A U.S. Army Nurse Remembers Her Vietnam Experience

Sylvia Lutz Holland enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps and went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Sam Houston. From 1968 to 1969 she served at the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. Here she remembers her emergency room experience during the war.

The busiest place was the emergency room. The dust-offs [medical evacuation helicopters] would call on the radio to let us know what they were bringing in, like, "Three-Twelve, this is Medic 2, we have four litters two body bags, a head wound, and a belly." That meant they had two KIA [Killed in Action] and two wounded. When the chopper landed, the corpsmen would go out and bring 'em in through the double doors…Either a nurse or a doctor would decided who needed help first. You did triage all the time. The GIs had first priority, then the ARVN {southern Vietnamese soldiers}, then Vietnamese civilians, and finally the Viet Cong. You went from one litter to the next. You'd look at wounds, check for vital signs, and just make a decision he's a go or he can wait. We had to move fast but we worked on trying to keep a calm voice and always had some kind of physical contact with the patients. A lot of times, as soon as you touched them you could feel the tension drift away. It was a real important part of what we did. When you got a man who was too far gone, you didn't say anything and moved to the next litter. In the back your mind you’d say, I hope he's dead when I get back.

…When we had "pushes" we might have days and days of causalities coming in, but we weren’t busy every day.  Sometimes it was quiet and we basically just sat around. Then you were like a sister, mother, grandmother, girlfriend. You had all kinds of roles. The men might start to talk about what they'd experienced and then you'd you see this little protective shield come down. I don’t know whether they didn't want to talk because they thought it would upset us or if it was just too painful for them. Mostly they'd talk about their girlfriends, or what they were going to do when they got home, what kind of car they were gonna buy. A lot of them talked about getting Dear John letters. Married men would ask you to write letters home. They had a genuine appreciation that American women were there…I've heard about sexual harassment in Vietnam, but that was never my experience. We were treated with the utmost regard. It was like being queen-for-a-day every day.

You'd work a twelve-hour shift, shower, and then go to the officers club at night. They'd be playing music and you'd be dancing and playing cards and having cheeseburgers. Then you'd go to bed, wake up, and go back to the insanity. One minute you're confronting death, and the next you're doing the watusi [a dance]. After a while you couldn't separate one from the other. Bear the end of my tour I was crying a lot and couldn't sleep. I wasn't able to function so I took the chief of surgery aside and said, "I'm falling apart here." He prescribed Librium. I didn't drink and I didn't use drugs, but I did take Librium for about three months. It gave me a kind of false calm. It was like watching a movie…

Source | Christian G. Appy, ed., Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Penguin Books, 2003) 170-175.
Interviewer | Christian G. Appy
Interviewee | Sylvia Lutz Holland
Rights | Used by permission of Chris Appy. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website at: http://www.penguin.com.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A U.S. Army Nurse Remembers Her Vietnam Experience,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 1, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/980.