The recent crop of Vietnam war movies may serve some purpose, says Mary Jane Shipley.
"If the movies can help people understand about the war and what the people went through, then there is value in them."Maybe they can help people understand the war. All I know is that I didn't understand it at all."
Numerous movies, television dramas and books in the past two years have portrayed the war through the eyes of the young soldiers who fought in it. But most do not include the experiences of the women who served in Vietnam - especially the military and civilian nurses who helped save the lives of thousands of wounded military personnel.
Utahns Shipley, Shelly Schneeweis and Judith Kiernan are just three of the 10,000 American women who served in Vietnam. Although each woman's experience was different, they share a common memory - all three became disillusioned about why they were in Vietnam.
Unlike most Vietnam veterans, the majority of women nurses that served in the war were volunteers. Some were fresh out of nursing school; 45 percent had no previous job experience and the majority were between the ages of 21 and 23.
"I joined the Army while I was still in nursing school in Kentucky. The travel and adventure sounded exciting. We were told we couldn't go to Vietnam even if we wanted to," said Shipley, a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital.
Immediately following graduation, Shipley was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana for a year of infantry training. In 1970 she was sent to Lung Tau. There she worked in the emergency ward of a military hospital 12 hours a day.
"I didn't know much about the war when I went over. Now when I think about it, I feel really silly that I didn't know anything. The war started getting real for me when I learned that almost everyone I knew in Fort Polk had been killed," she said.
Schneeweis, a nurse who works out of her home, also joined the Army while she was in nursing school. She asked to go to Vietnam because that's where her boyfriend (who is now her husband) was stationed.
Schneeweis trained at Fort Polk and in 1970 was sent to Long Binh, where she worked in the medical ward of a military hospital. "I had an easier time breaking in than most people because my patients could communicate with me. I saw people rather than bodies.
"My perception at the time was that we were fighting for a cause. My opinion changed as the war got under way. I started questioning why we had to stay there, but I was too busy concentrating on my patients to get really angry," Schneeweis said.
Unlike the other two women, Kiernan, director of nursing administration at the University of Utah Medical Center, was not a military nurse during the war. She was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development as a nursing educator.
Kiernan, who was teaching at the University of Colorado, decided to go to Vietnam after visiting Mexico. "I was appalled by the poverty and lack of quality of human life. I decided I wasn't really making a difference in people's lives. I applied for the (agency) position knowing full well that they would send me to Vietnam."
After spending four months in Washington, D.C., at the Institute of Foreign Languages, she was sent to Cant Ho to supervise and improve two civilian hospital's nursing programs.
Unlike most nurses in Vietnam, Kiernan stayed in a high-rise apartment, wore civilian clothing and worked seven hours a day. Although she didn't face many of the struggles military nurses did, she was just as disillusioned with the war.
"I believed in the war when I went over, but four months later, I realized it was ridiculous. More than 95 percent of the people were peasants. All they wanted was a couple more bowls of rice and an extra fish head a day. You can't talk to people like that about land reform and democracy. You can't talk about democracy until you can feed the country first," she said.
Even though she had a lot of previous training, Vietnam presented challenges to Kiernan. "The nurses in Vietnam were expected to do things unheard of in the United States, like amputations."
She had to work in cramped conditions, treating civilians who had been burned by napalm and bombs.
At night, the nurses and doctors would go home and family members of the victims would come to the hospital and care for their loved ones. "At first, it was a real shocker to see patients, some of them dying or near dead, left alone at night and cared for only by their families," Kiernan said.
"But now I think it was good for the families to be there. When people are sick, they need their families. In America, we keep the family away."
Unlike Kiernan, neither Shipley nor Schneeweis had much hands-on nursing experience before arriving in Vietnam.
"The first night I was there, they were rocketing and I spent the night crawling around on my hands and knees. My first day on the job there was a mine explosion, they brought in people who were mangled and who were missing arms and legs. They tried to prepare us for that in basic training, but it just wasn't the same thing," Shipley said.
Because she worked in the emergency room, Shipley was exposed to the most gruesome war victims.
"I saw pilots burned on every inch of their bodies except for the bottoms of their feet. I saw people with both their arms and legs blown off survive. Those veterans are the ones that have the hardest time.
"Christmas Eve was the worst. Someone threw a grenade into a church during midnight Mass and killed a bunch of children. I saw seven children die within an hour. But that's what the war was about - innocent people dying," Shipley said.
Shipley said the most difficult aspect of working in the emergency room was "deciding who would live and who would die."
Schneeweis saw fewer severe injuries because she worked in a medical ward, but "I saw illnesses that were very foreign to me. I previously had just worked one day in an emergency ward when I was being trained, but nothing I could have done in the Fort Polk emergency ward could have prepared me for what I saw in Vietnam."
Schneeweis said although many of the soldiers she worked with were severely injured, most of them were not bitter about what had happened to them. "Most of them were just really happy to be in a hospital, get cleaned up and talk to a woman."
All three women said they knew very little about the status of the war and the protests in America while they were in Vietnam.
"I was there, what I saw was enough, I didn't want to know about it. I only picked up Stars and Stripes once, and that's how I found out my boyfriend (whom she persuaded not to go to Canada to avoid the draft) was dead," Shipley said.
But despite their difficulties and disillusionment, both Kiernan and Schneeweis said Vietnam was a positive experience for them. "It was the most exciting time in my life. It was interesting to work in a country other than my own," Kiernan said.
Scheeweis calls her year in Vietnam educational."I developed nursing skills and maturity. It was an experience I will never have again, or hope I will never have again.
"I got married soon after I got back to the States. It was like I closed the chapter of one book and started another. (My husband and I) hardly talked about it; maybe that is our way of coping. In fact, we've talked more about it this past year than we ever have before."
Shipley, however, had a difficult time after returning to the United States. Her first stop was at the Oakland military base in San Francisco, where she was spat at and verbally abused.
"Most people didn't want to hear about my being in Vietnam. It was hard to know what to do about my feelings. I would have nightmares and wake up shaking and terrified. I reacted to noise. I couldn't stand the sound of helicopters. I'd walk past cots stacked up in the hospital and start to shake," she said.
Shipley said learning to deal with her feelings has been a long and slow struggle. "Now I know it was something that happened, it was a part of my life. It's not that it doesn't mean anything, but it doesn't control my life either."
All three women agree that women veterans are not given the credit they deserve.
"I went to a stress workshop at the VA Hospital once and a soldier thanked me because he said if it hadn't been for people like me, he wouldn't be here today," Shipley said.