Sorry, but to address the disconnect between what nurses do in a war zone and life on the front lines, this story must be told. It comes from Lynn Bower, an Army nurse in the emergency room in Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1971. She needed to cut away a soldier's uniform to treat his wounds. Struggling, "I went to grab his belt at the waist and when I pulled ... he came apart at the waist. He just opened up."
Bower's story is on page 43 of "Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam" by Kim Heikkila, a new book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. It is perhaps the most traumatic story amid the next hundred or so pages, but it provides a necessary underpinning to the accounts from 14 other nurses who served with little public notice during the Vietnam War.
The story explains, for instance, Kay Bauer's barely stifled snort at the suggestion that nurses knew little of the front lines. "There is no such thing as a front line," said Bauer, who now lives in Coon Rapids. "The war is everywhere."
Bauer, 74, served in Vietnam as a Navy nurse in 1966 and, while reserved about her memories, speaks of them in the present tense. What she does talk about is how hard it was to come home, with "so many people walking around like there is nothing going on -- because nothing was," she said with a slight smile. "But we're so used to looking around and behind you all the time." Bauer said she returned having a strong startle reflex, "and I guess I always will."
It's been 45 years.
Heikkila, an adjunct instructor in the history department of St. Catherine's University in St. Paul, said the book is about a war she never knew. Born in 1968, she first heard of Vietnam from a high school history teacher who mentioned only the My Lai Massacre, in which a company of U.S. soldiers indiscriminately killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. The incident accelerated opposition to the war.
"But that's the only thing he told us about the war," said Heikkila, who grew more curious over the years about this period in history. Considering a topic for her dissertation, she chose to write about women who served in Vietnam -- and found a number of them amazed that someone finally wanted to listen.
"There was this thing about Vietnam vets -- 'Don't ever ask them about the war' -- and I do understand how people did that for reasons they thought were right," Heikkila said, "but it turned into something really hurtful."
Veterans, though, also were counseled not to talk about having served in Vietnam. Nurses could more easily blend into the civilian population, partly because, as one told Heikkila, "I was a woman, so why would they suspect?"
Such comments are a reminder of how women were regarded in the 1960s. When Bauer told her family she'd enlisted in the Navy to help pay for school, her father told her, "Good women do not join the military. Do not darken my door again." (He apologized a week later.)
D-M Boulay, who lives in Roseville, credited her enlisting in the Army to her roots in Massachusetts, "where patriotism was an act of service, not a piece of cloth or a song." She was in nursing school when President John F. Kennedy challenged citizens to ask what they could do for their country.
Then there was Stanley.
Stanley was a childhood friend -- she'd taught him how to fish -- who was among the first Marines to land at Da Nang. Before he'd even turned 20, Stanley was sent home with a serious head injury. Despite being a pacifist, Boulay decided she could put to use her skills as an intensive-care nurse "because there are going to be a lot more Stanleys who need me."
'Tet all over again'
More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam during the war, and 350,000 wounded soldiers survived. The survival rate for patients in military hospitals in Vietnam was 98 percent. About 6,000 military nurses served during the war. Eight died.
Those are the numbers.
The stories behind them emerged over time. Boulay described her homecoming, and friends' reactions, as hardly worthy of comment. "I couldn't care less what people thought," she said. "It didn't matter to me. I was fine." Oh, she added, there were the nightmares. But she went to law school and started her own law practice.
Decades passed. Then one day, her TV screen filled with images from the bombing of Baghdad, aired live, with all the bombs and flashes. Suddenly it was 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, "and it was Tet all over again," she said of the surprise attack that became known as the Tet Offensive. During the first week of that monthlong attack by the North Vietnamese, her unit treated more than 600 new patients, despite one wall of the intensive-care unit collapsing when an ammo dump a mile away was hit.
Watching the bombing of Iraq, Boulay started crying. And crying. And wondering what had happened to being "fine." She's quick to say that the Veterans Administration was helpful in treating her post-traumatic stress, but reliving those moments overseas was hard. What was so difficult, she recalled, "were that the soldiers were so young, and there were so many of them. The saving grace of our work was that the men were going home."
Nurses, first and foremost
In her last chapter, Heikkila traces the unexpectedly arduous process leading to the installation of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was a project spearheaded by Minnesota women, notably Boulay and Diane Carlson Evans, who served as an Army nurse and now lives in Montana. J. Carter Brown, who led the Commission on Fine Arts, which advised the government on art-related matters, was particularly hostile, contending that the statue of three male soldiers added to the Vietnam Memorial complex in 1984 represented all who served.
Boulay said Brown told the group of nurses that if consideration were given to installing a statue honoring women, "then they might find themselves having to consider doing one for the dogs who served."
The women veterans prevailed, though, and a statue of three nurses aiding a wounded soldier was installed in 1993.
Heikkila said the memorial was crucial "because nurses were, first and foremost, nurses before they were military personnel," she said. "The military was a vehicle through which they could offer their services to patients. The combination of stresses inherent in war and the awesome responsibility of caring for these patients, these kids, is something they carry with them all their lives."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185