Angels Of War: A Vietnam Nurse

Pictured: Janis Nark, who served one tour as a nurse in the Vietnam War, 1970-1971.

One tour in Vietnam was more than enough for Janis Nark, who served as a nurse during the Vietnam War from 1970 to 1971. Inspired to serve others after she lost her Drama scholarship from Eastern Michigan University, Janis found herself shipping off to boot camp in the spring of 1970.

In 1956, the first female service members arrived in Vietnam. 83% were nurses. Janis Nark was one of them. The others held positions in special services, supply, air traffic control, cartography, the USO, American Red Cross and many other jobs in support of our combat troops.

The day Janis left for Basic Training in her new Ford Maverick, her father checked the oil, the weather, the antenna – anything to avoid acknowledging his little girl was leaving home for the Army. “Bye Mom! Bye Dad! I love you!” She waved one last time and headed out, never contemplating that would be the end of her childhood and a brutal induction into irrevocable adulthood.

Janis, like her fellow nurses, went to her job and faced the perils of enemy fire, horrific heat and humidity, disease, insects, isolation, long work hours and sleepless nights. She treated wounded and dying soldiers in Southeast Asia for a tour, later serving in a West Coast military hospital.  Jets carried the injured from the frontlines in Vietnam back to the U.S. for care within mere hours. 

It was not an easy job, but no one said it would be.

One quiet morning around 2 a.m., the soft sobs of a seventeen year-old resonated through the quiet halls of the medical ward Janis was working. The crying patient was skinny with blonde hair and big blue eyes. He had lost both legs and one arm to the war. Reaching his bedside, the young soldier looked up at Janis, tears building up in his eyes and desperately asked, “Why?”

“He had been to war and back and couldn’t answer it, and was looking to me…for answers,” Janis recalls. “I smoothed the hair back from his forehead and I gave him morphine for the only pain I knew I could take away.”

Through heart-wrenching moments like these, Janis said she and her fellow nurses did the “best we could with who we were and what we had.” Hard realities were not an easy thing to swallow, but necessary. Janis learned about everything from gunshot wounds, to different weapons, booby traps, and the toll of war on the young mind.

There were times when she felt helpless; feeling like treating wounded soldiers would have no end. One of the hardest realizations was sending men back into battle. Soldiers would arrive in the medical ward half conscious, only to open their eyes and come face to face with nurses like Janis. They looked for reassurance and peace. The patients called them “angels.”

While there were a lot of lessons to be learned in Vietnam, it took Janis years before she could put her memories into words or more concrete thoughts. Her experience as a Vietnam nurse caused her to become destroyed emotionally by PTSD. Like so many women who served with her, they were haunted by the very injuries they treated, and the death they faced day in and day out.

Through this tumultuous time in her life, she said it made her stronger. “It heightened by sense of humor. It made me realize what’s important in life and what’s not. ”

Following Vietnam, Janis wasn’t done. She stayed in the Reserves, serving once again in wartime during Desert Storm.  She retired in 1995 with 26 years of service. Looking back, Janis said, “I learned skills that I never would have. I learned to think outside the box at a very young age. I learned survival skills, how to improvise, the list is long. And I am grateful.”

The recognition for women came on Veterans Day of 1993, when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. With attendance in the thousands, including but not limited to: air traffic controllers, Red Cross workers, intelligence operators and nurses, these “angels” and veterans were met with praise and thanks. Men saluted and cheered, others yelling, “Thank you! Thank you!”

From that moment, Vietnam women veterans were not alone and their service would not go unnoticed.

When asked how she thought women’s service in Vietnam impacted or inspired women serving today, she replied, “We served, suffered, paved the way, like so many women before us.”

Thank you to all of our Vietnam “angels" and veterans, and “Welcome Home.”

You can help VVMF honor our “angels” by clicking here.

Read Janis’ full story on our blog.

Lt. Col. Janis Nark, USAR (Ret.) is currently serving on the VVMF Board of Directors.