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Nurses Needed

Although it was difficult for many military women to gain an assignment to Vietnam, the services almost always sent those medical personnel who volunteered to go because they were so desperately needed. One of these volunteers was Army nurse MAJ Monica Crossdale-Palmer. MAJ Crossdale-Palmer served at the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Quin How during the military buildup in Vietnam in 1965 and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal. When her 12-month assignment ended, she extended for an additional six months and was transferred to the 17th Field Hospital in Saigon. In March 1967, MAJ Crossdale-Palmer returned to the United States and was assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC, where she served 18 months in the operating room before she volunteered to return to Vietnam. During her second tour of duty, she served as operating room supervisor of the 45th Surgical Hospital at Tay Rinh, seven miles from the Cambodian border.38

Another Army nurse who volunteered to serve in Vietnam was MAJ Marie L. Rodgers, who received the Bronze Star from President Johnson in a White House ceremony in December 1967. MAJ Rodgers, a 15-year veteran, rendered distinguished service in connection with group operations against a hostile force in Vietnam from October 1966 to September 1967. She was the operating room supervisor in the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh .39 In her words “I got the Bronze Star because of how smooth[ly] my unit ran.” Rodgers volunteered to go to Vietnam because she knew she was a good operating room nurse and wanted to have the opportunity to contribute her skills where they were most needed. She also wanted to challenge herself. The hospital at Long Binh was very busy; operating room personnel routinely handled all types of wounds, including head and face wounds. Rodgers noticed little racial prejudice in Vietnam. She said, “The Army system of promotion really helped. In other situations, as a black nurse, I wouldn’t have gotten the kind of jobs I had. In the Army, they always had to give you the job you trained for, and with that, the rank.” Rodgers said, “There were not a lot of black nurses. Most times I was the only black nurse. I never worked with a black doctor or a black surgeon. I never even had a black nurse on my staff.” The reason for this, of course, was that African-Americans had only just begun to break through the educational and professional barriers that had prevented them from obtaining degrees in medicine. As commissioned officers in the military, African-Americans in theory competed on an equal footing with whites. The problem was obtaining the necessary degrees to qualify for a commission. Rodgers added, “I think I was blessed. I guess I was competent, I was always able to get the job done.” Rodger’s career in the Army Nurse Corps spanned 25 years and she retired as a colonel.40

In her official history of the Army Nurse Corps, COL Mary Sarnecky said that the Nurse Corps did make deliberate attempts to recruit more minority nurses during the Vietnam Era. When the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing was established at the University of Maryland in 1965, for example, administrators encouraged African-American enrollments but struggled with a high attrition rate among minority students because the “less than optimal caliber of their secondary education” had not provided them with “the tools necessary for success in a competitive academic environment.”41 By 1972, there were no minority students at the school, so two African-American nurses, both majors, were assigned to travel around the country interviewing interested applicants and eventually brought 10 African-American students to the school, seven of whom ultimately graduated.42

The Army tried to assign CPT Elizabeth Allen to the Institute of Nursing in 1967. The Nurse Corps had very few officers with advanced degrees, and CPT Allen had master’s degrees in psychiatric nursing and business administration. She also had three brothers in the Navy, however, and she knew that while there were few African-American health professionals in Vietnam, there were a lot of front line African-American troops. She wanted to be there for them. In an interview CPT Allen linked military service to the fundamental obligation of citizenship when she noted, “Everybody who claims to be an American has military obligations. I don’t believe women should be exempt.” She had to be very persistent before she was finally assigned to the Army hospital at Cu Chi, headquarters of the 25th Division. One of her responsibilities involved flying aboard the helicopters used for medical evacuation. In her memoir, CPT Allen wrote that she will never forget her first evac patient, a sucking chest wound. It was a night flight, and the helicopter could not use lights. “The only thing I know to do is find his face and do breathing for this kid, and I do that all the way to Saigon. I keep him alive in the dark. We set down, they take him off, and we’re back up again and moving.” She learned to conduct triage, which involved deciding which patients should be treated first, and which would have to wait because their cases were too complex. Operating on soldiers who needed lengthy procedures would take too much time when resources were limited and there were too many patients waiting for surgery. “We only had three operating rooms. We took first those that would use the least resources,” said Allen. Those that needed long surgeries had to wait until there was a lull. Some died in the interim, others stayed alive and were eventually operated on.

By the time of the Tet Offensive, CPT Allen was at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. She remembered that the hospital was fired on virtually every night, and for this reason they assigned the most experienced nurses to night duty. “There was no place to go. You had to keep doing whatever you were doing. Responding to fear is not always an option. Men’s lives were dependent on me, and my being scared was not useful,” she said. After the war she received a doctorate in nursing from the University of South Carolina and served in the Army Reserve. She is now an associate professor of nursing at the University of Michigan.43

Like the Army, the Air Force also sent some of its nurses to serve overseas in support of the war in Vietnam. One of these nurses was Air Force CPT Olivia Theriot, who was stationed at Clark AFB in the Philippines as a flight nurse with the 902nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron during the Tet Offensive. She made daily trips in and out of Saigon aboard C-118s and C-130s, moving the wounded between Vietnam, the Philippines, Okinawa and Thailand. Most times the flight in carried supplies and the flight out carried patients. During the height of the Offensive, her unit flew in and out several times a day. She recalled many amputees, tracheotomies, and hemorrhages and noted, “I was one of a few blessed flight nurses that never had an in-flight death.” On one assignment, she flew into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to evacuate personnel from a Navy ship that had been hit. After the war, CPT Theriot remained in the Air Force Nurse Corps and she later retired as a lieutenant colonel.44

38Women’s Memorial Register, Monica Crossdale-Palmer, Colonel, US Army (Ret.), Registration # 274068.

39Women’s Memorial Register, Marie L. Rodgers, Colonel, US Army (Ret.), Registration # 361691.

40Yvonne Latty, We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq, (New York: Amistad, 2004), 127-131.

41Mary Sarnecky, Colonel, US Army Nurse Corps (Ret.), A History of the Army Nurse Corps (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 325.

42Sarnecky, 326.

43Ron Steinman, Women in Vietnam: The Oral History, (New York: TV Books, 2000), 83-100; Latty, 91-97; “I’m Glad I Was With Them,” Detroit Free Press, 28 April 1985, 7G.

44Women’s Memorial Register, Olivia Theriot, Lt. Colonel, US Air Force (Ret.), Registration # 020551; Latty, 117-120.