Saturday, August 11, 2012

Vietnam Nurse

By Suzanne Roberts,©1966

Army Nurse Katie Brannon expected hardships when she shipped out to Vietnam. But she had not anticipated the battle that raged in her heart when she found herself torn between two men: the Bostonian doctor, Major David White, and the rugged young officer, Steve Caine. Even in the midst of war’s grim chaos, Katie realized that for her there was an equal menace in the threat of impending heartbreak.


“She had gotten her hair cut as a part of the war effort, really. If Stephen Caine would get the message and make more demands to get the hospital and the rest of the compound running more efficiently, then her haircut would certainly be worth the loss.”

“There was more to being a combat nurse than just nursing. A girl had to expect a broken heart—that was part of being in love in wartime!”

Man, being shipped off to Nam can be such a downer. First of all, there’s the weather—it’s either really hot and steaming, or pouring rain and hot and steaming. Then the humidity makes it really hard to keep your dress uniform pressed, and the red dirt clings to your pumps. You have to live in a tent with lots of other girls who talk all night and eat the squashed coconut cake you got from home. And the wounded soldiers make you write letters home for them, even if their arms are perfectly functional. But you know what the worst thing of all is, the one thing that will completely break your spirit and make you turn in a request for a transfer? No, silly, it’s not the bloodied kids who are brought in broken and dying for you to attempt to patch together without even a working sterilizer. It’s the guys who make you fall in love with them and break your heart!

Such is the dilemma of Katie Brannon. On the boat ride over, she became friendly with Dr. David White, an upper-crust surgeon from Boston, who is to be the new commanding medical officer of their base in central Vietnam, since two of the last docs got killed by snipers on a mission to a local village. When they arrive, David is appalled at the disordered way the base is run. “When a commanding officer allows his men and the nurses and even the doctors on his post to go around looking sloppy, not saluting half the time, what is going to happen inevitably is that before long they’re not going to be looking sloppy—they’re going to be thinking sloppy too. And when they don’t have the respect for a superior officer to salute him, then they aren’t going to have enough respect for him to obey him under fire. A civilized army with a decent set of standards is going to come out on top every time.” Uh, news flash for Dr. White—even if he can’t see into the future, he ought to consider that the rag-tag Colonials triumphed over the nattily attired British army.

Initially, however, Katie is impressed by the doctor’s arguments. “Somebody ought to tell the C.O. that most of his men don’t seem to know they have regulation shirts,” agrees the sycophantic nurse. But privately, “she wondered how a sterilizing machine could be expected to materialize in a place where nurses had to bathe out of their combat helmets.” David’s got his work cut out for him, starting with Major Steve Caine, commanding officer of this dump—the guy in the undershirt who inspired Katie’s remark. When David tells him he wants to call HQ to request updated medical equipment and better “chow,” Steve cuts him off to ask if he’s drunk or insane. “You’re 12,000 miles from home now and you’re fighting no less than 250,000 guerillas. They’re tough and well-trained—don’t fool yourself about that. This is a bloody, full-scale war, and if a blue blood M.D. like you happens to think it’s nasty to have to do surgery in your bare feet, then that’ s just too damned bad!” And you thought the war between America and the Viet Cong ideologies were fierce.

In truth, it’s hard to see where the author sets herself on this debate. Once David tightens the reins at the hospital, “the hospital procedure went smoothly under David’s orders; and the other two, younger and less experienced doctors under David seemed to feel that now things were going better than ever at the Eighty-Sixth. When the Chinook ’copters came in with the wounded, there were no seconds on litters inside the hospital, to the initial examining room.” At the same time, it’s clear that David’s prohibition of a newly married couple living in the same tent is ridiculous. “Surely you know that regulations forbid that!” he barks when Katie asks him. “She’ll outrank her husband in a few weeks. Besides—what kind of a setup would that be for them—a tent that leaks, most likely, ten feet square and no lights? The young lady has my blessing to get married, but certainly not to live like some kind of savage while she’s working under my command.” (Not to worry, Katie goes to Steve, who approves the request on the spot.)

The other aspect of Steve and David’s conflict is their opinions of the native people, whom Steve clearly respects. “Occidental solutions to an age-old oriental problem just won’t work. We’ve got to get along with the Vietnamese—after all, this is their country, not ours,” he tells Katie when he takes her on a tour of a local village and points out the improvements he has wrought in the infrastructure and the decline in the death rate. “But none of this happened because we pushed them or looked down at them or tried to force them to live our way. They’re smart.”

