Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP12: “We Were Essential" - Nurses in Vietnam

Release Date: August 30, 2021

Nearly 11,000 women served in the Vietnam War, most of them as nurses and all of them as volunteers. Guest host Callie Wright brings you personal stories from two women who experienced the war —and its aftermath —from this unique perspective.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


(HOST): [00:00:01] Two point seven million people served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Around eleven thousand of them were women. Many roles in the military were not available to women during that time, and they were not a part of the draft. Every woman who went to Vietnam volunteered to do so. And they serve where they could in offices as translators. But the majority, over 90 percent served as nurses. They worked tireless shifts and returned home to the same chaotic and unwelcoming homecoming that many of the men did.

(EDIE): [00:00:57] I walked into a patient’s room and the patient said, I heard that you were in Vietnam. What was it like? There’s no way you can explain it. So I just turned around and walked out.

(HOST): [00:01:09] Their histories are essential in understanding the Vietnam War. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host for this week, Callie Wright. Bringing you stories. Service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of this conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This is Episode 12. “We were essential” Nurses in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, women were not serving in combat roles. They still face dangers such as disease, helicopter crashes and mortar fire, to name a few. They also had the added danger of sexism and harassment. As a warning for younger listeners, the stories you’re about to hear involve sexual harassment and assault. Edie Meek’s brother was drafted and it would push her to make a decision that would forever change the course of her life. She served as a nurse in Vietnam, becoming hootch mates with Diane Carlson Evans, another Minnesotan who would go on to found the women’s memorial on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial campus. Edie was one of over ten thousand women who found themselves serving our nation in Vietnam during the war.

(EDIE): [00:03:01] I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I went to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Rochester, Minnesota. From there, I went down to visit my brother, who was selling encyclopedias door to door in Hollywood. So that was quite a big change for me, and just decided to stay, walked into a hospital and said, you know, do you have a job? They said, can you start tonight? It was that easy back then. While I was there, my brother was drafted. And he joined the Marine Corps. And I thought to myself, you know, if something happened to him, I would want someone there who really wanted to be there, who really wanted to take care of these guys. And so I went back to Minneapolis for Christmas. And in February, I joined the Army Nurse Corps. I wa-, I was stationed at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon for six months, and I did intensive care nursing there. And then from there, I went to Pleiku. Where I, which is in the central highlands and the 71st evac hospital, and I did intensive care nursing there.

(HOST): [00:04:29] Edie in Vietnam, your, your hooch mate was a woman named Diane Carlson Evans. What was your experience like living with Diane in Vietnam?

(EDIE): [00:04:38] Oh, boy. Well, she had been at a different hospital before, as I had, and we both arrived in Pleiku at the same time. And it was unlike Saigon where you would hear rockets but they were far, far away because there weren’t rocketing Saigon at that time. Pleiku got rocketed pretty often. So, what they did to protect the nurses was they had built the beds high off the floor so that if the rockets were coming, you could climb under the bed. And so, Diane, would you like crawl into my room and the two of us would be under the bed, sometimes one of the other gals would come and I go, this is great. If they hit this end of the hooch, we’re really done for you know, we’re going to have four nurses gone. But they didn’t. But it was pretty scary sometimes. And it was nice just to have that backup. But also just knowing that Diane was from Minnesota. It was, it was a comfort knowing that somebody from home was there.

(HOST): [00:05:46] Edie, what were some of the challenges of being in Vietnam for you?

