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text 2018-08-01 01:41
The Inspiration, Sorrow, and Triumph of the Vietnam Veteran

I met Steve Schaefer in the early years of this decade because of our shared association with Pillars of Honor, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to giving a day of honor to World War II veterans too weak to take their Honor Flight.  After my husband and I opened each program with World War II songs, Steve, the Pillars of Honor president, would give a few remarks, always introducing himself as a Vietnam veteran, the son of a World War II veteran.

 

It didn’t take long to connect the dots: Steve’s service had been inspired by his dad’s. And the younger Schaefer was every inch the elder had been, serving three tours in Vietnam and earning four Purple Hearts.

 

 

War has always produced heroes, a fact understood by young men of all time. Jurate Kazickas, a combat reporter who witnessed young Americans come under fire in Vietnam, wrote: “War, for all its brutality and horror, nevertheless offered men an opportunity like no other to be fearless and brave, to be selfless, to be a hero.” (1) Like Steve, many of the young men Kazickas met had been inspired by the heroism of the previous generation.

 

Those fighting on the other side were infused with their own historical perspective. When the Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they were hailed as national heroes. So it was hardly surprising that the Viet Minh remaining in the south after the civil war began were quickly given a new name by their enemies: Viet Cong, short for Viet Nam Cong San, the Vietnamese Communists. Vietnamese soldiers working for the southern government would be hard pressed to fight with any enthusiasm against the Viet Minh, their own Greatest Generation.

 

But if war provides an opportunity for heroism, it also, of necessity inflicts wounds. Viet Cong fighters and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army were patched up by Communist medics in the south who were constantly on the run, changing locations almost as often as they changed bandages. One of these, surgeon Dang Thuy Tram, was moved to give her fallen patients poetic tribute in her diary: “Oh, Bon, your blood has crimsoned our native land. . . . Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.” (2)

 

Thuy and the American nurses featured in my book, Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, couldn’t help becoming emotionally attached to their patients, who, even if they had joined up to become heroes, were reduced to mere boys when wounded. Years after his hospitalization in Vietnam, Air Cavalry Sergeant Robert McCance wrote a note of thanks to his nurse, Anne Koch, acknowledging that he had then “really needed the touch of a mother’s hand.” (3)

 

Female medics on both sides of the conflict gave that motherly touch. But as Lynda van Devanter, US Army nurse in Vietnam wrote later, “Holding the hand of one dying boy could age a person ten years. Holding dozens of hands could thrust a person past senility in a matter of weeks.” (4)

 

Anne Koch. 

 

The war wounded these healers. Thuy was killed before it ended. Most of the American nurses survived but suffered decades of inner pain, which matched, or perhaps in some cases outstripped, the outward suffering of their broken, bleeding, dying patients, images that were often etched permanently in the nurses’ minds.

 

After the war, the eerie silence between the two enemies once locked in mortal combat represented oceans of hurt; all attempts to move past the war seemed hollow when veterans on both sides were suffering. The southern Vietnamese soldiers were given absolutely nothing except, in many instances, a one-way ticket to a cruel reeducation camp. If they were fortunate enough to emerge alive, mere shadows of their former selves, they saw that the new government had obliterated all memorials to their dead comrades.

 

Post-war life was also bitter for the victors. The rumored riches in the south had been exaggerated and the new country’s economy disastrously unable to provide for its people, much less its fighters. Many female veterans hoped that victory would bring an opportunity to raise a family in peace. But the long, grueling years of war left too many unable to bear children even if they could find someone amid the surviving males to marry them.

 

Most American female veterans went on to live outwardly normal lives but they, like their male counterparts, received no recognition for many years. This was, perhaps Steve Schaefer’s biggest wound and one that should have earned him—and all the other vets—an additional Purple heart. The inability of family and friends to comprehend what they had experienced, on the one hand, and the lack of respect from strangers on the other, exacerbated the inner pain overwhelming these veterans.

 

But perhaps the most inspiring stories of the Vietnam War occurred at this point. While post-traumatic stress is as old as combat, the suffering of Vietnam veterans gave it a name. A brotherhood of the war-wounded was formed and, as my book illustrates, a sisterhood as well. Lynda van Devanter founded the Women’s Project at the Vietnam Veteran’s of America. Kay Bauer, a US Navy nurse who was targeted by domestic terrorists after the war, created a PTSD program for female Vietnam veterans in Minneapolis, her hometown. And Diane Carlson Evans, who wrote my book’s forward, spearheaded the difficult ten-year project to honor all the women veterans of the war with their own memorial in Washington, D.C. The unveiling of that memorial on November 11, 1993, was a time of honor, personal healing, and numerous reunions between female medics and their patients.

