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!”