A reflection for Memorial Day 2020
In the early 1960s, Vietnam was becoming a headline story. Communism was on the move, the papers reported, to becoming a threat to America via potential spread to Asia.
Biases were reported as facts; truth became difficult to harvest. No matter, the Vietnam Conflict became the Vietnam War. Most people who wisely proclaimed opinions on either side regarding war legitimacy, just cause, and right intention, were just opinions, some not very finely distilled. Ask anyone who was there. In the end, political wrangling doesn’t have much effect on those who are bleeding out.
My early years are crowded with memories that include food rationing, darkening windows every night; newspaper and scrap metal drives; headlines proclaiming allied troop movements; posters urging, “Buy War Bonds,” or slogans, “Loose lips sink ships!” Uncle Sam pointing at me, saying “I Want You!” and “Are You Doing All You Can?”
After dinner, our family, like most others, gathered in front of the radio for FDR’s fireside chats; houses all over Cincinnati displayed Blue Star flags in front windows honoring family members serving in the Armed Forces, or a Gold Star sadly indicating the fallen.
Every citizen was a team member doing their part. We understood our way of life was under attack. No one protested. No one felt they had a right to an exception. If anything, those found less than fit felt left out and found other ways to serve.
By the time I’d worked a year as a nurse, after graduating from a Hospital School of Nursing, it was becoming obvious a lot of somebody’s were going to be seriously hurt in a jungle climate called Vietnam. Maybe it was time to give back.
All three nurse recruiters, Army, Air Force and Navy were impressive. Each offered educational opportunities, all were equal in pay, promotions and opportunities for men and women. But only the Navy told me there would be good times and challenging events when one stood, advocating for patients while outranked. It would take some finesse. Twenty-five years later, I could say there were times she was right.
Young men, ready to answer the call for their country signed up to become Marines. (I can only relate to Marines because my duty stations were alongside the Corps.) Some, barely high school graduates, were recruited. Others, some underage, managed to fudge a birthdate, stand extra tall, and tried to shave faces that hadn’t sprouted, lacking testosterone. Bright-eyed, quick-witted, or shy, they were our best and brightest.
While on station, the Naval Hospital Ship Repose (AH-16) received approaching helicopters, signaled onboard by repeated announcements of “Flight quarters, flight quarters, man your stations. This is not a drill.” Battlefield casualties, treated by corpsmen in the field who sent them to the nearest appropriate treatment, arrived during high seas and calm.
The first words of these young Marines were invariably a plea to know if their buddy had been picked up. “Are they doing OK?” In spite of gunshot wounds, punji stick infections, missing limbs, and multiple battle dressings, always the same. “Is Smitty here yet?”
Most went immediately on their gurney through the lab for type, crossmatch and labs, x-ray for total body films, then down to pre-op where uniforms were cut off, bodies bathed, blood given and vital signs monitored, awaiting surgery in one of three operating rooms.
Some came long beyond human repair. These were gently bathed and attentively monitored by a nurse, corpsman, doctor and clergy, if possible, taking turns between other patients. They were never alone, until the end.
Coming aboard Repose was sometimes the only relief the troops had. Some wounds were repairable and the warriors were sent back to duty. A Marine admitted for a gunshot or shrapnel wound, seeing his bunk for the first time, elicited pure joy at discovering cool, clean white sheets, a mattress, and a hot shower.
Surgeons made daily rounds to check on patient progress, anticipating the patient would be near or in the bed. Not so! Many a time, a corpsman went to the shower room door with a full tray of food, beckoning the recalcitrant to come out!
Periodically, the ship left the Republic of Vietnam, proceeding to the Philippines for replenishment, repairs and casualty movement to the States. Those patients who would be returning to duty remained with us, but while visiting a foreign port, were permitted liberty to leave the ship if the doctor could be convinced no harm would be done to the recovery process.
Everyone participated in trying to give these valiant warriors some time off to relax. Usually, they went in groups, some to make sure they got back to the ship, others to ensure there was no trouble. (They’d been seriously warned about conduct in a foreign port.) I recall one such patient having returned totally bereft of recent memory, singing and stumbling all the way to his bunk (with a little help from his friends). Predictably, he awoke the next morning with a headache, and curiously, all 10 fingernails painted with bright red polish, and four tight pin curls in his hair. Each buddy offered a plausible, laughable explanation, but he was never quite convinced. He did, however, plead for nail polish remover with promises of good behavior to all the nurses.