 

 

Many Vietnam veterans, male and female, would eventually succumb to the effects of Agent Orange. Steve Schaefer was one of these. But like so many veterans of that war, Steve had found a way to move forward in his life long before it ended. He led local veteran’s associations and helped the homeless for decades, and in his final years worked tirelessly to give tribute to the generation that had inspired him.

 

  1. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 89.
  2. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 129.
  3. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 119.
  4. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 145.

 

 

Top photo: Jurate Kazickas. 

Bottom photos, left to right: Dang Thuy Tram, Bobbi Hovis, Lynda van Devanter, Kay Bauer. 

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text 2018-06-30 02:54
A diary, a memoir, and a war.

Dang Thuy Tram is pictured on the far left, Lynda Van Devanter second from right. 

 

Because one of my goals in writing Courageous Women of the Vietnam War was to understand the conflict from multiple perspectives, I tried to feature women from different sides within each chronological segment. In the section labeled "Richard Nixon's 'Peace'", I included the story of Communist surgeon, Dang Thuy Tram, and American nurse, Lynda Van Devanter and found them to be movingly similar.

 

In 1969 Dang Thuy Tram was a three-year graduate from medical school and Lynda van Devanter a newly trained nurse. These young women could have put their skills to use in relative safety but chose instead to serve their countries -- North Vietnam and the United States, respectively--by going into a war zone: South Vietnam. 

 

The United States had just sworn in a new president whose campaign promise had been “an honorable end” to the Vietnam War. Precisely what Richard Nixon meant by those words would not become clear till much later, but nothing he said before his inauguration or anything he did afterwards could shake the resolve of the leader in North Vietnam who remained determined to see Vietnam united. In the same month Nixon began his presidency, Thuy, already working with the VC in the south and longing to be accepted into the Communist party,  copied a speech from Ho Chi Minh in her diary:

 

…This year greater victories are assured at the battlefront. For independence—for freedom. Fight until the Americans leave, fight until the puppets fall. Advance soldiers, compatriots. North and South reunified, no other spring more joyous. (1)

 

Ideology also spurred Lynda into the war. On night, during her last year of nursing school, she made up her mind to join the army and go to Vietnam, believing that the US was “pursuing a course that President Kennedy had talked about in his inaugural address: we were saving a country from Communism.” (2)

 

There were brave boys fighting and dying for democracy…And if our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me. (3)

 

Thuy traveled down the dangerous Ho Chi Minh trail and landed in the Quang Ngai Province, an area with a history of intense resistance to foreigners. On June 9, 1969, just six months after Thuy recorded Ho’s speech in her diary, Lynda became one of those foreigners, working 244 miles away at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleikuk.

 

Both Thuy and Linda were involved in life-saving surgeries and both found triage emotionally difficult. Lynda stated it bluntly: “Essentially we were deciding who would live and who would die.” (4) She later described her first experience of a “mal-cal”—a mass casualty situation:

 

The moans and screams of so many wounded were mixed up with the shouted orders of doctors and nurses. One soldier vomited on my fatigues while I was inserting an IV needle into his arm. Another grabbed my hand and refused to let go. A blond infantry lieutenant begged me to give him enough morphine to kill him so he wouldn’t feel any more pain. A black sergeant went into a seizure and died while Carl and I were examining his small frag wound. (5) 

 

When Thuy’s team decided to not operate on a dying patient, she “conformed to the majority’s opinion” but poured regret into her diary:

 

He died with a small notebook in his breast pocket. It held many pictures of a girl with a lovely smile and a letter assuring him of her steely resolution to wait for his return. On his chest, there was a little handkerchief with the embroidered words Waiting for you. Oh, that girl waiting for him! Your lover will never come back; the mourning veil on your young head will be heavy with pain. It will mark the crimes committed by the imperialist killers and my regret, the regret of a physician who could not save him when there was a chance. (6) 

 

Thuy never wavered in support of her government’s war aims. While the war was absolute hell for most Vietnamese people, it wasn't hard for Ho Chi Minh's followers to keep their motivations stoked. The US, in their minds, was simply following China and France as the most recent colonizer and the southerners, they thought, were wealthy traitors. Each new Viet Cong or NVA death increased Thuy's hatred for the enemy and her desire for victory.

 

Every American death had the opposite effect on people like Lynda; it was difficult for the average American serving in Vietnam to maintain their ideological reasons for supporting the war. How was their presence promoting democracy, exactly? Increasingly haunted by the deaths of far too many young Americans under her care, Lynda wrote home, “We should either pull out of Vietnam or hit the hell out of the NVA. This business of pussyfooting around is doing nothing but harm. It’s hurting our GIs, the people back home, and our image abroad.” 

