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Officer, Nurse, Woman

The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War

Kara Dixon Vuic

Publication Year: 2009

“‘I never got a chance to be a girl,’ Kate O’Hare Palmer lamented, thirty-four years after her tour as an army nurse in Vietnam. Although proud of having served, she felt that the war she never understood had robbed her of her innocence and forced her to grow up too quickly. As depicted in a photograph taken late in her tour, long hours in the operating room exhausted her both physically and mentally. Her tired eyes and gaunt face reflected th e weariness she felt after treating countless patients, some dying, some maimed, all, like her, forever changed. Still, she learned to work harder and faster than she thought she could, to trust her nursing skills, and to live independently. She developed a way to balance the dangers and benefits of being a woman in the army and in the war. Only fourteen months long, her tour in Vietnam profoundly affected her life and her beliefs.” Such vivid personal accounts abound in historian Kara Dixon Vuic’s compelling look at the experiences of army nurses in the Vietnam War. Drawing on more than 100 interviews, Vuic allows the nurses to tell their own captivating stories, from their reasons for joining the military to the physical and emotional demands of a horrific war and postwar debates about how to commemorate their service. Vuic also explores the gender issues that arose when a male-dominated army actively recruited and employed the services of 5,000 nurses in the midst of a growing feminist movement and a changing nursing profession. Women drawn to the army’s patriotic promise faced disturbing realities in the virtually all-male hospitals of South Vietnam. Men who joined the nurse corps ran headlong into the army's belief that women should nurse and men should fight. Officer, Nurse, Woman brings to light the nearly forgotten contributions of brave nurses who risked their lives to bring medical care to soldiers during a terrible—and divisive—war.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: War/Society/Culture


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: “Lady, you’re in the army now”

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pp. 1-12

“I never got a chance to be a girl,” Kate O’Hare Palmer lamented, thirty-four years after her tour as an army nurse in Vietnam.1 Although proud of having served, she felt that the war she never understood had robbed her of her innocence and forced her to grow up too quickly. ...

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1. “The Bright Adventure of Army Nursing”: Meeting Nursing Demands for the Vietnam War

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pp. 13-42

In April 1969, the U.S. Army ran a full-page advertisement in the American Journal of Nursing (AJN). Under the heading “Officer. Nurse. Woman,” an attractive, young nurse, wearing fatigues and carrying surgical scissors in her pocket, stood smiling. ...

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2. “An officer and a gentleman”: Gender and a Changing Army

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pp. 43-70

Before their first assignment, new army nurses attended the Officer Basic Course, held at Fort Sam Houston’s Medical Field Service School. Whereas soldiers attended a basic training course meant to prepare them physically for the rigors of combat, members of the Army Medical Department (nurses, physicians, dentists, veterinarians, administrators, dietitians, and therapists)...

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3. "A wonderful, horrible experience”: Nursing Education and Practice [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 71-88

In May 1965, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) had twenty-two nurses stationed at three hospitals in Vietnam. Chicago Tribune reporter Arthur Veysey visited the hospitals and wrote one of the earliest articles about American nurses in Vietnam to appear in the U.S. press. Veysey’s article, “Here’s Why Nurses Like Viet,” told a romantic tale of nurses finding love in war. ...

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4. “Helmets and hair curlers”: Gender and Wartime Nursing

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pp. 89-112

On Sunday May 5, 1968, U.S. national and local newspapers ran the weekly edition of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts. In this edition of the popular syndicated cartoon, a disgruntled Snoopy, the “World War I flying ace,” exclaims, “Curse this stupid war!” Despondently fearing the war will never end, he decides, “perhaps one of the nurses at the dispensary will talk with me.” ...

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5. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to just change our ways”: Wives, Mothers, and Pregnant Nurses in the Army

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pp. 113-135

“A general gave away one of the brides . . . The Roman Catholic chaplain-priest wore a gold chasuble on which was embroidered the Latin word pax, meaning peace. And ten minutes away Americans and Viet Cong were trying to kill each other.” ...

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6. “You mean we get women over here?”: Gender and Sexuality in the War Zone

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pp. 136-160

While stationed at the 3rd Surgical Hospital in Dong Tam in 1968, Margaret Canfield and the other nurses participated in the Easter Bowl, a touch football game that pitted the hospital’s female nurses against the men from the nearby 9th Infantry Division. ...

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7. “Not All Women Wore Love Beads in the Sixties”: Postwar Depictions of Vietnam War Nurses [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 161-186

The last U.S. army nurse left Vietnam on March 29, 1973. Ten years later, Lynda Van Devanter’s autobiography, Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam, sparked public interest in the experiences of women who had served in the war. ...

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Conclusion: Officers, Nurses, and Women

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pp. 187-193

The simple, limited images of nurses that emerged in the years after the war revealed none of the complexity of their experiences or the negotiation that occurred between the nurses and the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) over the nature and meanings of their service. A more accurate depiction of their service would have acknowledged multifaceted understandings of what it meant...


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pp. 195-258

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 259-264

Most Army Nurse Corps (ANC) records are located in the ANC Archives in the Office of Medical History, Office of the Surgeon General, in Falls Church, Virginia. These archives were particularly helpful in outlining official policies about the use of nurses and the views of the ANC leadership on key issues as well as for correspondence between hospital chief nurses in Vietnam and ANC leaders in Washington, D.C., end of tour reports of...


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pp. 265-271

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780801897139
E-ISBN-10: 0801897130
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404448
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404443

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 16 halftones
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: War/Society/Culture