Patricia Hill-Vandermolen, Vietnam veteran
New Market, MD, USA
I was 21 and barely a year out of nursing school when I went to Vietnam for my first tour at Qui Nhon in 1968. In all, I spent 27 months there, having extended that first tour 3 months. I wanted to be a part of our nation’s history but early in that tour, my view of the war changed and I wanted this war to end. When I returned to the states, I was spat upon and called a whore. I marched in the peace protests. During that year stateside, I felt so lost, the world I’d left 15 months before was so different. I had no patience with frivolous things since I had been involved with daily life and death decisions. I returned to Long Binh, Vietnam one year later remembering only the camaraderie and good times. At the end of my first week, I sat on my bunk crying, “what have I done, I forgot that this was Hell” and with the next breath declared to myself that I’d better wipe those tears because I had 51 more weeks to go. I also promised myself that when I returned this time, that regardless how lost I felt, I would do all the things I dreamed of doing, that I wouldn’t allow myself to be forever tied to this war. I wanted to insure that Vietnam would not be the defining experience of my life.
I kept that promise. I skydived, backpacked a thousand miles of the Appalachian Trail, whitewater canoed the wonderful rivers of Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, awakened from my sleeping bag with my dog to beautiful splendor, lived in a VW van during a 3 month “retirement” trip with my best friend and her dog which took us throughout the Southwest & up to Alaska, cross country skied & solo winter camped in Yellowstone, worked seasonally as a Park Ranger during mini-retirements from nursing, wintered in Maine and summered in New Orleans ( the rich do it the other way!).
It wasn’t until I turned 40 while living in New Orleans that the war years resurfaced so strongly that I could no longer fight back the nightmares. Perhaps it was the oppressive heat of Louisiana which reminded me of Vietnam or perhaps it was just that I slowed down long enough to stop running from my memories. On my 40th birthday, awakening in tears, I pulled the book, Long Time Passing: Vietnam & the Haunted Generation ( Myra MacPhearson) from my bookshelf. After the first several pages, I realized what the tears meant: I was crying for all those who would never turn 40, whose memory I could not erase, and that it was time to open an old scar and debride that wound that I’d carried for nearly 2 decades. I went to a Vietnam Veteran’s group and for some time felt at peace until the Gulf War reactivated the nightmares and smells of that earlier time. After much support from my boyfriend ( and now, husband) and therapy, I’m finally at peace.
The day of the women’s statue dedication was especially healing. So many people of all walks of life who came to say “Thank You” meant so much to me: the Indian honor guard who escorted the statue, the Arsenio salutes “whooop, whooop, whooop”, the widow who came to thank us, the man in a wheelchair saluting us as we marched, the numerous ex and current GIs... I thank all of you for you have sealed my peace.
Many times I’ve encountered comments that make me realize that most people don’t understand what experiences we nurses had in Vietnam. One friend tried to tell me that his year in Germany was much “worse” than my 2 years in Vietnam because he could have been called up anytime! Another comment was that I probably didn’t see much as I was in a rear hospital. I began to put a lot of my residual memories into a poem called Upon This Wall which gives some indication of what the years in SICU, Preop, Postop and ER were like.
We returned to Vietnam this January, not to relive old war memories but for our son, a 4 month old boy from Hanoi. It is very peaceful there now, and also, here.
Upon This Wall
May 1968 - Sept. 1969 QUI NHON
Upon this Wall is Lynn, 1 of 6, whose APC hit a land mine, burning and maiming those inside, who after days of massive infusions of IV fluids, antibiotics, pain meds, and dressing changes over scalded flesh, died in Japan 2 days after leaving us.
Upon this Wall are 2 of 4, 4 with high thoracic spinal cord injuries, 4 in a row on SICU, 2 Americans, 2 Vietnamese, dying slowly one by one, comforted only by a touch on the shoulder or hair; 1, the last, who died so frightened.
Upon this Wall is a sergeant in his 40s, a father, killed not by enemy fire but by a helicopter tail rotor.
Upon this Wall is a young lieutenant with minor frag wounds whose soul drowned in a rain puddle in which he fell.
Upon this Wall is Bob, who survived his wounds but died of a pulmonary embolus as he talked with Deanna.
Upon this Wall is one from the bunker: a crew-top, sandy-haired young man who ran from its safety to retrieve his M-16 during a Viet Cong attack on our compound; who survived numerous lung surgeries but died of a ruptured spleen, misdiagnosed as his “heart giving out”.
Upon this Wall is one alone, a young soldier in isolation, who died of Typhoid fever after numerous blood transfusions and surgeries to resect the bleeding Peyer’s patches in his bowel. Each time we thought we could save him but we were wrong.
Upon this Wall is David, run over by a deuce-and-a-half while he slept in its shade, who bartered a kiss for pain medicine, but whose crush injury was too great.
