Nurses tell war stories

About 250,000 women served in the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. Eighty percent of them were nurses. Three of them spoke at the Detroit Lakes Library Thursday night, telling their own war stories. About 60 people -- many of them veterans th...

About 250,000 women served in the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. Eighty percent of them were nurses.

Three of them spoke at the Detroit Lakes Library Thursday night, telling their own war stories.

About 60 people -- many of them veterans themselves -- gathered to see pictures and hear stories from Diane Yeager, Valerie Buchan and Kay Bauer. They told of the ups and downs, the highs and the lows of war and the lasting affects it can have on anyone.

Yeager, who grew up and went to college in Duluth, said, "Recruiters were everywhere (on campus) and I was never interested in that."

But her roommate's boyfriend was a recruiter, and not that he pushed her into joining the Army Nurse Corps, but she started to change her mind.


"I began to think I had the skills needed," she said. So in 1969, she volunteered to go directly to Vietnam to help the wounded.

"It was a dirty, dusty, brown place," she said. "I never saw the beauty of Vietnam. It was either dust, or mud when the monsoons came."

Once she got there, nothing could prepare her for the hospital work she would encounter.

She worked in an ICU neurosurgery unit and saw the head injuries from car accidents, blasts, gun shots and people who didn't duck enough under the helicopter blades -- "all sorts of injuries affecting their heads, necks and spines."

In her early 20s in Vietnam, Yeager said, "the ups and downs were dramatic for us there."

One day a Vietnamese baby came to the hospital. She died of injuries, and Yeager had to take her to the morgue. When she got there, the doctor told her to put "it" over there and take the sheet back with her.

"That was an absolute turning point for me," she said. She shut down her emotions after that. And, she added, she gently laid the baby down and left her wrapped in the sheet at the morgue.

Baby No. 2 that she encountered was a sad story with a little happier ending. Little Leann was born with spina bifida and left in a garbage dump because she wasn't perfect. The soldiers found the baby and brought her into the hospital. Doctors performed multiple surgeries on the little girl and finally brought her to an orphanage to live.


Her third baby encounter was that of a co-worker who no one knew was pregnant -- until she gave birth. Yeager said she remembers handing the baby to the new mom on her flight out of Vietnam to return to the States.

While there, she worked on soldiers from many countries, including America, Thailand, Australia, Cambodia, Korea and Vietnam.

One man they cared for came in with a head injury, but one that allowed him to be up and alert. He walked around the hospital, making friends with all the staff.

"He was just like a brother to us," Yeager said.

He took a turn for the worse though, when spinal fluid started to leak out his ear. He eventually got an infection and got very ill. They knew he was going to die, but they did everything they could to get him out of Vietnam so he wouldn't have to die there.

They got him flown to Japan, where he lived for six hours. Yeager said the nurses were just so happy he didn't have to die in Vietnam.

It's stories like these that caused the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder that Yeager has lived with since. She said anyone who thinks PTSD is just for the men that serve in wars, they're wrong.

When she came back to the United States, there were protesters of the war, and those returning were told to get out of their uniforms and never speak of Vietnam. Keeping that bottled up for years, she said, caused her so much pain.


"I buried myself in my marriage, my children, my career," she said. "But, by 1984, I was a mess."

She said it took years to find someone who could understand, or care, what she had gone through. She went for group therapy in Illinois and eventually at the VA hospital in St. Cloud.

But, she said, she denied her mental illness for years because she didn't want to lose her job or her children.

"When you talk about coming home from war, we're still coming home."

Lightening the mood, Buchan shared her story of coming home.

When she came back to the States, temperatures and humidity had taken its toll on the people -- and their luggage. While those returning from war were waiting at the conveyor belt for their items, her pajamas came up the line, followed by her other clothing and personal items. The stitching had come undone on her suitcase and all of her items had come out and were being sent up the conveyor belt a piece at a time.

Buchan said she joined the Army Nurse Corps because of the fear of communism that had been instilled in everyone during the 1960s.

"I thought when we went to Vietnam, we were going to contain communism," she said.


She had always been fascinated with her father's World War I stories, and she had eight cousins and an uncle who served in World War II, so patriotism was nothing new to her family.

She signed up in 1965 and spent time in Japan before serving in Vietnam.

"I could have gotten out (after Japan), but I liked that I was helping out," she said.

Where she was stationed, she helped stabilize the men enough to get them out of the country. She said, "Morale was high because all the guys knew they were going home."

Then her job changed.

"We saw more trauma in one week than one year in a civilian hospital," she said of Vietnam.

She said she remembers treating the burn victims best because the people were conscious, but in so much pain.

One of her first days in Vietnam, she was treating a man with a chest wound, who soon died. She looked at his ID card, and it was his 21st birthday that day.


"I was so filled with sadness I almost couldn't carry on," she said. She vowed never again to look at an ID card, and she learned to separate herself from anything personal after that.

While in Vietnam, Buchan was able to see Bob Hope and his show, and evangelist Billy Graham, who came to visit the servicemen and women.

In 1969, she came back to the States for two more years of active duty. She said she was so thankful for that, because she was able to process Vietnam and what she had seen with others who had been there too. She didn't have to ignore it and not speak of it, like Yeager had.

Bauer brought quite a few pictures Thursday night for the presentation, showing what Vietnam looked like and the people she served with. She told about the provincial hospital she served at as part of the Navy, and about their living quarters.

She worked in a hospital with no running water or electricity, so they performed triage and got the patients out as soon as possible.

While she was there, she said, she picked up some skills that weren't exactly taught as part of her service.

"If I had a bobby pin or paperclip, I could get anything running," she said with a laugh.

That included a jeep that she and friend took one night to go see a movie. When the ladies realized it was getting dark, they quickly headed back to their living quarters.


When they returned, the phone was ringing. The enemy had blown up the area where they had just been watching a movie. The men they had been sitting with were killed in the explosion.

The women who came to speak were promoting a book that was written and published through the Minnesota Historical Society. "Sisterhood of War" features the stories of 15 Minnesota nurses who served in Vietnam. It is available for purchase through the historical society and other outlets.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.

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