Sisterhood of Vietnam War
Times were tough during the Vietnam War. Not just for the soldiers, but for the nurses who cared for them as well.
These women served in the hospitals, patching up the wounded young men. They saw the war, the wounds and the lack of support the soldiers experienced when they came home to the United States.
Years later, Kim Heikkila, working with the Minnesota Historical Society, interviewed 15 Vietnam women veterans from Minnesota. The interviews eventually became a part of the book "Sisterhood of War."
Three nurses -- Kay Bauer, Valerie Buchan and Diane Yeager -- will be speaking at the Detroit Lakes Library Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m. about the book, a memorial they were instrumental in having in Washington, D.C., and about their war experiences.
Yeager, OF Sauk Rapids, wasn't included in the "Sisterhood of War" book because she wasn't from Minnesota, but she's now part of the nurse's group that gets together and has interesting stories to share, too.
"There was a real fear of communism spreading across the world, and I thought we needed to fight it wherever we could," Buchan, St. Paul, said.
"I was really interested in being involved in the mission of trying to stop communism."
Buchan was raised in a patriotic family, with her father serving in World War I and eight cousins and an uncle in World War II, so it was easy for her to decide to join the Army and serve her country. Already a nurse, she said she thought she had something to contribute.
"I was stationed at Cu Chi. It was a large base, and we did have our times when things got a little hot there. But, I'm a very religious person and I was never really afraid. I felt it was my thing to do and I just did it."
Buchan served five years active duty, spending time in Japan, Vietnam and Fort Devens, Mass. She then spent 16 and a half years in the Reserves.
The men hurt in Vietnam, she said, were being sent to various hospitals around the Pacific -- the Philippines and Guam, for example.
She was a part of a large hospital with 2,000 beds.
"We had almost all of our patients from Vietnam. It's amazing to think now about all the people getting hurt over there. There were lots of hospital beds there all around the Pacific where they were taking the people."
Buchan said it's tiring and difficult giving presentations on the "Sisterhood of War" book because of having to relive the good and the bad of Vietnam, but it's also an experience she wouldn't trade.
"I've never regretted that I did that," she said of joining the Army and serving as a nurse to the wounded. "I'm proud of my service, and I'm so glad that I could contribute to taking care of those really brave young men. They were so not appreciated when they got home, and I was so glad I got to take care of them when they were hurt."
"I joined the Navy my fifth year of college because there are no loans or scholarships for fifth year. I had changed my major from education to nursing my fourth year of college, which meant a fifth year to do all those sciences and math that I had been avoiding," Bauer said with a laugh.
So she joined the Navy and was in about eight years when she decided to resign and get out of the Navy to do mission work. While stationed in Japan, Guam and the Philippines, she did some mission work -- a passion of hers -- and was offered the director of nursing position with a mission organization.
When she went to turn in her resignation from the Navy though, the director there convinced her otherwise.
"'Why don't you think about going some place with the Navy where you can do some mission work as well as work for the Navy,'" she said the director urged her. "I laughed."
The director called Washington though and there was a position for Bauer in the operation room.
"I am not an O.R. nurse," she told the director. "Anything that's not the O.R., I don't like the O.R."
She ended up staying with the Navy and joined a team of six other medical professionals in the "very, very southern part" of Vietnam as part of a surgical team.
"It turned out to be the area most of the boat people left from to leave the country after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam," she said.
They were stationed in a Vietnamese provincial hospital so they would have access to all the medical equipment, since a team of seven people couldn't travel with all the medical equipment they would need.
"What we would be doing, in addition to providing surgical presence for the U.S. military in that area, we would also be providing a surgical presence for the Vietnamese because they had no surgeons for several million people, like 20, 30 million people there."
Because of the population, Bauer said most of her time was spent caring for the Vietnamese people.
Bauer ended up serving 13 years active duty in the Navy and 22 more years in the Reserves. She now lives in Coon Rapids.
After active duty
Years later, the nurses gathered to discuss getting a memorial in Washington, D.C., in honor of the nurses who served in Vietnam.
"I started to meet with all these Army nurses. I was the token Navy, and then we had one token Air Force," Bauer said with a laugh.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial was built as a part of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial on the National Mall in D.C. It is a statue of three uniformed women -- Hope, Faith and Charity. The women include a nurse holding a wounded male soldier, a woman looking skyward in anticipation of a rescue helicopter and another on her knees holding a helmet. It was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1993.
Also through the nurse's group, Bauer said she saw that many of the women had "serious problems from serving in Vietnam." So not only did they look at getting a monument in D.C., they also looked at getting help for those with posttraumatic stress disorder. There were hurdles with VA hospitals and with directors, though that was a different time, she said.
"Now the VA in Minneapolis is one of the top in the United States. I'm talking about the late '70s, early '80s," Bauer said of the struggles they had faced.
They finally got the nurses together, found a location to gather and formed a support group, which even included a couple World War II nurses, she said.
Though they no longer meet on a formal basis, Bauer still heads the group that gathers from time to time. She said they aren't an organization though, just a group of nurses that get together.
Sharing their stories
After the monument was built in D.C., there was more awareness about women serving the country.
"People started saying, 'maybe there's more behind women in the war,'" Bauer said.
Back in the 1980s, she said when she went to research women in the Vietnam War, there was little to nothing to be found. In the 1990s, she started to get calls from people with an interest in Vietnam nurses and were doing research.
One of those people was Kim Heikkila. Working with the Minnesota Historical Society, she interviewed Vietnam women veterans, which eventually became "Sisterhood of War."
"That came as kind of a surprise to me," Buchan said.
She said she had gotten several calls in the past to talk to her as a Vietnam War veteran. Heikkila, who was one of those people, came to Buchan's house and interviewed her for a couple hours about her experiences overseas.
"I just thought that would possibly be the end of it," she said with a laugh. "I thought maybe she'd let us know something about her work, but I had no idea she'd write a book.
"But I'm very happy. Most of us in there probably wouldn't have the ability or time to put it all down. I'm so grateful to her that she was willing to tell our story."
Bauer said she is very happy with the result of the book also. Rather than just tell each woman's story, Heikkila wove the stories in with the events that were happening back in the United States.
"She put us into these various aspects and how we fit in as women in the military, the anti-war movement, all of these other things. That's what we really appreciated, that she just wove us into what was going on the world and the nation at the time."
Coming to speak
Bauer said she's excited to come to speak in Detroit Lakes. Her husband had a family reunion here years ago, and they used to own property in the area.
Buchan was born and raised in Henning, so she knows the area even better.
The three women will be at the Detroit Lakes Library on Thursday, Nov. 8, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome, but seating is limited so come early to get a chair.
There will also be copies of the book for sale for $15 at the event, and the women will be signing them.
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.