David, meanwhile, disdains the locals. He refuses Katie’s request to go to Saigon to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese new year, saying, “Surely you wouldn’t want to come into town to watch a bunch of savages shoot off firecrackers. I’d think these people would be sick to death of noise. They’ve been fighting with somebody for God knows how long. But apparently human life isn’t very important to them.” When Katie protests over his use of the word savages, he says, “What would you call them? Most of them don’t read or write; a lot of them never saw indoor plumbing or a bathroom, and they seem to think war is something glorious or heroic.”

When David refuses to allow the doctors to go to the village, some of his reasoning is based on his racism. “We’re not here to take care of the natives who don’t even speak English!” he says. Then again, part of his argument makes sense: There are only three doctors, and the base had recently lost half its MDs on just such a mission—leaving the 400-bed field hospital woefully understaffed. “Think of all the Americans who might die at the hospital before another doctor could be brought in to take care of them!” he says to Katie. And, since this is in fact the reason they were brought to Vietnam in the first place, endangering the lives of wounded Americans by risking their own lives is a mistake. (Fortunately, they have lots of nurses, and they are allowed to go to the villages at will, being more expendable and all.)

David proposes to Katie, wooing her with stories of his trim little sailboat, which he keeps at the family summer cottage in Yarmouth; tea parties in the rose garden; Boston’s Back Bay. He can’t wait, he tells Katie, to “take her home and show off my prize.” He even sends home for Grandmother’s diamond. “Mother says you must be awfully special for me to take a chance like that. The plane could have been shot down—or the ring box lost,” he says, a little too honestly. But she turns him down, even if he is “like a tall, tanned, blonde god in his swimming trunks. Like the kind of man any sensible girl would give anything to belong to. Like the kind of a good, steady man who would give a girl strong, blonde and blue-eyed children who would spend happy summers at Cape Cod with his family.” She can’t marry him, she says, because she would have to agree completely “with his ideals, with his beliefs about the way things should be.” She’s taking a terrible risk, though: “Would she, she wondered, end up like Mary Saunders—in the Regular Army, lonely and manless?”

She realizes then that it’s Steve that she loves, after a trip to an orphanage to check on an orphan baby that one of the helicopter pilots wants to adopt, but she is convinced that Steve is in love with an American working tirelessly at a nearby village. Of course, he’s already tried to tell her once before that he doesn’t love Lisa, but was interrupted when a sniper took aim at their jeep. This trip ends badly too, when the helicopter pilot is killed—neatly, offstage, so we don’t have to lose any sleep over it—and guess what? Katie doesn’t lose any sleep over it, either. Instead, she’s dropping trays of sterilized instruments over her unrequited love for Steve. “It was heartbreak, heartbreak and loneliness that suddenly made the outpost and the hospital and the rain and the mud and the wounded seem so unbearable. Before, when she hadn’t been sure she loved Steve, Vietnam and combat nursing had held a meaning for her.” She’s about to ask for a transfer home—did they ever just give those out to people who got tired of fighting the war?—when she goes to visit her now-married nurse friend, and discovers that the husband has been shipped off to a more forward base. How can Sally stand it? Katie asks her. “This is home to me—this is where I’m needed. These wounded boys need me even more than my husband does. That’s why I’m staying,” says Sally the Devoted, and Katie crumples up that transfer request and drops no more instruments. “You told me what combat nursing is all about, Sally. It’s much more than just having your personal world go the way you want it to. It’s—caring more about your patients and your hospital than you care about the man you happen to be in love with.” So, her new-found dedication in her breast pocket, she goes to Steve’s house to wish him well with Lisa. Guess how that scene ends?

I have long held an interest in the Vietnam War, and so I found some aspects of this novel interesting. But it’s not really about Vietnam or the war or about practicing medicine under these circumstances, and I shouldn’t have expected it to be—but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised that the book presented a few debates—a tight ship vs. a loosely run base, help the natives vs. risk American lives—for us to consider, even if not very deeply. While in the end Katie comes down on Steve’s side, she doesn’t seem to do any actual thinking about the issues, and I wish she had been more intelligent. She’s not a complete mouse, despite her pathetic crisis of faith over Steve, which seems all the more nauseating in the context of a senseless war that killed 58,000 Americans. So even if Katie is somewhat lacking as a VNRN heroine, Vietnam Nurse is not the worst way you could pass a couple hours.

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