Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Nurses

One of the everlasting consequences of my year in Vietnam is an insatiable fascination with that war, especially its less well-known stories. When I saw an ad for Officer, Nurse, Woman: the Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War I snagged a copy from the library. The role of women in that war has been largely ignored; they were a very small proportion of the approximately 2.5 million who served. Their role was very circumscribed.

Most were nurses. Their experiences first came to my awareness through Lynda Vandevanter's Home Before Morning: the Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam . That account made me realize that being an infantryman was not as difficult as a nurse. I didn't see the daily carnage and wrestle with the constant choices and death that medical staff dealt with. Vandevanter's tale was indeed harrowing.

It was also highly controversial. Other nurses savaged Vandevanter for her story, claiming that it was false, that it slandered all nurses, that she was simply too weak and immature to fulfill her professional obligations. The Amazon link has one very, negative review of both the book and Vandevanter personally. If you read that one, read this one too.

Officer, Nurse, Woman puts the story in a more realistic perspective. Author Kara Dixon Vuic put a LOT of effort into researching her topic, all of which shows in the detail, balance and care with which she tells the story. Vuic's account presents the Army Nurse Corps in the context of its military history and role while also exploring the impact of changing concepts of gender relations and its impact on the nurses who served in Vietnam. Along with all that history and context, though, Vuic gives voice to the women and men (up to 30 percent of Vietnam nurses were men at a time when male nurses were rare in civilian practice).

In the end, those stories are what make the book work so well. For me, Vietnam is the many stories of the many who served. That so few were women is all the more reason to hear their experience of war.



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