nursing. let's to get me out of nursing her out of weekend sorry. and then i did home care. i've been full circle. i started with wound care and critical wounds, and i ended up doing the same thing. so when i would talk to high schools, i was actually asked to talk about nursing. so i would tell them all the different experiences of
nursing. but the one that caught their attention the most, was my military career. they kept asking me questions about it, and asking more questions. finally then people started asking me to come and talk about vietnam, because it was finally in the history books. and the one time i said i would do it, i get this letter of thanking me for being able to do it, but would you please be the keynote speaker for the veterans day program. and i'm like are you kidding? i only talk impromptu. so they said we would love to hear a female story, we want to hear in herstory. so fortunately it was a small high school that was nearby. but it took me a month and a half to write the speech. which you've heard some of it. and as i walked in to the auditorium that day and they
had the music of gettysburg playing. so you know i felt right at home at this point. then i looked up at the stage and i see all these chairs and i'm like well who else is here? they said we have veterans from desert storm, world war ii, and then i said and you chose me to come? are you nuts? i said they would be much better. they said no no this is good. so the students planned this entire program. and as they had invited all these people and so right before they introduce me, and i stood up and i said i would like you all to stand, and give a large applause to the veterans that have fought for our country, and that is why you are able to have the freedom. so i figured the kids would just you know clap for about 15 seconds and sit down.
we are talking high school they could care less is what i thought. they kept clapping and flopping and clapping. and i was like oh my gosh. find the acid thank you. and i'm choking up. and now i have to talk for 20 minutes. so i had a speech and i could see the audience and then i would just cut off. but nobody moved. i could not believe it. i finished the whole thing and no one moved. and at the end, they just stood up and start clapping. 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 fine i could finally start telling people about what happened. and i never did it to that
extent. the healing process has continued. as i said, the wall was my first dramatic experience. doug i went with my son on his sixth grade class egg -- and i went to the wall. i thought we had saved so many kids. so many kids yuck and you. start with the wall being so low. then you get overcome with these mountains of letters. letters, names, names, names, no greats. it jolted me back and gettysburg on memorial day. graves and no names. here are names and new graves. it was like -- this was the most dramatic part, coming and seen that. at that time in the world there was a lot of artifacts left
also. letters. he would just sit there and you cannot believe it. the next time i was at the wall is during 1993 and i just prepared that. the memorial for the women though was an incredible week my very dear friend and i decided we would go without our kids, our husbands. just stay there for the weekend. enjoy and see what happens. i will tell you i was married 20 years at that point. i was kissed more that we can and i was in the 20 years i was married. i call that my husband and he just left. there were soldiers that came over the from the country from all to say thank you. and i was like thank. you i never thought i needed to hear that. yeah i was sent to do a job. i volunteered to go to do a job. and it felt so good to be
thanked that i had never anticipated that feeling. there were soldiers there that held up signs with nurses that to care of them. looking for the nurses. there were soldiers there that from the different companies that we served. like the one 73rd was there. i guess it was the 1:01. anyways they were there and looking for us. it was a credible feeling of warmth and, wow, i guess we just did do a good job. big by that time i was like, 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 founded and i told him. he said why did you get this? i said i'm not really sure.
i said laura did not get one. neither did diane. so i said why should i get when? he said well you got one for some reason. i said i believe every nurse should have gotten one, but if you served there and went through everything. you should have gotten one. but that is not the way it happened. i'm very proud to have received a bronze star. i even where the lapel pin. but it was an incredible healing. and it's still happening. helping with the high school kids with their programs. piece of my heart. each little bit i can tell them how to do that that helps. i think the other thing, last year, laura and i went to d.c. for big -- to celebrate 45 years being back in the world. we want everywhere. we got permission to go to the
white house, to go to the pentagon. we were invited to arlington. we saw the re-flaying. we saw the wreath laying with the military order of world war ii. it was an incredible time. we never stopped talking. i have not seen her in 12 years. we picked up right where we left off. we called each other. diane wrote a book. her married name is -- the book was called round eyes because that's what we were called back then. some of the stories are not the way i remember them, but i am not named jimmy in the book because i believe she was asked if she got my permission and she said no. so she changed my name to cindy. the interesting thing is i
re-read it before i came here today thinking, oh my gosh, diane. there were times when i was like, she really did cause a lot of trouble. but that was her way, that was diane's way of dealing with the past. i had the opportunity to talk and tell people. so next year will be the 25th anniversary of the women's memorial and laura and i are planning to go back to celebrate to see if we could find some of the nurses that served with us again. >> with events took place during that women's memorial? >> my gosh. i had it in my scrapbook. let's see. we had a huge gathering after we walked down the mall. and we had a candlelight
service. but the celebration with diane and lynda. i can't remember her name. the sculptor. they were incredible. they wrote a book about it. we got them to sign. we even got to go to hug -- what's the fort's name? it's where they have the old guard? they had a beautiful ceremony for us where we could watch the old guard do their drums and things like that. so i hope they do that again. that would be awesome. but it has been an incredible life that i've had. i'm very blessed. >> let me ask you two questions. one is yet to take you back in country. toward the end of your tour we talk about late 71 when things
started to turn release our. did you get any news over there? did you have any idea of what was happening back in the states? >> 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 was called -- it had no commercials on it. and actually, some of the nurses would go up on top of the mountain and we would do the weather report for them, so that was interesting as well. but we knew what was happening. we knew big -- in fact, we knew enough that when we landed we did not go out in our uniforms. we changed insulin close right away. i never had anybody spit at me. i knew that it happened. i was always treated with the
most respect. i think the thing that was so hard to understand was people said at my new employment. they said where did you were before? i would say i was an army nurse in vietnam. they would say oh. that's it. nothing else. big that was it. i was allowed to use a lot of the schedules. allowed for civilian nurses. i was not allowed to put a chest tube again. i was not allowed to do big juggler -- sticks again. big nowadays nurses can do the but they have to be -- theirs practitioners. i did not use the educational gi bill. i teed just did not want to go back to school at the time. i had learned so much from the
experiences i'd had. i did not want to be an administration. i want to take care of patients, and that is what i did. i loved being a nurse. just a downright, good old nurse. >> you mentioned your husband and son. tell us about your family. >> i met my husband after he got out of vietnam. he was a hospital ministry to. he was doing his residency when i was working in the open heart unit. the funny thing is -- i'm not going into details or he would shoot me right now. he was new to the hospital and i had been there ten months of that at that point. and i looked at him and wondered who that guy was. i asked the administrator who have been to be a retired army colonel. he left me big. he called me hot pants all the time and that -- back then it was fine.
