LTC Sanchez, who retired in 1976 after nearly 25 years of service, traveled from her Augusta, GA, home in July 2006 to take part in a presentation of her oral history collection to the Library of Congress (LOC) Veterans History Project. The Women’s Memorial Foundation collaborates with the LOC as an official partner, submitting biographical data sheets and oral histories like LTC Sanchez’s to their Veterans History Project national registry. “Oral history is a wonderful resource for historians, researchers, students or anyone interested in military women’s history during the Vietnam War era,” said retired USAF Brig Gen Wilma Vaught, Women’s Memorial Foundation President.
The Sanchez interview is just one example of the power of oral history. From her memories of caring for Cambodia’s President Lon Nol, to her vivid descriptions of handling triage “dust off” situations where wounded arrived “like locusts,” LTC Sanchez’s story reminds us of the tremendous contributions American women made in the Vietnam War. She was one of only 43 Army Physical Therapists–33 of whom were women–who served in Vietnam from 1966-73. Despite the complex horrors of war and the often-painful memories of life and death at the 95th Evacuation Hospital, the resounding message in her interview is the strength of the human spirit:
“In the worst possible situation the human spirit comes alive. It is the human spirit that especially showed with the wounded. They were so incredibly poised. There was a beauty and peace about how they accepted their fate. For me, it was not just one soldier. It was a matter of each and every patient that I treated. … I shall always remember the incredible spirit they showed during such a horrendous time. The experience I had with all of these soldiers will never be forgotten.”
Her story is also unique because she addresses a wide variety of historically significant themes, some still common today and others widely under-explored. For example, she provides a new perspective on our country’s cultural history through her discussion on the strength of the black power movement in Vietnam. Her memories also shed light on women in the medical specialty professions at an important time during the women’s rights movement. LTC Sanchez’s interview also brings to life some of the obstacles physical therapists faced in combat zones, including treating patients with all nature of war injuries.
Another challenge she faced was tending enemy POWs. She recounts her experience of caring for a petite, but very pregnant, Vietnamese woman allegedly responsible for setting land mines that killed approximately 65 American soldiers. The patient had broken her right femur as she ran to escape the explosion of the land mines:
“She was brought to the 95th Evac and we put her in the POW ward. … As I approached to treat her, she grabbed my neck and tried very hard to choke me as if she wanted to kill me. … [A] Special Forces sergeant tried to get her to release her grip off my neck as I also was trying to get her hands off me. The sergeant finally gave up and … slapped her. … I just had to stop him. I think that knowing what she had done, killing our GIs the way she did, increased his rage.”
LTC Sanchez was able to calm the sergeant by telling him that she, too, had been in the vicinity when the land mines exploded and that she could relate to his feelings:
“He just put his rifle straight up in front of him, put his head on top of it and he just cried and cried, almost with despair. I cannot tell you how I felt in those moments. This had to be one of the most trying times in my life. I just cried with him.”
This remarkable collection captures LTC Sanchez’s year in Vietnam and includes her 2.5 hour oral history interview, transcript and more than 250 scanned photographs, letters, newspaper articles, poems, and documents that illustrate the life of a young woman in uniform serving in a war with no front lines.
Through the generosity of a Save America’s Treasures grant and a recent bequest by the Helen (Stehr) Gallogly family, stories like LTC Sanchez’s are now being fully digitized by the Foundation using a high-definition video camera and state-of-the-art computer hardware and software. Educational workshops providing specialized training have allowed Foundation staff members to use this cutting-edge technology to standardize digital preservation procedures, as well as maximize accessibility and distribution of materials for display, exhibit and educational purposes.
The Women’s Memorial Foundation welcomes oral history donations in all formats ranging from audiocassette to DVD. If you are a servicewoman or woman veteran and are interested in donating your oral history to our growing collection, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-533-1155 or 800-222-2294, so that we may continue to preserve the long legacy of women’s service in defense of our nation.
All excerpts in this piece are taken from the Aida Nancy Sanchez Collection.
Interview: Aida Nancy Sanchez, interviewed by Kate Scott, 29 June 2004, tape and transcript deposited at the Women’s Memorial Foundation, Arlington, VA.