Upon this Wall is Stanley, so terrified of dying, whose hand we held, who did not die alone.
Within this memory is a 7 year old girl, “Pigtails”, whose left arm & leg were ripped open by the deuce-and-a-half that drug her through the streets of Qui Nhon, who comforted me with her smile as much as I comforted her with my hugs, whose death seemed so unfair.
Within this memory is the young woman in the light blue ao dai which covered her napalm scarred body, who we helped to walk again.
Within this memory is a Viet Cong man, thrown on a stretcher from a helicopter hovering over our landing zone.
Within this memory are soldiers whose “blindness” we cured by leaving things out of reach, who once found out, were returned to battle.
Within this memory are 13 hours days and 6 day weeks, assisted with Ritalin to wake up and Seconal to sleep until exhaustion dictated only sleep and work, no time to dream, no time to heal, no time to cry.
Within this memory are young men, quadriplegic and paraplegic, on stryker frames with Crutchfield tongs;
Within this memory are battles against systemic bacterial infections fought with “10 of Pen and 2 of Chloro”; the smells of burned, charred flesh: weeping fasciotomies that relieved the pressure on the bloated limbs; the smell of pseudomonas from tracheas; a surgeon arriving in country with a suitcase of Sulfamylin cream, the latest defense.
Sept 1970 - Sept 1971 LONG BINH
Upon this Wall are 5 of 6, 5 who died because the helicopter pilot wanted a photo of them going under a bridge.
Upon this Wall are 1 and others, 1 who survived the plane crash but had 100% 3rd degree burns, who could not see because of the swelling, who did not know, who was comforted by morphine and a soft voice; One who finally died after the fluids were shut off and the morphine increased. One who never had the chance to say “good-bye”.
Upon this Wall are many “expectants”, men with severe head injuries whose lives had ended before their bodies, who were put behind screens as we cared for those who might survive.
Upon this Wall is a soldier with an arm infected from dirty heroin needles, who died on the operating table with a heart full of pus.
Upon this Wall is a warrent officer helicopter pilot killed from a rocket that went off when he walked in front of a Cobra.
Upon this Wall are a group of men, bunched together at the end of the ER, gray baby faces, already dead, no time to mourn, time only for the living.
Within this memory is a young man pleading with me “my leg, my leg, don’t take my leg” as I snipped the remaining tissue with my bandage scissors; No time for comfort, only time to stop the bleeding and then send him past the dead into surgery.
Within this memory is a Viet Cong who eluded Cobra rockets, who might have escaped, who the fatherless pilot saluted.
Within this memory is a young black soldier who cried “how can we be over here fighting for their freedom when my people aren’t free!”, whom I didn’t have an answer for.
Within this memory are 3 Viet Cong on stretchers who kept being pushed towards the back of my ward as more and more casualties came in until there was barely room to walk; the shame later that evening of feeling hatred towards other human beings for all the carnage they had caused when we had done the same to their side.
Within this memory is a 16 year old Viet Cong whose hand I held, whose fears I calmed because I could no longer hate.
Within this memory is a young ARVN soldier whose lower body was amputated from above the hip bone, who received so much blood that he no longer had any clotting ability, who slowly bled out of every orifice, until we finally said “no more”.
Within this memory is a magazine reporter, whose death set off a feud amongst ARVN troops about his remaining possessions.
Within this memory is a soldier, paralyzed and missing an arm, who made it home, who drove a van and went parasailing with another nurse after the War, who one day couldn’t take the pain anymore and blew himself away.
FINISHING SCHOOL: Combat Veteran’s Group, New Orleans, 1987.
Upon this Wall are 3 of 6, men whose helicopter crashed, 3 who were rescued by a sergeant who blamed himself for only rescuing half before it burst into flames, who taught me how we blame ourselves for those we lost but can’t see those we saved.
Upon this Wall is all but 1, 1 man evaced out due to wounds the day before his entire group was extinguished, who carries the burdens of so many friends’ memories, who taught me of the guilt of surviving.
Missing from this Wall are the others, the 5 of 6, the 1 of all, those who survived.
Within this memory is a WWII soldier who remembered wanting rest after a long battle in France, who finally found rest after his long battle with cancer on a VA ward, who had a nurse who could listen and guide because of a burned soldier in Vietnam.
Upon this Wall are stories of how we learned about respirators and ventilators and burn treatment and TPN and helicopter evacuations, and numerous medical advances that we use in hospitals today. And yet, upon this Wall is the pain of nurses who judge themselves with every new bit of knowledge we learn, who think we should have known what Kubler-Ross and medical science would later teach us, who would come to know that we were human in an inhumane place.
NOV 11, 1993 Dedication of Women’s statue, Washington DC
They said “Thank You”.
Patricia Hill Vandermolen