Patricia Rushton, ed. Vietnam War Nurses: Personal Accounts of 18 Americans. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013. 196 pp. $19.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7352-6.
Reviewed by Nancy J. Traylor-Heard (Mississippi State University)
Published on H-War (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of military nurses boarded planes at Travis Air Force Base to travel to their new base hospitals in Vietnam. When these nurses landed they were overwhelmed by the heat and the stench of war. Many of these nurses gained new skills, and their wartime experience shaped their professional and personal lives. Patricia Rushton, a Vietnam War Navy Nurse Corps veteran and a nursing scholar, participates in a project entitled “Nurses at War,” which is a public history program that collects the experiences of military nurses during war. In Vietnam War Nurses: Personal Accounts of 18 Americans, Rushton arranges and edits eighteen Vietnam-era military nurses’ accounts. She convincingly argues that these eighteen accounts highlight a number of themes, ranging from “reason for joining the military” to “personal growth” (p. 3).
Rushton notes that many of the nurses joined the military for the same reasons. Some enlisted because of patriotism, while nursing students turned to military programs to finance their education. Mary Lou Ostergren-Burner recalls that she felt a sense of patriotic duty and the desire for more nursing experience. By joining the military, she received additional training as a neurology and trauma nurse in the Army Nurse Corp in the 71st Evacuation Hospital from 1967 to 1968. Others, such as Mary Breed, Linda Cadwell, and Merlan Owen Ellis, took advantage of the Army and Navy Student Nurse Programs. In exchange for tuition and a monthly stipend, these nursing students agreed to serve in the military for at least three years. After enlisting in the military the nurses’ experience varied according to service location and military branch. The nurses’ memories share the challenges and joys of military nursing during the Vietnam War.
Rushton’s selection of stories offers insight to the differences between serving stateside or in Vietnam and according to military branch. Stateside nurses were vital to treating and returning soldiers. Merlan Owen Ellis faced discrimination as a male army public health nurse. Discrimination was a constant in Ellis’s early career, from the army student nursing program to serving as a public health nurse who could not treat female patients in his district. While female military nurses did not face stereotypes in the same manner, they still encountered adversity. One navy nurse married an enlisted man and her superiors would not acknowledge her marriage or address her by her legal last name. When she became pregnant, the navy discharged her. Many stateside nurses like Sandra Kirkpatrick Holmes and Mary Ellen Warne cared for returning soldiers, especially amputees, which was often a stressful job. Even with the obstacles, stateside nurses had opportunities to learn and become leaders. Rushton contends that the military provided nurses’ leadership skills and many stateside nurses trained corpsmen in basic field medicine. The stateside nurses did not see the immediate trauma of the battlefield, but these military nurses had similar experiences while delivering quality patient care.
For the military nurses who served in Vietnam or on navy hospital ships, their Vietnam experiences were shaped by their service branch. This edited works shows how navy and army nurses differed, such as army nurses wearing combat fatigues and the navy nurses still caring for patients in skirts. One army nurse, Mary Breed, argues that the war increased medical knowledge in areas such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Breed gained nursing knowledge in neurosurgery at the 95th Evacuation Hospital and she also volunteered to help with cleft palate repairs during her spare time. Many other army nurses remember creating solutions to problems ranging from lack of supplies to cooling off in the hot weather. Navy nurses typically treated soldiers who had already received treatment in the field. These navy nurses had to help further stabilize patients before they were transferred to the Philippines, Japan, or the United States. Navy nurse Karen Born of the USS Sanctuary notes that “we worked hard and played hard” (p. 45). Born remembers being in charge of a hundred patients at a time. Air force flight nurses cared for fewer patients because they had to stabilize the patients as they were transported. Rushton incorporates a couple of air force nurses’ stories, but more flight nurse accounts would offer a fuller picture of life as an air force nurse. Air force nurse Lois Gay traveled between six countries during her duty as a flight nurse. She remembers working with another nurse on flight mission and being fired upon even though the plans were marked with the red cross. As the nurses from all branches returned home, their reactions to various situations were influenced by their wartime service.
When some nurses returned home, they encountered antiwar sentiment, while others went home without incident. The nurses who left the service and entered civilian nursing explain that they lost independence. In the military, they treated patients without always asking the doctors for permission. In the civilian workforce, nurses could not perform the same procedures that they had in a combat zone. These nurses continued to value nursing education and many furthered their education through degree programs and training courses. The majority of the nurses valued their Vietnam experience and believed that it was an opportunity for learning.
Vietnam War Nurses is a valuable piece of scholarship for general readers and historians because it offers personal accounts of a group of understudied Vietnam veterans and emphasizes an important era in American nursing. These stories and others sources from the Nurses at War program, which are available at Brigham Young University L. Tom Perry Special Collections, are a wonderful starting point for young scholars researching military nursing during the Vietnam era. The male nurses’ stories show the struggles and discrimination faced by men in the nursing profession. Rushton delivers on her promise to recount nurses’ personal experiences during the Vietnam War.
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Nancy J. Traylor-Heard. Review of Rushton, Patricia, ed., Vietnam War Nurses: Personal Accounts of 18 Americans.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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