While researching ‘Suitcase of Dreams’ I was interested to learn more about the Vietnam War, especially from the Australian perspective. As the war progressed, our presence in Vietnam increased and the anti-war protests of the late sixties became famous. Less well known is the reception our soldiers received when they returned home from a very unpopular war – often in the dead of night and never receiving the hero’s welcome that they deserved. I certainly touch on this in ‘Suitcase of Dreams.’
However there were others that went to Vietnam during this time, civilians that I knew little about. Our medical civilian teams were essentially teams of doctors and nurses from various hospitals who volunteered to work in Vietnam. There was a rigorous screening process and applicants had to meet stringent educational standards. They didn’t treat the soldiers or work in the military hospitals but looked after the local South Vietnamese people in local hospitals and out in the community. They would treat anyone who walked in their doors and they treated everything from every day accidents to horrific injuries of war. The Australian medical teams were highly regarded and remained in Vietnam until the last Australian troops were withdrawn in late 1972.
I couldn’t help but write about these amazing civilian medical teams. In my original draft of ‘Suitcase of Dreams’ I included letters from a civilian nurse in Vietnam. Unfortunately it was hard to fit everything into the story that I wanted and only excerpts of the letters have been kept.
Here are the full versions, outlining the life of civilian nurses in the last years of the Vietnam War. Incredible women working in very challenging circumstances but with the tenacity and optimistic attitudes that Australians are well known for.
10th October, 1971.
We arrived safely in Bien Hoa. It’s been an experience in itself. Flying into Saigon at night, we saw glittering lights in the sky like some kind of fireworks display. We were later told that they were tracer bullets, which light up when they’re fired so they can be traced, particularly at night time. It was our first encounter with the reality of the war. We then flew by caribous, a smaller aircraft into Bien Hoa which is about twenty five miles north east of Saigon. It’s chaotic here but it’s the smells that remind me that I’m far from home – the incense, the diesel from cars and machinery, the rubbish on the streets and open sewers.
The hospital is near an American airbase and the soldiers there are our godsend, helping us with supplies, taking care of security of the hospital compound and anything else we might need. It can get pretty noisy here with the aircraft taking off and landing nearby, shaking the buildings but we’re getting used to it. The hospital is made up of a number of buildings or pavilions with walkways in between. It might have been beautiful once, built in the French colonial style but it’s not very practical for us when we have to move patients between buildings, especially when it’s been raining hard and the walkways fill with floodwaters.
It’s hot here, hotter than I’ve ever experienced and so humid that we always feel sticky and damp. Our uniforms are nylon which makes it even worse. By mid-morning I can wring the bottom of my skirt out that’s how much we sweat. Not very practical, but at least they can be washed out and drip dry overnight. The local children offer us ice blocks to give us some relief from the heat but we’ve been warned not to have them as the water they use can cause us gastro-enteritis. It’s a bit awkward to decline such kind gestures but we try to explain and build a bond with the locals in other ways, like chatting to them whenever we walk from the Australian residence to the hospital.
I’m learning Vietnamese as I go. The training at home was far from adequate and often we communicate with the locals with a few words and hand gestures, although we have an interpreter who we use for the more important exchange of information. I’m finding it a challenge to understand the deep rooted practices and beliefs about health and healing that the locals have but until I do, I don’t think anything I tell them will have a lasting impact.
The Vietnamese medical staff, which has been here with the previous teams, has some English and some knowledge of how we do things in Australia. Often the doctors have trained in France and are well versed with western techniques. However, there are few local doctors in Vietnam as most are serving in the army and the nurses don’t have the kind of training that we do. That’s why our help is needed so desperately.
We see endless cases of injury from the war, of local civilians from the town and outlying villages as well as refugees from further north (although we treat anyone who comes into the hospital including Vietnamese soldiers). They often require immediate and drastic surgery to save their lives – lost limbs, mutilated body parts, terrible burns, especially from napalm, and massive blood loss. Surgeries continue day in and day out, averaging about nine hundred cases a month or more I’m told. These include victims of traffic accidents which are numerous and other accidents, such as burns from exploding stoves which is a common problem here.
