A Nurse’s Story

Published: October 18, 2013

By Jim Lichtman
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Every couple of years, The Gallup organization takes a poll on the honesty and ethics of professions. It’s not surprising that nurses typically come out on top. In the latest poll, from 2012, nurses were given an 85 percent rating of high or very high.

I met First Lieutenant (ret.) Jean Mitchell-Baldwin when she and her husband, John, paid a visit a couple of years ago. Her husband was a vascular surgeon and served with Jeannie in Viet Nam. Jean doesn’t talk much about her war time experience, but this first-hand account, given in response to a friend’s questions, gives us a glimpse into the dedication, skill, compassion and lack of ego necessary for her job – something all in Washington should take as an example.

Arriving in country, to Vietnam, one is immediately hit with the incredible heat, humidity and smells. There is dust everywhere – unless the monsoon rain is pouring down – and  for about two weeks until you dive into your work as an operating room nurse at the hospital, you are very homesick.

Despite constant artillery going ‘out’ at night from the 105mm howitzers that were used to keep the enemy away from our post, you got used to it and could sleep. Only occasionally, during my year in a combat zone, did rockets fall on our base, and none, fortunately, hit the hospital. I was a surgical nurse working in the operating room 6 days out of seven, 12 hours, on, 12, off. Some days were incredibly busy with wounded stacked up and triaged by the top surgeons in order of their priority to go into surgery. There were six operating rooms going most of the time, and one was held for “emergencies”!

One of my most memorable days was when the surgeons operated on a young Vietnamese woman who had been caught in crossfire. She was 8 months pregnant, and we were unable to save either the mother or the baby. I baptized the baby before wrapping in a pillowcase. I operated a lot with John Baldwin, who was chief of surgery and later married. He was extremely fast and I don’t remember him ever losing a patient, and he operated on nearly 1,800 Americans, Australians, South Vietnamese soldiers, civilians, and even enemy North Vietnamese soldiers. He treated them all with great skill.

If an American or Aussie was in need of surgery fast, he took them in before anyone else, but other than that, we played fair and square. I got used to the rapid, unexpected pace of casualties arriving by helicopter and by my sixth week, was a calm veteran, unshaken by blood, blown off arms and all of the other horrors that modern war produces.

I had always wanted to be a nurse, and in college joined the Army reserve and they helped me with my education to become a registered nurse. John Kennedy had been assassinated 1963 and then his brother Bobby in 1967. With the war in Vietnam getting hotter and hotter, I resolved that I would go there to help the soldiers as a nurse.

I spent 1967 at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the crown jewel of their service, in the operating room working on kids back from Vietnam, who had had their original operations over there. In June 1968, I shipped out for Nam, and was assigned to the biggest hospital of nearly 30 hospitals in country, the 24th Evacuation Hospital, in a huge rubber plantation outside of the capital city of Saigon. It was in the very epicenter of all the action and I enjoyed my work, made numerous friends, became a better nurse and person, and met John.

The only women who served in Vietnam were Army nurses. The military had not yet made – in my opinion – the terrible decision to place women in combat roles, which came from Congresswoman Barbara Schroeder of Colorado in an insane effort to “give women equality”. All nurses in Vietnam had volunteered to go there. Not one was drafted and not one had to go if she did not want to. There were plenty of nursing jobs at Army hospitals all over the United States. I was treated with utmost respect, partly because I was a woman, partly because I was a saving nurse, and partly because I was an officer. I was never stereotyped and there was nothing even close to what people now call “sexual harassment.”  That was invented later on.

I still have flashbacks and memories and the strange thing was that this, almost post traumatic stress syndrome, did not really sneak up on me until I had been back home for nearly 15 years. However, the sound of a helicopter coming over or landing, gives me goose bumps and I will often cry when that happens, remembering what that meant forty years ago. I have become more sensitive to life, to the unborn and to the elderly.

The Vietnam War, much like Iraq, was a terrible mistake, fought for “the domino theory” that if Nam went communist, all Asia would fall. That was political lying by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Vietnam had been brutally occupied for 900 years by the Chinese, then in the late 1800s, the French conquered them and made them semi slaves, then in 1938, the Japanese won out and brutalized them until the USA won WW 2.  Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern Vietnam, pleaded with president Harry Truman to give his nation their independence, just as Britain was giving it to India, and the USA gave it to the Philippine Islands, but Truman never answered.

So, Ho Chi Minh fought the French who returned, defeated them in 1954, wiped them out, and crazy but true, the United States, under President Eisenhower, sent the first U.S. soldiers to Nam in 1959. Little did anyone realize that the first man killed would be in 1959, and the last in 1975 – 58,000 wonderful American boys, 500,000 or more Vietnamese, and another 200,000 American kids wounded, blind, one leg, brain injuries, and for what?

Last year our daughter Nancy visited Viet Nam representing her company, and where my hospital once stood is a huge factory that makes Nike and Reebok shoes, a giant industrial park, and on the coast, you can stay where 5,000 men of the 1st Cavalry Division died in Vung Tau, at a 5 star Hilton with a Greg Norman 18 hole championship golf course.

Does any of that make any sense?  Of course not, and when you are my age, you will feel the same way about Iraq.

John and I have entertained about six of our former soldiers wounded in Nam at our home, including one whose leg John reattached and now, 40 years, later he still hikes and climbs. Another soldier, shot in the brain, who just retired as head designer for the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, and Andy in Florida, with whom all four of us have enjoyed vacations to Yellowstone Park and the High Sierra. Andy is another whose leg we completely saved. So, there is incredible sense of pride and accomplishment for me and John, because, you see, we didn’t kill people, we just saved their lives.



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