Yes, our best and brightest. Many of whom still carry the scars of those days. Some came home accompanied by a military companion and chaplain. Dreams of future and wishes were laid to rest. Remember, remember, these best and brightest traded their dreams of future and wishes, for yours.
How did I end up, then, as a Sister of Providence? I had a long, continuous relationship with the Sisters of Providence, graduating from the Juniorate, entering the Novitiate, working in the Infirmary, requesting to choose nursing instead of education, then leaving with my father one fine spring visiting day wondering “What have I done?”
Twenty-eight years later, my office in the Indianapolis Archdiocesan Center was adjacent to that of Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, SP, “and therein lies the rest of the story!”
Thanks for this vivid reminder of what we celebrate on Memorial Dayo.
Pat, thanks so much for such a powerful, descriptive, reflection. Thank you for your years of service.
Pat, your blend of memories, reality and presence was a beautiful reflection on those we honor today and those like yourself who were a source of comfort.. Thunk you!
Thank you for a personal reminder of who we honor and why we observe Memorial Day each year. AMD thank you for your service!
Thanks for providing an inside view. I was touched by your descriptions and your dedication to leaving no one alone. I’m glad Providence put you next to Sister Marie Kevin.
Thanks Pat for taking the time to write such a meaningful reflection and thanks for your service to our country and St. Ann Clinic.
Thank you for sharing your story, Pat. You provide the personal touch I need to celebrate this essential holiday.
Thanks, Pat. Poignant and real. As Paula M wrote, a good way to remind us
who and why we remember.
Thank you, my friend, for the vivid memories and reminders of the costs so many paid. My time was a vacation in comparison to what you experienced but, having spent years serving with those who continually went in harms way, it requires little effort to imagine the lasting affects of your experiences. God bless you and thank you for your service.
Pat, thank you very much for your reflection. As an immigrant, I have better appreciation for why we celebrate/commemorate Memorial Day. Blessings, my friend.
Sister Pat, I can’t even imagine what every day must have been like as you worked on a rescue ship.. Your article so touched my heart. I had a brother in WWII and lost a cousin who had to be buried at sea. My Aunt never got over his death. I was young then but I now know what my mom and so many went through waiting and wondering if their son or daughter would survive.
Thank you for your service. I was a DOD civilian and I cannot thank you and your fellow servicemen and servicewomen enough for your service on the frontlines…yesterday, today, and into the future. It’s so much more than being in the “back office.”
Thanks, Pat! What a vivid description of what those days were like. And thank you for your service to them.
As I read about no one being left alone when about to die, I couldn’t help but think about the front line doctors and nurses now who are trying to be with Covid patients because family can’t be with them. Thanks to you, and to them, for ministering to those at the hour of death.
Dear Sister Pat…..and as your initials say… PAL.
Thanks for the lived reflection. The husband of one of my nieces was a platoon leader in Viet Nam and he is writing a book about the war from his personal perspective. So, it was good to read about the conflict from your nurses perspective.
I enjoyed the stories that you shared about your experiences during the years we both worked at The Catholic Center and volunteered for various national and International sports events that we hosted here in Indianapolis.
Special thanks to a special lady, nurse, Sister of Providence and PAL.
I am grateful for all that you have done and for the times we shared over the decades.
I am sure your dedication to each Marine was a comfort to him. It certainly shone through in your description of your time aboard ship. Thank you.
Thank you, Pat for such an enlightening article. You brought alive your vast experience and I’m appreciative to know of it. Thank you for your service. Mary
Sister Pat: I enjoyed reading your article and the experience you had as a Navy nurse on the hospital ship Repose. I am a Vietnam veteran and personally want to thank you and all medical personnel who served in Vietnam. Vietnam is a beautiful country with beautiful people, that had a nasty war. Memorial Day honors our fallen veterans, thanks to you and your fellow medical personnel for saving so many.