One spring day in 1970, three army nurses packed their bags and reluctantly went downstairs to check out of their Bangkok hotel. They had spent five days on R and R, swimming at a nearby beach, buying clothes and jewelry, taking boat rides along the canals, visiting the temple of the Golden Buddha. They had laughed and laughed and now it was time to go back to the war.
In the lobby. they had one last bitter laugh. The morning’s headlines announced that US troops had invaded Cambodia. The nurses knew that the headlines were accurate but, in the profoundly cynical fashion of the US government, slightly tardy: for months the women had been treating American servicemen wounded in Cambodia and Laos.
As they flew into Pleiku just ahead of a rainstorm, their black humor turned to rage. Through the chopper door they could see below them, spread out in the sun, the first evidence of the “light casualties” described in the newspapers. Three Chinook helicopters-the airborne equivalent of a moving van-were unloading body bags at the rate of forty or fifty per copter. The wounded and dying couldn’t be far behind.
“They came in all day,” says Lynda Van Devanter, one of those three women. “They came in all day and all week, in an unending stream. They just dumped the wounded at the door of the hospital and took off again to pick up more casualties. We knew we would be there for days.”
Lynda Van Devanter knows what it is to work on the slag heap in a death factory. For one interminable year at Pleiku, she stood at the receiving end of a conveyor belt laden with human bodies. Her job was to sort through the carnage of raw flesh and pulverized bone; to save what was salvageable so it might be recycled for the war effort; to send the rest home propped up in wheelchairs or stacked in coffins or tied down with restraints.
During major battles, with choppers ferrying the wounded directly from the field she moved in sequence through the three wings of the T-shaped Quonset hut that served as a hospital: an emergency room for triage, an operating room for amputations, transfusions and desperate repairs, and an intensive care unit for the first stages of recovery or the last stages of life. The doctors, nurses and corpsmen might work seventy-two hours at a stretch, treating 300 or 400 or 500 casualties in a day.
Like all good nurses everywhere, Van Devanter was expected to comfort her patients, calm their fears, hold their hands, ease their loneliness. That was no more than she expected of herself. When she punched out of Vietnam in June of 1970, at the age of twenty-three she had already seen dozens of grotesque and extravagant varieties of death and mutilation. ” You would get a kid with 95 percent third degree napalm burns on his body, and his skin would be black. You’d go to pick him up to put him on the table and the charred skin would slide off in your hands and you’d be left with a hunk of meat. And that’s what you would put on the table, a hunk of meat.” Even now, after all these years, when she describes her experience, her voice projects the need to speak with both care and efficiency; if she speaks too callously or loudly, the fragile words might themselves tear apart and bleed. “We had a whole squad that was brought in one day. They had been hung up by their ankles. Their genitals had been cut off and stuffed in their mouths. Not a pretty sight. Not the sort of thing a young woman of twenty-one or twenty-two expects to see.”
Van Devanter came home not simply changed, but damaged. Like so many of the nation’s male Vietnam veterans she felt guilty, corrupted, betrayed, invisible. But unlike the male vets, who at least constituted a bleak brotherhood of outcasts, Van Devanter was isolated from her peers. And although in recent months she has been highly visible as the result of the writing and speaking she has done on behalf of women Vietnam vets, when she first returned to this country in the early 1970s, she did exactly what most Army nurses did: she simply vanished back into a civilian population that taught her to cross her legs at the ankle, cut her meat into bite-size pieces, push her cuticles back so the moons would show.
That’ s what the GIs called them. That’s what many Vietnam veterans call them still. The government of the United States of America says that only 7,484 of them served in Vietnam during the twelve years of the war. The vast majority, 6,250, served as nurses and most spent only a year there. Among the 2.8 million American servicemen in Vietnam, scarcity alone would have made the women valuable, But their importance in the matrix of life and death gave them an almost mythic status. On waking in a field hospital with an American nurse at the bedside, a blinded soldier might beg to be told that the woman had blonde hair and blue eyes. Those who could see would often say, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven, There’s a round-eyed woman here.”
A round-eyed woman. The phrase was spoken with genuine affection, even reverence, bui it’s not a term any woman would ever invent to describe herself or another woman. It’s a man’s phrase, a soldier’s phrase, as ostensibly innocent and potentially explosive as a live grenade. Superficially, it does no more and no less than a lot of locker room slang: it strips a woman down to the biological facts of her gender and racial status. But studied more closely, it serves as a concise shorthand for American women’s complex, ambiguous and guilt-ridden role in the war.
Those words suggest her profoundly symbiotic relationship-as both selfless medical custodian and grateful military ward-to her complement, the round-eyed Caucasian male. And they invite haunting comparisons to her Oriental counterpart, the slant-eyed woman whose status is perhaps best summarized by the fact that GIs had another term, “double veteran,” to denote a man who killed a woman after sleeping with her or raping her.
