106 wounded in 2 hours: an Army Nurse in Vietnam

Sharon Bystran was a staff nurse in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War. She spent 11 months on active duty in a 17 bed Intensive Care Unit. This is her speech on Veterans’ Day, 11 November 2011, at the Vietnam Memorial. It is truly inspiring stuff.

“Honored guests my fellow veterans, family and friends who have gathered here to honor those whose names appear on this wall, I am humbled and honored to speak to you today on behalf of my women colleagues and as a representative of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation.

Many women served our country, unofficially – starting with the Revolutionary War, but during the past two centuries their roles have increased and improved. I salute and commend the women in uniform today. THIS IS MY STORY: It is hard for me to believe that over 46 years ago I saw the distant shores of Qui Nhon, Vietnam and thought, wow it looks like a tropical paradise. The vision quickly vanished as I landed on shore with doctors, nurses, medics and other hospital personnel to establish the 500 bed 85th Evacuation Hospital. We arrived with great anticipation and expectation, but with little knowledge of how to set up a field hospital. The real estate that the hospital was given was 8 miles out of town, in an unsecured area. As tents were set up and supply boxes opened we began to realize that we were assembling a World War II vintage hospital. The lack of modern equipment and supplies was a shock. We were soon to find out what challenges heat, humidity, monsoon rains, old equipment, and inadequate supplies would bring. As an example, our anesthesia machines were vintage 1938!

In our first three months there was a chronic shortage of intravenous fluids, lifesaving medicines, suction equipment and many other items used on a daily basis. How did we acquire what was needed? We quickly learned to beg, borrow, barter and steal; and when all else failed we improvised. Nurses and doctors became unofficial supply officers as they raided arriving Navy ships’ dispensaries, handed supply lists to Air Force evacuation crews, and appealed to friends at stateside military hospitals for medical “CARE” packages.

Six weeks after arriving we had to move the hospital due to security issues. The move to Qui Nhon was a welcome relief but it meant disassembling the hospital and setting it up a second time. We departed our first location and 72 hours later it was hit by rocket fire! We felt lucky! Initially, it was extremely frustrating trying to deal with the daily shortages of almost everything. Bad newspaper press about these shortages, and considerable effort on the part of our hospital leadership finally resulted in an improved medical supply chain. However, we often felt unwanted, unappreciated and most of all were seen as trouble makers. The goal of all hospital personnel was to provide the best possible care to all casualties, and we were able to accomplish that.

In the early weeks, the hospital had several small surges of 5 to 15 casualties that were treated in a reasonably efficient manner. Then, in early November the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry’s venture into the Ia Drang Valley and battle with the North Vietnamese Regular Army brought the true realities of war home to us. Suddenly we were inundated with casualties. Surgery went around the clock –64 surgeries were done in the first 24 hours and it continued on for several days.

During the year that I served with the 85th Evacuation Hospital we admit more than 14,000 casualties (approximately half were medical casualties – malaria – and half surgical casualties). On our worst day 106 wounded were admitted during a two-hour period.

To quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” I’ve briefly touched on the worst of times, so what was the best of times? It was how we pulled together as a team, the camaraderie when we saw what we could accomplish under the worst of circumstances and still provide quality care to the many wounded that arrived at our door. You can only understand the bond among those who have successfully served together in a war, if you have been there. There is no greater bond.

At the end of the year, we all came home! Many returned to civilian life and some to continue their military careers. Each of us was affected by the war in different ways. We have lived with that year of war ever since. One nurse was never able to work in nursing again. Another nurse committed suicide several years later, but I have no idea if Vietnam was her demon. Others cannot visit this wall, because the memories are too strong, the thought is too painful.

It has often been believed that since women didn’t carry weapons we were less likely to be casualties of war. However, stress, depression, anxiety; fatigue, nightmares and many other symptoms have long been associated with war time duty. It took many years after Vietnam to finally label these symptoms as PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Florence Nightingale, a Crimean War nurse and founder of modern nursing, is believed to have suffered from this malady. Our nation is beginning to realise and come to grips with the fact that there are many latent wounds of war. These wounds affect women as well as men. Besides stress disorders there are many illnesses associated with the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam; and, in our current conflicts – PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and high incidences of suicide. These are some of the wounds that can stay with us for a life time, or strike years later.

I will end by commending all women who worked in defence of our nation; not just in the military but also in war related industries, and in government jobs. In addition, women served, and are serving, in the American Red Cross, the USO and in intelligence – in fact, some women were considered WWII’s greatest spies. Today women continue to serve in many of these roles and, in many more, as our armed forces have opened up more branches to women. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial pays tribute to all of these women, living and dead, past and present, who have served our country.
Ladies, we answered our nations call! Thank you, God Bless you, God Bless all veterans, and God bless America.

COL Sharon Forman Bystran, USA (Ret.)

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