i said who's that guy. he said dave. i said i think i'd like to meet him. so he told dave that that was his assignment. and that is how we got together. he had an order. david said i had an order to meet you. i have a son that is 41 years old now. he is in the financing -- he's in a bank. he's doing very well. he never had to serve. i'm actually thankful for that. he is married to a beautiful woman. here they have three little girls. i actually talked with the girls. i had them all last week. they have identical twins that are 11. they have a sister that's eight. i was showing them the thing that i am donating so that they can actually feel them and see what it is, because they'll never see them unless they come here. have a daughter.
she's 38 years old. she is an artistic theater director in chicago. and an actress. or actor, i guess he likes to be called. but she trained for that in college. she has been very successful. >> that's great. we are about to move toward the closing here. i would like to give you some editorial time. it is your opportunity to say whatever you would like about whatever topic you would like to talk about now. >> okay. >> it's your turn. >> i would talk about roughly the ptsd. okay? when i came back i never felt that i had ptsd. i was not out there fighting. i never shot a gun over there. yes, i was jumpy. big but i never associated with
post dramatic -- post traumatic stress syndrome. a couple of things happened there. before, as i was dating my husband a car backfired. i was on the ground. he had no idea where i was. a firecracker in an apartment building i had lived in -- a cherry bomb or something went off. i was under my bed when i woke up. these are all learned things from more. i accepted that. i think it happens more with different smells. i have never smoked in my life. never smoked marijuana. never did any of that stuff. but because so many people did over there i could pick it up instantly, the smell. but the helicopter sounds. i play golf. when the helicopters -- if there are certain helicopters. i just stop when i'm doing. i cannot hit the ball until that helicopter goes away. it has happened recently.
also, my poor husband doug -- if i did not hear him come in the house and all of us and he comes up to me, i mean i would literally scream or jump. i do remember one time being scared so much that i just started hitting him, because i said don't you ever, ever, ever come up on me like that again without letting me know. he said i am so sorry. i mean this has been 45 years now, that i have been back. and so if you think about and i was not actively fighting, but some of the things that are with me what -- happens to these young men now? my aged men. how they had to cope and deal with their family life? i am very proud of the fact that i served my country. i would go back to vietnam again if it ever happened. if i was young again i would do that.
it was the best learning experience i ever had. the only thing i would hope and pray is that our government continues to learn and our people and our citizens 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 is because i see someone in a uniform. i will always do that now. it is so important that they know that people care, and that is not what happened to those young guys over there. american history tv on c-span 3. exploring the people and events that tell the american story every weekend. 60 years ago this weekend, more than 1400 cia trying to cuban exiles launched a failed invasion to overthrow fidel castro's communist government in cuba at the bay of pigs. live, saturday at 9 am eastern
on american history tv and washington journal. we will look back at the invasion and its consequences with former cia historian nicholas. sunday at 4 pm eastern on real america, four films on u.s. cuba relations and the edited version of the 1961 nbc report. cuba, bay of pigs. president john f. kennedy is 1961 speech after the failed invasion. a compilation of universal news reels from 1959 to 1961 on the cuban revolution through the bay of pigs and of asian. and the 1960 brought crest, cuba the battle of america. explore the american story. watch american history tv this weekend on c-span 3.
leon ellis served in the u.s. air force during the vietnam war. he was held in north vietnam as a prisoner of war for five years. up next he recount his years in a captivity including his torture. this was conducted by the atlantic history centers research center. >> i grew up on a farm near athens georgia. this was growing up in the fifties, i was born in 1943. growing up in the fifties on the farm and my grandfather had been a farmer, we live with him or he live with us, we moved in when my grandmother died, and took care of my grandfather. he was kind of winding down on his farming days. we still had mules, we had a pair of mules when i was really young. we