That peculiar phrase, round-eyed women, is just one of the ambiguities and contradictions that still plague the women who went to Vietnam. For starters, they couldn’t even blame their fate on the draft. They volunteered for duty because they believed it was their responsibility, or because they were bored with their lives, or because they had been told it would be good for their careers. Though their work called for tremendous physical and emotional stamina, the nurses’ role in the war machine was essentially passive and reactive. They didn’t make policy. They didn’t even carry it out. They simply mopped up the awful mess at the end.
The nurses’ deeply felt professional commitment to save all lives whatever the cost was constantly frustrated or tangled or cancelled out by everyday reality. They lacked the equipment to give proper care to everyone. They sometimes wished death on those whose suffering was so immense or whose physical loss was so crippling that death seemed a mercy. They resented their obligation to treat their Vietnamese 96 “allies” who not only resented the American presence but harbored the invisible “enemy,” who was, of course, indistinguishable from the ally.
The women worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week under unimaginable strain and pressure yet were warned that any manifestations of anger, sadness or depression would reflect poorly on their military records. And far from being isolated from the violence and brutality of the war, they lived perilously, corruptingly close to it.
It is a warm, breezy Sunday afternoon ten years after the fact, and a former Army nurse-we’ll call her Jan-can sit on a sunny roof deck in southern New Hampshire, looking out toward the Atlantic Ocean, and talk about the fire fights. After dark, at the end of a grueling shift, she and her medical colleagues and friends would sit on the roof of the hospital, a stone’s throw from the South China Sea. From a comfortable distance they would watch the technicolor savagery that made their lives so hectic and horrible during the day. They would watch the flares drifting down on small parachutes, casting an eerie phosphorescent light on the nearby Mountainside. They would watch the napalm bombs exploding “like water balloons spattering burning jelly along the ground. We were told that there were heat sensors on the mountain, so if Charlie even lit a cigarette up there, someone would call in an airstrike and the helicopters would come from a base across the water. They’d be blasting away and we would be up on the roof yelling and cheering, It was like the Romans and the Gladiators, or a high school football game.”
Often, the savagery hit a lot closer to home. Once Jan was treating a North Vietnamese prisoner who was hitched up to several life-support systems. When he grabbed her scissors and tried to stab her, she instinctively yanked out his tubes and needles. He dropped the scissors. But in the twisted environment of the war, things seldom ended so simply. The MPs who were supposed to be guarding the prisoner hauled him off the ward-Jan assumed they were going to beat him up-and came back later and invited her to come outside and take a look. In a grotesque parody of chivalry, they had cut off his penis and flayed him alive.
There were many variations on that central theme of brutality. She tells of GIs giving hand grenades to Vietnamese babies to play with, and of GIs killed by young chioldren whose bodies had been booby-trapped with explosives. And she tells of her own guilty glimpse into the dynamics of violence in Vietnam. “I was riding with this guy in a jeep and we accidentally turned down a dead end street that was pretty crowded with people. I started to get nervous. It wasn’t safe for Americans to be standing still like that. You were a sitting duck. A sapper might come by and toss a small bag of explosives into the jeep and that would be that. I’m urging this guy to hurry up, hurry up and turn this thing around but he had to go slowly because of the crowds. I’m looking around and down the street I see this little boy, maybe nine or ten, running towards us with a knapsack on his back. I’m saying, ‘Jerry, come on, hurry up!’ and this little kid keeps running towards us, looking right at the jeep and I was terrified. So I just grabbed the roll bar overhead and I swung my weight out on it and I kicked this little boy right in his face. As hard as I could. He was just lying there on the ground bleeding and all I wanted was to get the hell out of there. We didn’t stop to help him. We just drove away…. I still think about that kid.”
There were only a few ways to escape the guilt and the pressure and the horror. Doctors and nurses drank, took drugs, slept for as many hours as they could squeeze in. For Jan, one of the ironies of the war is that her most valued refuge was a leper colony a few miles up the coast from the hospital.
“We knew we were safe there because the VC were afraid of the lepers and they wouldn’t come near the colony. So we’d help the nuns for part of the day and then we would go to the beach which was really beautiful. The water was warm and the sand was clean. If you only had a little time off and you were really desperate, you’d go to a place we called Fecal Beach. That’s how filthy it was. You could sit on the sand and drink Kool-Aid and eat popcorn-the Vietnamese were crazy about popcorn-and pretend you were back home. But the water wasn’t clean and the beach there really wasn’t as safe as the leprosarium.”
