Nurses who served in Vietnam during the war were very special and extraordinary people. They were all volunteers, not drafted but joined the military and when duty called they served their country and served it admirably. Thousands of U.S. Army nurses served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973. Several were wounded and ten died while serving, eight women and two men. One of those who died, 1st Lt. Sharon A. Lane, was a victim of hostile fire and her name is there with the others on the Wall in Washington, DC at Panel 23W - Line 112. She was in country less than two months. This is my second piece about a Vietnam Army nurse and like the first, I am very grateful for her service.
“I don’t know what kind of nurse that I would have been, if it were not for Vietnam.” Grace M. Lilleg Moore was born in Waterloo, Iowa and raised in Dewar, Iowa, a farming community of 125 people and now a Doylestown resident. Grace is a Vietnam Veteran. Accounts vary but it is believed that about 8 to 10 thousand women served in Vietnam and about 83% of those women were nurses.
The history of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) in Vietnam began in April, 1956 when three Army nurses arrived in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. These nurses were on temporary duty assignments attached to the United States Army Medical Training Team, United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Saigon. The Army sent them to train South Vietnamese nurses in nursing care procedures and techniques, not to care for U.S. servicemen. Army nurses served a twelve-month tour in Vietnam. They arrived by aircraft at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where they reported to the 178th Replacement Company at Camp Alpha or at Bien Hoa Air Base to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh. After processing at these locations they continued on to their duty assignments.
Grace was entering the last year of her three year nursing program at St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing in Ottumwa, Iowa when she decided to join the Army. “I joined the Army in 1965 as part of the Army Student Nurse Program during my last year of nursing school. I was part of that “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” era and I wanted to serve my country. The Army would help to pay for her final year in return for a two year hitch as a nurse after her graduation in 1966.
Since she had to wait before induction, Grace went home to Waterloo to work at St. Francis Hospital. When the time came, it was off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas for six weeks of nurse’s basic training. It wasn’t the traditional Army basic training but “we did have to learn military things and how to march”, Grace quips. After basic it was off to Reynolds Army Hospital at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After about a year, Grace had just completed a shift and was at home when the phone rang. Her Chief Nurse called, asked her if she was sitting down. Grace thought that she was being called back in to work another shift or two. The call was to tell her that she had received orders for Vietnam and would be leaving in about 30 days. Grace immediately called her sister and said “Don’t tell Mom, but…..” Grace’s Mom did find out and became her greatest supporter. “I especially liked the fact that I was constantly challenged as a nurse wherever I served. As a new graduate I was given more responsibility in the Army than I probably would have been given in a civilian hospital, perhaps that was because of the time frame that I served and our involvement in Vietnam.”
After leaving Travis Air Force base and stops in Hawaii and the Philippines, Grace arrived in Vietnam in May of 1968 “on a big shiny yellow airplane.” As a young 23 year old, “I had no idea what to expect.” “Vietnam was hot”, she recalls as the door to that plane opened and the heat rushed into the plane. She also recalls the smell that so many Vietnam Veterans remember, “Not a bad smell, not a good smell, just a smell”.
After being issued her Vietnam wardrobe, including a steel pot and a flak jacket, something she was told never to let out of her sight, it was off to her duty station.
Originally, Grace was to assist in setting up a new hospital in the Delta, but that fell through and she was assigned to The 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi.
The 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi, Vietnam, supported the 25th Infantry Division from 1966-70. The hospital performed surgery on its first wounded soldier in December 1966 and admitted over 37,000 patients before closing fewer than four years later. In addition to the American military, the 12th Evac also served Republic of Vietnam soldiers, civilians and enemy prisoners. The 25th Infantry Division ‘Tropic Lightning’ was one of the first American divisions to serve in Vietnam, and one of the last to leave. In nearly seven years of combat the division fought in every major battle around the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Their mechanized and armored units proved invaluable in locating and destroying an elusive guerilla foe, and defeated every major North Vietnamese offensive.
The hospital complex of the 12th Evac consisted of multiple Quonset huts connected by covered wooden walkways. Patients arriving by medevac chopper were carried into the ER on a canvas litter that was placed on two sawhorses where they were evaluated. Triage consisted of assigning patients by the seriousness of their wounds. Patients were either not wounded seriously enough and could wait; those that needed immediate attention or those that had no chance of survival. It was the last group that was the hardest to deal with. This group was not left alone to die; someone would stay with them holding a hand, talking or whatever it took to comfort them in their last moments.
Living quarters at Cu Chi were less than four stars. “We lived in a hootch with about 12 women, had a small kitchen, a shower and rats as big as dogs” Shifts were 12 hours, six to seven days a week. Grace was originally assigned to an ICU unit, but instead, became the head nurse of an orthopedic unit. The goal of the hospital was to have patients moved out within three days. Once stabilized, they were sent, with open wounds to Camp Zama in Japan. She saw many amputees come through and even housed two POWs in her seven months there. One, a woman, was such a risk that an armed MP needed to be present in the ward at all times. as well as , for all POWs. “Never knowing what happened to our patients was always difficult”, Grace recalls. She has been fortunate recently and has been in touch with three of her former patients. After she met the first of her Veteran patients, Grace tells that she did not know that “she still had a piece of her heart that hurt.”