Many that need surgery have leg and abdominal injuries from exploding grenades, mortars and mines or deep tissue injuries and fractures, often of the upper leg, from gunshot wounds. These people are often poor women and children trying to exist, who are surviving without their menfolk who are fighting in this bloody war. Some we can patch up, others their lives will never be the same again and I wonder what will happen to them, unable to work, some requiring help to just manage their basic activities. It’s heart wrenching but makes me more determined than ever to do what I can to help these innocent casualties of war.
Besides the surgical cases, we see the insidious side of war. The destruction of infrastructure destroys not only roads and railways but also fresh water and food supplies and leaves stagnant water, ruined crops and open sewerage. It’s only been made worse with the flood of refugees which has strained the limited resources even further. Many people are starving, suffering from malnutrition and disease has run rampant. We see the usual tropical diseases but now diseases eradicated in the west are on the rise, such as tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery and cholera and we’re dealing with an outbreak of bubonic plague of all things. So we treat and nurse many sick people and teach them and their families about basic hygiene and nutrition and pray that we have enough medication on hand.
The hospital is always full to overflowing often with two people to a bed and stretchers on the floor of the wards. We’re always low on linen and the water is erratic, with only one hand basin on each ward. Sometimes the power goes out, it’s unpredictable, and we have to start the generator. When it’s not working and surgery is in progress, we use battery operated lanterns.
But really, I’m glad to be here. I’m safe and well and healthy. I have my own room which is comfortable and there’s always plenty to eat and people to talk to and socialise with after work. Most of all, I’m glad to be making a difference to the lives of the local people.
I’ll write again soon. I’m off to bed now.
3rd December, 1971
It’s been another busy day. Yesterday I witnessed something I never expected to see. A bus carrying children was blown up on the road. It was horrifying to see these children brought in, covered in blood, some screaming, some deathly quiet and some dazed and in obvious shock. It was all hands on deck, triaging the casualties, dealing with the more serious cases and sending them straight to surgery, leaving the less urgent ones in the care of relatives until we could get to them. I couldn’t believe how brave these children were with the terrible injuries they’d sustained. We quickly attended to the remaining children, cradling them on our laps, directing family members to wipe the blood from their bodies and dealing with their injuries. I had no time to cry, no time to feel angry, appalled or sad. War inflicted on innocent children, the future of this country, is the cruelest thing of all.
The children’s ward is full, stretchers lying on the floor between the beds, mothers, sisters, aunties and grandmothers bringing them food and water, straightening their pillows and fetching and emptying bedpans. The Vietnamese people are so devoted to their families. They are a generous, kind people who smile often. I don’t know how they can keep smiling in the face of the devastation of their country, their towns and villages, homes, livelihoods and families. After yesterday, all I want to do is dissolve into tears; just thinking about what’s happening all around us, the hopelessness of it all but yet they keep going, making the best of their situation. Because of them we have to be strong and carry on. For their sake, we have to do all we can to help them. We wouldn’t manage without the families of the patients. They provide the personal care when we can’t, staying by their loved one’s side through the night and often through the day, alerting us to any trouble.
I can’t sleep or maybe I don’t want to because when I close my eyes, I see those tiny mutilated bodies. Instead, I’ll tell you more about what we’ve been doing in the community. We’ve spent some time in the local orphanage, tending to sick children and babies. Many are orphaned from the war and some are mixed race, often abandoned. They’re all starved for love and most respond to affection with smiles and giggles, as any children do. It’s an absolute pleasure to visit the children there and we take food and anything else that we can get our hands on to help them. I wish I had more time to spend with the children and laugh and play with them. It makes me realise how much we take for granted back at home. How many childless couples would love to adopt a little baby like this with little future and give it a life in Australia?