When a woman’s tour of duty was over, her problems were just beginning. The second installment of Lynda Van Devanter’s nightmare began her first day back in the States. Arriving in Oakland during a transit strike, she stood dressed in her fatigues, on the Oakland side of the San Francisco bridge, trying to hitch a ride across the Bay. Cars beeped angrily at her or stopped and backed up just long enough for the driver to swear at her or spit on her before driving off. By the time she finally found a ride she was so stunned she barely noticed who picked her up, though she thinks it was a middle-aged man.
In retrospect that seemed like a high point. Over a period of several years, Van Devanter says, she couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t maintain a steady relationship, couldn’t rise out of long spells of depression. She had recurring nightmares. In one of those dreams she was lying in the dark in the rain. As the sky began to grow light, she realized that it wasn’t rain at all, but blood falling out of a sky filled with infected arms, hands and legs. “There was a period when I couldn’t figure out why all I could smell was napalm. Everything I ate tasted like napalm. Everything I touched reminded me of napalm. These things went on for years, but I kept telling myself they had nothing to do with Vietnam.”
Van Devahter and hundreds of women and thousands of men were suffering what has come to be called “delayed stress syndrome,” a delayed reaction to a stressful situation. According to Elaine Alvarez, a team leader in counseling at the Oakland Vet Center, women suffer the same symptoms as men: guilt, depression, nightmares, rootlessness, resentment of authority, contempt for the military, feelings of abandonment and betrayal.
Alvarez, who recently began counseling a group of ten women veterans-all nurses-said, “No one has really studied the plight of these women. All the statistics on suicides, breakdowns, hospitalization, or criminal behavior have been compiled on men. We can’t even say for sure what has happened to these women as a group. They’re just now beginning to come out of the closet.” She attributes much of the growing public awareness of these women’s plight to the work Van Devanter has done as National Women’s Director of the 6,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America.
Alvarez notes that there are both similarities and differences in the nature of men’s and women’s post-Vietnam reactions. “Like men, many of the women have problems with authority. In Vietnam, nurses routinely made life and death decisions because the doctors trusted them or because no one else was there. When they came back they had to fit into the more rigid nurse-doctor relationship. They would repeatedly question a doctor’s judgment or they would express anger over cosmetic surgery or elective surgery because its not essential to life.”
Like many vets of both sexes, Jan’s fuse has grown shorter and shorter during the last few years. She once shoved a medical student against a wall. There was a similar incident with a nursing colleague, and a run-in at a pizza parlor with three teenage boys who were taunting Jan and a male friend, a Vietnam Vet with emotional problems. That confrontation ended when Jan pinned one boy’s arm to the table with a karate move she had learned in the service.
Alvarez thinks that Jan’s experience is probably the exception rather than the rule. “Generally, women don’t seem to have the same kinds of violent episodes as men, or else their violence is directed against property rather than people. One woman told us she had completely torn up her room, destroyed all the furniture, pounded the walls. We know of one woman who was involved in a hostage-taking situation, but as a rule women don’t permit themselves to show violent behavior and society doesn’t permit it. Its allowed, to some degree with men, but women are taught to keep it a secret.”
Alvarez says that with women, as with men, the recovery process may take years. One nurse who thought she had come to terms with Vietnam was stunned when she was told that she always began pacing when the subject came up. She had been away from the war since 1969.
Those who have devoted time to counseling both women and men express deep concern about the future of the store-front counseling centers that have reached many veterans, including a small but growing number of women. Their very existence is threatened by proposed Federal budget cuts. Van Devanter says, “It makes me furious to read that David Stockman, who spent his time hiding out from the draft at Harvard Divinity School, can come along and say there’s no need for this program. It took ten years to get this program and in five minutes Stockman and Reagan are ready to wipe it out. The VA budget is $23 billion and God knows what the defense budget is, and they won’t spend a lousy $12 million on the people they’ve trained to go out and kill and be killed for all the sacred ideals we’re supposed to represent in this country. Twelve million dollars, That would have bought enough ammunition to last a minute in Vietnam.”
Ultimately, every Vietnam vet who chooses to go on living tries to come to terms with the lingering memory of the war. Jan has devised her own compromises. She switched from emergency room work to the operating room where she doesn’t have to deal with the patient’s pain or the family’s anguish. “You just talk to the patients for a little while before they’re put under and you talk to them for a little while, once they come to.” She has been seeing a psychiatrist for a year, and though she has come to trust and confide in her women friends she is still reluctant to reveal the details of her experiences in Vietnam to the men she sees.
Perhaps her most eloquent and impervious weapon of self-defense is a darkly comic appreciation of where she has been and what she has seen. One of her come-backs embodies anger and anguish, tough-minded pride and brooding guilt and black, black humor. “When I first came back from Nam people would always ask me if I killed any babies. I was really stunned and hurt, but I finally found an answer that stopped them cold I’d tell them, ‘I never killed a baby that I really liked.'”