 

The war had a devastating effect on the lives of both women. It ended Thuy’s--she was shot by an American bullet sometime in June, 1970. Lynda boarded her “freedom flight” that same month but returned home to face the hostility of strangers, the misunderstanding and indifference of friends and family, and years of untreated PTSD. 

 

But their stories were destined to have major post-war impact. When Lynda wrote her moving war memoir, Home Before Morning, in 1983, it became a bestseller, inspired the award-winning China Beach series, and illuminated the unique plight of American Vietnam War nurses.

 

Dana Delany as US Army nurse Colleen McMurphy in the China Beach TV series. 

 

Thuy’s diary was found by an American military intelligence officer who took it home but brought it back to Vietnam in 2005 where it was published that year. There were plenty of war memoirs and biographies in Vietnam by this time, but Thuy’s diary revealed the voice of a flesh and blood human being who questioned her own motives, grieved for the lost, and hoped for an end to the war; she was not a hero carved in marble spouting all the correct sentiments. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace became a bestseller and was translated into English in 2007.

 

War inflicts wounds not only on those who fight in them but on those who dedicate themselves to heal wounded warriors. Thuy and Lynda paid dearly for choosing the role of healers but they became the voices of their generations, and in speaking from their frame of reference, helped countless readers understand the war from the other side.

 

1. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 125. 

2. Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Lynda van Devanter, 49. 

3. Courageous Women, 137.  

4. Courageous Women, 138. 

5. Courageous Women, 142. 

6. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram99-100.

7. Courageous Women, 145. 

 

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review 2011-02-25 00:00
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram - Đặng Thùy Trâm This book broke my heart. It's not the first account I've read of a young woman in war, or in this war, but it's the first diary, and just the idea of keeping a diary in the middle of a war gets to me.

But first a note about how this book came to be, from the cover copy: The American officer who discovered the diary soon after Dr. Tram’s death was under standing orders to destroy all documents without military value. As he was about to toss it into the flames, his Vietnamese translator said to him, “Don’t burn this one. . . . It has fire in it already.” Against regulations the officer preserved the diary and kept it for 35 years. It was published in 2005 and translated to English by Andrew X. Pham, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner Frances FitzGerald.

Keeping a diary in a war strikes me as the most conscientious and humanizing of gestures, made under the most inhumane circumstances. Just the determination required to maintain the practice with any consistency impresses me, and in Tram's case -- in the rain.

It rained and rained and rained. Rarely on a roof. Mostly the writer, a young doctor fresh out of medical school, was outside on the run, following unending trails of combat-wounded and sick through improvised hospitals staked in the muck of jungle trenches and bunkers. I once tried to keep a diary on a backpacking trip in the rain and I couldn't do it.

Sorrow has seeped far into my heart like the relentless monsoon rain willing itself deep into the earth. . .

We covered the floor with plastic sheets, but the water still came in and flooded the building. Everyone was thoroughly soaked. All day long we collected water dripping from the leaks and tossed it outside. The injured sat shivering, completely soaked. . .

There were nights when I was sound asleep when he crawled quietly into the bamboo brush and bailed water out of the shelter, pail by pail, so that if I had to go into the shelter in the morning, I would not be too cold. Many times he gave me his dry shelter and took the flooded and uncomfortable one. . .

The whole forest has been ripped apart, trees down everywhere, houses leaning askew, walls and roofs nearly gone . . . and tonight it rains . . .


And the writer hasn't the luxury of thinking she'll be home in a few months or in any given amount of time. She's in it for however long the war happens to be or until it kills her. She managed two years of entries before walking into rifle fire while heading down yet another trail (probably in the rain).

The entries are by turns poetic, frank, hopeful, and desperate but never crude. Never! She wrote simply and self-consciously, too self-consciously to ever be crude, which is the most endearing thing about her voice because it makes her sound young.

Between the lines I could see who she had in mind as she wrote: her distant love, her mother, a dear friend, a dying patient, The Party. Communism compelled with all the dogma, conviction, self-righteousness, and guilt of serious religion, in this case sustained by a sincere belief that it was the sole path to salvation.

Twenty-five years immersed in fire and bullets, we are still strong. We will persevere and be courageous and hold our heads high and take the offensive. Blood soaks each of our steps on this road of struggles. Is there any country on earth that has suffered as much as ours? And are there any people who have fought as courageously, persistently, and tirelessly as we have?


I think not.

The last lines written before her death: I yearn deeply for Mom's caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.

Call me a mother, which I am (and of a young woman), but it just breaks my heart.


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review 2008-08-04 00:00
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram - Đặng Thùy Trâm This was really difficult. Terribly sad and poignant because our forces killed this woman, but also oddly impersonal and intermittently tedious. Much of it read like a polemic by a newly converted party-line true believer. The rest was unbearably grim.I may come back to it later, but I had to put it aside.
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