(EDIE): [00:05:52] Back then, nurses were not really what I call warriors. We were not allowed to carry weapons of any kind. Some had them, but they were not allowed to carry them. The whole attitude back then now you have to remember that this was the late 60s and things were just starting to change for women. Regular soldiers were very, very protective of the women, and they were very happy to see, you know, American nurses there if they woke up an-, and had been injured. For me, it was more of the officers that you might have a problem with. Because some of them felt very entitled. So you really had to get yourself out of some sticky situations, sometimes. The service itself is what I consider a violent occupation. You’re there because you may have to go to war. The women who are totally capable also have to deal with the testosterone that’s going around. And they don’t necessarily these days have the protections that they should have. For instance, I had had a problem. But you don’t tell anyone, you didn’t even tell your, your commanding officer, the female that was above you, because she wouldn’t have done anything anyway. So you just didn’t tell anyone. And having it, the chain of command is really not healthy. I don’t think because the commander’s going to protect whatever he’s got. You had nobody to go to. You know, because they wouldn’t have taken care of you anyway. It was really a lot different back then, but I think that it hasn’t… They’ve allowed women to become warriors. But they haven’t necessarily protected them against all of the testosterone that’s flowing.

(HOST): [00:08:16] I was hoping that maybe you would speak to me a little bit about when you came home.

(EDIE): [00:08:22] Well, we were told by the nurses that came in because we didn’t go as a group. We came as individuals and were inserted into different hospitals as other nurses went on. And the incoming nurses to a person said, take your uniform off as soon as you get into country because you’re welcome will not be a happy one. And so by the time I left Vietnam, I was so disgusted with the army and the government, and that I went into the bathroom in the airport, took my uniform off and threw it in the trash and put on other clothes. I was just so disgusted. And then went home. I still had six months left to serve. But I just threw my fatigues away, my boots, everything. The welcome was not a good one for a lot of people. Listening to some of the gals that I served with talk later on that their reception was not the best in the world. Not only that, but what happens was, you knew, when you were going to be going home, you had to work right up until the end. And so you may be working on a bunch of wounded guys. Then it’s time for you to leave. You get in the bus, go to the airport, you fly to San Francisco, and all of a sudden. Within 24 hours, everything has changed. And yet your brain hasn’t quite assimilated what’s going on yet.

(EDIE): [00:10:06] And then when you get home, everybody expects you to be normal. And that, for me was the big surprise in that I was not normal. I had changed. Sometimes some of the women committed suicide. There was no place to go. I mean, I can remember hearing one of the gals talk about they went to the VA. This was early on. And what they did, they really didn’t know what to do with women. So they put her in a men’s Vietnam group. And what she started doing was being the nurse and taking care of these guys, which meant that she wasn’t getting help at all because our experience was so different from the guys. Ours was like the negative of the picture that the guys had. You know, whenever the helicopter would come, they would think oh, thank God we’re getting out of here, we’re going to be saved. We would think, oh, terrible, bad news. All these guys are coming in, you know, so it’s like a different a whole different perspective. And therefore, being in the same group, you didn’t share the same. You know, we didn’t shoot anybody. We didn’t… Our our, sadness and trauma was that we couldn’t save everybody. I mean, that for me was one of the really tough things was that we could work and work and work, but you just couldn’t save everybody.

(HOST): [00:11:34] What changed for you, what made it possible for you to share your experience?

(EDIE): [00:11:40] Well, actually, I didn’t talk about Vietnam. I would say for a good twenty-three years. Not a word. In fact, when the women’s memorial was coming up and they did, one of the local papers, did a thing, interviewed me because they had heard that I had served in Vietnam. And this woman, who I’d known for 20 years, came after me and she said, Edie, I have known you for 20 years. I never knew you were there. But you really didn’t talk about it, because this is a perfect example. I worked at the local hospital part time, and before I started in the OR, I worked on the floor and I walked into a patient’s room and the patient said, I heard that you were in Vietnam. What was it like? There’s no way you can explain it. So I just turned around and walked out. Because there was no there was no um. You know, a little bite soundbite that you could say, it would tell people what it was like. And so you didn’t even try. At that time, my daughter was going to Mount Holyoke College and she was taking a course on the 60s. And I said that history already it was. And they were doing eight hours on Vietnam. She said, mom, there’s a guy here that teaches a course on Vietnam.

