Nursing During the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was the longest war ever fought by U.S. military forces. U.S. personnel were engaged from 1961 until 1973. Approximately 10,000 U.S. military women served in Vietnam during the war. Most were members of the Army, Navy, and Air Force Nurse Corps. All of the Army nurses were volunteers who attended a six-week basic training class, and then were assigned to one-year stunts in Vietnam hospitals and mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units. Most of these nurses were fresh out of nursing school, some with less than six months of clinical experience. These nurses were not prepared for the physical and emotional wounds that they would have to heal.
Clearly the role of women stationed in Vietnam was quite different from that of the fighting soldier. In primarily medical positions, their major duties were to heal and provide nurturing to severely wounded and/or dying combat soldiers. This function was made more complicated by the fact that the nurses, many of whom were straight out of nursing school, were only a few years older than the wounded they cared for. These nurses were looked up to and took on the role as a "big sister" with their patients, providing psychological as well as medical comfort. The nurses were expected to be emotionally strong as well as physically strong. "Somehow, it was considered a lack of competence if they felt psychologically devastated by particular events of the accumulation of experiences related to the terrible wounds and deaths with which they had to deal" (Scannell-Desch, 2). This created the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that was a common disorder shared between the Vietnam nurses.
Besides clinical inexperience being a major problem causing insecurities, the nurses were being overwhelmed with casualties. "Some nurses were so inexperienced. Some had barely seen an operating room, let alone worked in one" (Scannell-Desch, 4). Along with the lack of experience, to make things worse, the nurses would receive 20 to more than 100 patients within a few hours. An army nurse recalled, "The day I arrived in the O.R., we had a 'mass-cal', 185 casualties. They came in Chinooks (large helicopters). They were on the floor, all over. Every Chinook was overloaded…I just remember that every ward in Nam was full. We had body bags lying around the hospital and the morgue was full" (Scanell-Desch, 4).
The nurses experienced so much trauma in such a little time, that most suffered from PTSD. The experiences that brought on this PTSD was the shock of conflict in Vietnam, the problematic return to a...