I’ve also visited the leprosarium, the leprosy hospital, with the surgeon who goes there once a month to perform often only minor surgery but sometimes, amputation of limbs. It’s an eye opening experience. The hospital is run by the nuns who are grateful for any help that we can provide. It’s terribly sad to know that something like leprosy still exists in the modern day but at least there are kind individuals like these nuns who selflessly care for the poor, forgotten souls that live out their days here.
My first trip in a chopper (helicopter) was to this hospital. I was a little worried as we’d heard that when a previous team had made the trip, they clipped the top of the trees, making the chopper lurch and they were thrown to the ground. They had to walk back to safety through fields not knowing if they were peppered with mines. The choppers fly low so that they’re less of a target for enemy fire. However, I found it an incredible and exhilarating experience, flying low, just above the tree line. The forest spread out below us, lush and green and the wind on my face, made me forget for a moment that we were in a war zone. I loved it and want to do it again. It’s like nothing else.
I should probably try to sleep now. I know tomorrow will be busy again.
I hope everyone is well. I’ll try to write again before Christmas.
Missing you all.
16th May, 1972
It was so good to hear that you’re all well. Nothing’s really changed here and yet everything has. The fighting is on our doorstep with the American base nearby being a major target of the Viet Cong. It’s harder than ever to get supplies with the withdrawal of US and Australian troops. There are fewer soldiers than before and our security measures have been tightened considerably.
We’ve been given M16 assault rifles and other weapons to use to defend the hospital, if it comes to that. I was told that I was a natural by the American soldier who was training us to use them. I suppose shooting rabbits on the farm has helped!
There’s a curfew in place and advised to stay off the highway to Saigon at night and during the afternoon siesta period. Since our accommodation has moved near the American base, we’re now taken to and from work in armoured personnel carriers. Apparently time delay rockets have been placed at night in strategic positions by the Viet Cong targeting the US base and lately we’ve been woken early in the morning to the sound of them detonating, the walls around us shaking and pulling us out of our beds in panic. We’ve heard explosions near the hospital too with some of the hospital windows being shattered by the blasts.
None of this stops us from doing our work. If anything, we have more patients than ever as the battles rage so close by. We’re all afraid of when and where the next explosion will be, but we know the hospital won’t be targeted as we treat any who walk through our doors, including the Viet Cong and their sympathisers. All we can do is we keep together and focus on the injured in front of us, the people who need us and this bring us the strength and cool headedness that we have to keep.
We’ll keep doing what we do best but it won’t be long before it’s time for us to come home. The Viet Cong are advancing and I fear for the Vietnamese people, especially once the American and Australian troops have gone. Surely the Vietnamese army can’t make up the numbers of our withdrawing soldiers and all the additional support that they’ve provided. I’m not the only one who feels guilt for leaving these people in such dire conditions, but soon even our help here won’t be enough. We feel like we’re constantly applying Band-Aid treatments to people and problems that require so much more. With us gone, what will happen to our patients, how will their families look after them? Worst still, what if the Viet Cong destroy the hospital and those left to run it when I believe that the numbers of casualties will be even worse than what we’re seeing now?
I don’t want to contemplate the answers to these questions. All I can do is keep my head down and do the work I can do to the best of my ability. When I feel I can’t stand any longer with exhaustion, I sleep like the dead until the morning light or the sound of gunfire wakes me for a new day.
If all goes well, I’ll be coming home soon. The more recent arrivals to the team will stay until the team is pulled from Vietnam but none of us knows when that will be, whether it’s a question of safety, policy or bureaucracy.
The lights are out tonight and my candle has burnt to a stub. It’s time for me to say goodnight.
The role civilian nurses played – practical, caring, pragmatic, skilled and brave individuals – has struck a cord with me.These amazing women cared for those in need in challenging and often dangerous conditions for six month intervals, sometimes longer, some for two or three tours, and like so many wartime personnel, returned home to deal with the trauma and memories of those difficult and incredible times, often unrecognised for their contribution and often forgotten heroes. I had to acknowledge their story.