(EDIE): [00:13:18] And he starts the course by saying, you women will never know what it’s like to be at war. And she said, being the little feminist, she said, Mom, can you give up your talk? And I said, well, ask your instructor and see if you’ll let me talk. And if so, I’ll come up. I have never talked about this before. And so I went up to Mount Holyoke, but my daughter gets up and she says, I’d like to introduce my mom, Edie Meeks. She was a nurse in Vietnam, and I’m so proud of her. And that was the first time anybody had said that. And so I started saying that I had served in Vietnam and I said, I don’t know the history of Vietnam, but I’ll tell you what it felt like. To be a woman over there in the service, and then I proceeded to talk and at the very end when we were leaving, that the young women would come up and say, thank you, thank you. The very last little gal said to me, Oh, Mrs. Meeks, I would have welcomed you home. I thought maybe it takes the next generation to really welcome us home.

(HOST): [00:14:40] Our organization, we’ve been talking about PTSD a lot recently. And I know that women who serve certainly experienced trauma as well. Do you think there there are enough services for women who came back?

(EDIE): [00:14:57] When I first went to Castle Point, which is right in Beakin(?), actually it’s a wonderful VA hospital and they really didn’t know what to do with a woman who served in Vietnam, but they gave me this nice young psychologist. And together we worked to see what the PTSD really was for women and how it affected women. And and we learned together, I think. And he was wonderful. He was really wonderful. And he sent me to the right places when I when it came up with the sexual trauma, he sent me there, the right person to talk to and, you know, that kind of thing. I’ve always had the psychiatrist that I’ve had, there have been wonderful they, they’ve actually after him they’ve all been women. And they, they’ve listened, and I think I had to work out what the PTSD did to me and how it was manifesting itself in my life. Because if you had said you have PTSD before any of this, you know, with Diane or anything, I would have said I’m doing fine. But it builds up, and when it got to be like 20, 22 years, I was hitting the wall. So I needed help. Because I didn’t know where to go, and you can get so depressed and you can have suicidal thoughts and not even know why you’re having them.

(EDIE): [00:16:40] You know, because you think this did not affect me. I can remember going to it was a group of some kind, and I said to the woman, because I had talked about feeling so sad and whatever, and she came up to me and I never seen her before. Never saw her again. And she said to me, you know, you don’t have to get over Vietnam. And all of a sudden I thought, oh. This this is part of my life getting over it means that now that’s gone. But it’s never gone. It’s always there. It’s just how I handle it and incorporate it into my life that makes it work for me. One of the psychiatrists said to me. When I was feeling really suicidal, she said, tell your kids this. Tell them. And I never thought of it because a mother is supposed to protect the kids, you know. I mean, they were older now. And so I said, oh, OK. And so I did. And for the next two weeks, they called me every day to make sure I was OK, you know. But I thought, yeah, I can reach out and ask for help.

(EDIE): [00:18:00] Whereas before I was the, the rock, you know. Well, I’m not. I’m just a human being, you know, because now I know that this is part of my life. And that I’m not alone. I don’t have to just protect myself. And that’s a big thing. I had a job where I had to travel a lot. I had to meet someone the next day in D.C. So I got a hotel room and I went down that evening to The Wall. I could not remember any of the names of the guys that I took care of because they were only there like a day or two. We were stabilizing them and then they went someplace else. But I remember touching the names of that time period, and all of a sudden I just started sobbing and I just started saying, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t heal you, that I couldn’t save you. I’m so sorry that you had to die. I really needed to say that to the guys. And I think this is true of many of the women that they can remember, the ones that they couldn’t save, that they couldn’t remember, the ones that they did save.

(HOST): [00:19:28] That was Edie Meeks speaking to me from her home in Minnesota. Coming up after a short break, Nancy Wilson talks to me about serving as a Navy nurse on the USS Repose. When not working on the podcast. I get to spend some time out with The Wall That Heals the three quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that travels the country. It’s amazing to see all of you out there visiting names, learning more about those who served and sharing your stories with us. In fact, we met Nancy Wilson at a Wall That Heals site, so come visit us this week. We’re in Carmichael Park in Brighton, Colorado. If you like us, there are a couple of easy things that you can do to help. One, you can share this podcast with a friend or family member. The other is you could leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. You’d be surprised to know how much that little action helps us get new listeners. Until then, let us know what you think by emailing [email protected].

