A Nurse at Ia Drang: “I saw a man lose 85% of his head”

Sharon Bystran was in the Army Nurse Corps at the height of the conflict in Vietnam. Here’s her story.

What was your role in the hospital during the Vietnam War?

I worked as a staff/charge nurse in the 17 bed Intensive Care Unit.

Where were you stationed and how long did you serve for?

I arrived in Vietnam in August 1965 via the USNS Barrett with the rest of our hospital unit personnel and equipment. Tour of duty was one year – I departed in August 1966.

How and when did you get the call to sign up?

I joined the Army Nurse Corps under the Army Student Nurse Program during my senior year of college. The Army paid for my college expenses my senior year and I owed the Army two years of active duty in return.

I was on active duty about 11 months and stationed at Ft. Hood. Texas when I was ordered to report to Ft. Bliss, Texas and join the 85th Evacuation Hospital with an unknown destination. We weren’t told where we would be going until after the ship was clear of the US mainland. We departed out of Oakland Naval Base on Friday, the 13th of August 1965.

Interview with Sharon Bystran, a Vietnam veteran from the Army Nurse Corps

What were the conditions like for you and the soldiers in Vietnam?

The living conditions were barren, but, for hospital personnel far better than the troops in the field. We started out living in tents in our first location, which was 13 kilometres (eight miles) out of Qui Nhon. We were there about six weeks when General Westmoreland deemed it unsafe for a hospital and made an engineering unit in the city trade places with the hospital. Once we were in Qui Nhon we lived in an old villa (probably maids’ accommodations) where we lived 3 or 4 to a room and shared a bathroom with 3 or 4 other nurses. Not luxury but far better than what the hospital male officers and enlisted personnel or field troops had for living accommodations. The enlisted members and most of the male officers of our unit spent most of the year living in tents.


Did you have any contact with the South Vietnamese?

Once we moved to our second location and lived in the city of Qui Nhon we had maids who did our laundry and other minor house cleaning. The ICU also had a maid who helped with cleaning; there were several throughout the hospital. None of the maids spoke English. About 6 months into the tour we had a young Vietnamese man who worked as a junior medic on the unit and knew a little English.

Any other contact was with local shop owners. I also participated in one or two med-cap outings where we provided some medical treatment to young children. I also made a few visits to the leprosarium that was a few miles south of the city.

What was the worst injury you had to treat in the hospital?

This is hard to answer since I worked intensive care. Many of the casualties had multiple wounds – head, abdomen, fractures and amputations. Early on we lacked Stryker frames for those casualties that had major back injuries we had to improvise with two litters and sandwich the patient between the two litters when they needed to be turned from front to back (done every two hours). Actually, the lack of modern equipment during the first 6 months was our greatest frustration when trying to give quality care to severely wounded casualties. We improvised with lots of things – it is rather amazing what you can come up with when the expected equipment is not available.

Interview Sharon Bystran: a Vietnam veteran from the Army Nurse Corps
The Vietnam Women’s memorial in Washington D.C.

The most unusual injury that I saw was a man that had 85% of his head cut off and still survived. A helicopter pilot had just exited his chopper on the airfield when he heard a strange noise and stepped around to the side of the chopper just as static electricity set off a rocket from his ship and it nearly decapitated him. Fortunately, there was a medic on the field who established an airway and the heat of the rocket cauterised many of the blood vessels. One carotid was not hit. He was lifted into the helicopter and flown to the hospital. This occurred during our first month in country and we were 8 miles from the airstrip. We were not receiving any casualties at the time so numerous surgeons were able to go to work on him and 7 or 8 hours later he was in the intensive care unit. We all marvelled the next day when we asked him to signal with his hand ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to questions. He could. He was quickly evacuated to the States and a few years later I met a doctor who had cared for him and said, he needed an artificial larynx but, otherwise, did quite well.

What was the most common injury you had to tend to?

In intensive care we had all the neurosurgery casualties (most were head injuries) and all other casualties with major injuries, i.e. abdominal wounds (most with colostomies), chest wounds, fractured femurs with significant tissue loss and double or triple amputees.

What was the morale of the soldiers like in the hospital?

For the staff – we focused on the job we had to do. The staff was dedicated to doing all they could for the injured men. Since my experience was with the most severely wounded they were, for the most part, not very verbal or not capable of expressing their feelings. I think most were in semi-shock that they were alive.


Interview with Sharon Bystran, a Vietnam veteran from the Army Nurse Corps

What was it like being so close to the famous battle of Ia Drang Valley?

At the time the Ia Drang Valley battle was our first experience with such mass casualties and we were not that aware of the significance of the battle. We just knew that ‘all hell had broken loose!’ Our focus was on carrying for the casualties. At the time, I don’t remember even realising that it was an encounter with the North Vietnamese Regular Army.

The Ia Drang Valley was several miles from where we were located (I don’t know how far) but all casualties came in by medivac helicopter, which was true of almost all of the casualties received at our hospital. We were certainly far enough away that we could not hear the fighting.

When we were in our first location (8 miles out of Qui Nhon) and two or three nights before we moved to town we could hear sustained rockets going off and see tracers. It was the one time that I felt there was the potential that I would not go home or that I could be injured.

When and why did you return home?

Tour of duty was one year. I returned to the United States in August of 1966. In November of 1967 I received orders for the 249th General Hospital in Japan. This hospital was on the evacuation route for wounded soldiers. Depending on the degree of injury they recovered and returned to Vietnam, or, would eventually be sent on to a stateside facility. I spent two years at the 249th carrying for Vietnam casualties where, for most of those two years, I was the head nurse of a 209 bed orthopedic (four wards) building.

For more on the Vietnam War pick up issue 14 of History of War, which will be on sale 3 March 2015 at https://www.imagineshop.co.uk/ or subscribe to History of War now and save 30%!

For another thrilling story from Vietnam check out our interview with Allen B. Clark here