The most difficult part of any nurses assignment was to separate themselves from their work at the end of the day. Sometimes a few drinks would help, a letter from home, games or just talking to the other nurses would help. Like many medical personnel in Vietnam, Grace and her colleagues would go into the village of Cu Chi to support a clinic for civilians.
Grace shared the first time she “lost it “. She was in her ward when she was told that a former corpsman from Reynolds Army Hospital was wounded. She ran over to triage to find him; he was being taken into x-ray. He had burns of the face and arms which were treated and he was sent back to duty after awhile. It was then that she walked outside cried and vomited. It was the only time she lost it while serving in Vietnam.
“I consider myself fortunate (after listening to other nurses) that my transition back to the USA was relatively uneventful. The only hitch was that when we got into Travis it was late at night and we couldn’t out process and get our last paycheck until morning. We were told to “go find somewhere to sleep and come back tomorrow.” I returned to Iowa in December 1968 and the temperature was 25 below zero with 10 foot snow drifts!!! Needless to say, that required some adjustment. I didn’t really share much of my experience in Vietnam with anyone because when I would talk about it and start to tell of the men and their wounds and care it seemed like an “invisible wall” would come down and I felt that most people didn’t want to know about it after all. So, I more or less, put Vietnam in a box and moved on with my life.”
Grace did want to extend her tour in Vietnam because no replacement had been named for her and she felt that she had a burden of guilt for leaving and that she was abandoning her patients and staff. She did leave on time but “I cried when I left.”
When Grace arrived in the US, she carried a pocketbook and a footlocker with her possessions. She went to the Post Exchange (PX) and bought a new set of Samsonite luggage and went home with the empty luggage, leaving the footlocker behind, filled with her memories of her tour. She wanted no part of it. Unknowingly, her Mom did keep her dog tags and they were returned to her by her sister after her Mom’s passing.
Like many Vietnam Veterans, Grace did not talk about Vietnam upon her return. She moved to Philadelphia in 1969 and worked at the Episcopal Hospital at Front Street and Lehigh Avenue. It was a difficult transition from being a combat nurse to working in a civilian hospital. So many procedures that she was proficient with in Vietnam could not be performed as a civilian nurse and that bothered her.
After her children were born Grace chose to be a stay at home Mom for 12 years. She returned to work later at Warminster General Hospital and then Chestnut Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. She had still not talked about Vietnam or even let people know that she was a Veteran. This changed when she found out that a Memorial was being dedicated in Doylestown for the Vietnam Veterans of Bucks County. She wanted to be a part of it but was still a bit apprehensive. “I don’t know how many times I stepped off and on that curb before a fellow Vietnam Veteran noticed her, asked if she was a Veteran and asked her to march in the Dedication Parade.
Although she marched, she did not remain for the dedication. After a phone call from a local Vietnam veteran, Grace joined the VVA and began talking to other Veterans. It made it so much easier to accept her service by talking to and forming friendships with others who may have at one time also were not open to proclaiming their service in Vietnam.
This all led to Grace being asked to be the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Women’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. The Vietnam Women's Memorial is a memorial dedicated to the women of the United States who served in the war in Vietnam, most of whom were nurses. It serves as a reminder of the importance of women in the conflict. The project led to speaking engagements to raise funds for the project and also searching for other female veterans of Vietnam.
Grace is active in veteran organizations such as Women in Military Service for America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center.
“I was engaged when I went to Vietnam and was married less than a month after I returned. After the wedding we drove to Philadelphia where my husband was going to school. My first child was born in 1972 at which time I chose to be a stay at home mom with my two (the second born in 1975) children. My marriage ended in divorce so I went back to work, first at Warminster General Hospital and then at Chestnut Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. I remarried in 1992 and my husband and I are currently enjoying retirement.”
Grace’s parents, John & Elizabeth Lilleg, (Dad passed away when I was 14) instilled in her the knowledge that she could do anything that she wanted and that whatever she chose to do. “I should do the very best at it that I was able to do.” “My only sibling, Joann, still lives in our small town and she keeps me connected with my roots. My children, stepchildren and grandchildren keep me rooted in today’s world and bring me joy.”
“My other family…………”my guys in the veteran community” (including my husband, Jim)……… are surely responsible for my being able to share this story. I had put Vietnam and my experiences behind me and only allowed myself short glimpses of that time. It is through the love and support of these brothers that I am able to open the box and examine both the positive and negative aspects of that time. My husband, Jim, has been my strong support from the beginning as I acknowledged my veteran status and began to talk about it and deal with the memories.”