(HOST): [00:21:06] Navy nurse Nancy Wilson served on the USS Repose, one of two hospital ships off the coast of Vietnam. Her experiences in the military and as a nurse continue to be cornerstones of her life.

(NANCY): [00:21:21] When I was in high school, I worked with a doctor in the town where I, was where we lived. I worked there. Did anything that I could. He taught me a lot. He took me to the small little towns where he would do surgeries and. It really piqued my interest, so I thought I was looking at hopefully becoming a pediatrician is what my goal was, and I needed to get a degree to start with. So I thought I’d get it start with nursing and go from that way when I went in for my interview the directors, after talking with me, she said, I understand you want to be a pediatrician. She said, you do have an attitude of caring. You don’t have a cut throat attitude that you would need for medical school. And back at that time, for a woman to get into medical school was rare. I went ahead and stayed in nursing and glad that I listened to what she said, because I hope that I really have always maintained a caring attitude. That is the way I feel, and I hope that I portray that with whomever I interact. When I went to college, the Vietnam War was getting started and really ramping up. I decided to go ahead and take part in the Navy nurse candidate program that they had. And I was considered an E3 and had I was underpay under orders all the time. I was in college and finished and then were the obligation to serve active duty in the Navy.

(NANCY): [00:23:09] And it was the best thing I ever did as far as I’m concerned. But I retired fine a year and a half ago from nursing. So 54 years I paid my dues.

(HOST): [00:23:23] Absolutely. What are some of the challenges that you think that nurses may have faced when they came home from Vietnam?

(NANCY): [00:23:31] All hell broke loose. Because we were the best way to say it. We were vilified. They told us not to talk, not to wear our uniforms. And I you know, I didn’t I pretty much isolated myself in a lot of ways. But if somebody found out I was from the Navy. Or had been in Vietnam. It was really a price to pay because I was called a baby killer. The only thing you hear was that PTSD was for the men. They were the ones who said they were the ones who faced all of the hard situations, were wounds, whatever it was, that was what they had to deal with. And it didn’t apply to us because we were women. And it wasn’t until probably. The last 10 years that I have heard anything about admitting that, oh, well, maybe women did have some problems with that, and there are a couple of groups. I don’t know the total number of of groups through vais that have actually started groups for women for PTSD or included the women in with the men, because it’s real.

(HOST): [00:24:52] How do you think the role of women has changed in the military since you served?

(NANCY): [00:25:00] One of the things that was really significant for us on the Repose was the ship’s captain was he would brown nose a lot of the brass that would be in the around the base is old Admiral So-and-so was going to be there. He’s going to come to dinner and he would get have four or five senior officers from different different branches to his quarters for dinner. And he would then assign a nurse to be assigned to each individual officer and entertaining for the evening at the know when I mean it just it whatever it was, and then he would go the one subsid on the base on land, and he would say, hey, I’ll bring a couple of my nurses if I can get this. And so couple my girls, as he called them. That was really that was horrible. And we did not do this. Some of the pilots from the chopper pilots gave him the name, the Pimp of the Orient. And it you know, we understood what was going on, but he got mad because he thought we did so he could told us we could not leave the ship for months.

(NANCY): [00:26:23] That was that was just outright not the way it should be. I think women are accepted much more for their ability. And you look at the variety of positions that that women can now be utilized in different areas that they never were before. Those of us who are on the Repose in the sanctuary were the only females at sea in the Navy until in the sometime in the 80s when they started allowing women one to be pilots, another to be at sea. And now it’s pretty much open. If they’re qualified for whatever the area it is, it makes I think that has opened up a lot more for them. But I think now and it may be just the nature of the times that we’re in, there’s more open harassment, but and it really reflects, I think, more society than it does military.

(HOST): [00:27:28] Nancy, do you feel like how do you feel that your service in Vietnam as a nurse affected your service back here stateside when you came home?

(NANCY): [00:27:40] Oh, it definitely affected it, it set that set the whole parameter for who I am today, what I do, how I approach patients, the willingness to learn and to work hard and to continue to always work.

(HOST): [00:27:58] What should people know about what women contributed to the war effort in Vietnam?

(NANCY): [00:28:05] I think the one thing that’s very measurable. Is the fact there would have been a hell of a lot more names on that wall if we hadn’t been there. That we did help get guys adequate care and be able to get home. That’s something that really needs to be acknowledged, that we did make a difference for a lot of people. True. There were a lot more men present than there were females. But what we did was essential. We help. The corpsman helped us. We helped the corpsman. We worked with the physicians, and the physicians knew they could count on us.

(HOST): [00:28:49] Nancy, one question that I that I want to ask is, how do you think the Vietnam War affected your generation?

(NANCY): [00:28:57] I think it caused a lot of pain for sure, and a lot of the people from my generation are bitter, bitter because they went to war, bitter because they people were not supporting us when we came home. Just all just all over, not knowing how to readjust when they get at home. Then they also were bitter because the politics that perpetuated the war was you never knew which way to turn or what they were going to say, oh, we’ll do this, no, we do that. There was stress because we were not supported but vilified when we went home. All of those things have caused tremendous amount of pain for Vietnam veterans, but also for all the citizens who were through that age group. You know, the young people who traveled through growth at that time, and nobody addressed really how they were feeling, why, why they felt the way they did. And it just caused more bitterness.

(HOST): [00:30:13] Nancy, I actually want to ask a follow up question on that is, do you think that those traumas that people experienced when they came home kind of compounded maybe PTSD for men and women who had been serving?

(NANCY): [00:30:29] Undoubtedly, undoubtedly, it really did. And still does. That’s one of the reasons, because now they’re saying welcome home. But it’s kind of hard 50 years later, because there’s still everything of the pain was internalized because we like I said, we had to hide it. I didn’t talk about Vietnam or even cry for 20 years after I got home. And the thing that that opened up the show, China Beach, that was on OK, the first episode of that that came on. I, afterwards, I sat and cried for two hours. I just couldn’t stop crying. We were on China Beach so that, that I guess, was the key that opened, opened this up, and that was in December when it started. In January, I was asked to give a talk about nursing beyond the walls. It was an inservice they were having a children’s hospital where I worked.

(NANCY): [00:31:47] That was the first time I had ever spoken about anything in Vietnam. And that was that really did help. And I know probably two or three years ago, my older son, who was oh, I guess he’s forty eight now, he said, Mom, you know, you have never talked to us about Vietnam, we don’t know anything about it. And I said, I know I couldn’t talk. I said, nobody knew, and I said, I know that that affected how I communicated. I made mistakes because of that, because I was afraid to let anybody know how I felt. So that made things rather uncomfortable. I did get a divorce. That was part of it, because I had never talked to my husband about it.

(HOST): [00:32:39] What do you think helped?

(NANCY): [00:32:42] I think one of the major things just being able to talk about it. I think that’s one thing that people when they come back from a war situation, any kind of a stressful situation like that, need to be able to talk to somebody that understands. That’s so important, and that, I think, is some of the best advice. Find somebody to talk to. Get this out.

(HOST): [00:33:14] Thanks for checking out the official podcast from the founders of the Wall in Washington, D.C. We publish a new episode every two weeks, so be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

(MICHAEL): [00:33:29] Hey, it’s Michael. Big thanks to Callie Wright for sitting in the host chair for this episode, you’ll be hearing a lot more from her in future episodes. I’ll be back in the big chair for our next episode, bringing you deeply personal stories from two daughters of servicemen who were missing in action in Vietnam. That’s in two weeks. We’ll see you then.

Echoes of the Vietnam War

Full Interviews

Full Interview with Edie Meeks

Full Interview with Nancy Wilson

Echoes of the Vietnam War

Show Notes

Echoes of The Vietnam War

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