Preserving Our Past, Capitalizing on the Present, Embracing the Future

Operation New Arrival: Army Nurses Caring for Indochinese Refugees

© Constance J. Moore
Colonel, ANC (Retired), ANCA Historian

On 30 April 1975, with the promise of resettlement in the United States, refugees left Indochina by boats, and by air in what has been termed to be the largest resettlement effort in United States history. In the first part of this narrative, Operation New Life, the paper looked at the efforts of the Army nurses who provided care for asylum seekers at the largest Pacific island transit camps, Orote Point, Guam. Part II of the story, called Operation New Arrival, deals with the work of Army nurses at the one of four1 CONUS resettlement centers, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

The Army was notified on 25 April 1975, that Fort Chaffee would be used as a relocation center for the Indochinese evacuees, and the first seventy arrived just seven days later on 2 May2. Evacuees were flown by commercial airlines from Guam to Arkansas, where generally as many as seventeen flights landed daily at Fort Smith Municipal Airport with the new immigrants. In total, there were 417 flights that brought over 50,000 people to be processed and resettled.3 Enormous adjustments faced the evacuees as they were bussed to Fort Chaffee, including crowded living conditions, colder weather, and a regimented administrative process with detailed legal, cultural, and medical requirements.

Health care was administered in a World War II-era mothballed hospital. Closed nine years before the operation, the buildings remained boarded up while the interior was arranged and prepared to become operational on short notice using equipment in long-term storage under plastic. Cleaned from ceiling to floor, the hospital quickly became functional by 1 May.4 Staffing initially was provided by the Fort Sill hospital, and later by the 148-bed 47th Field Hospital, which provided total inpatient/outpatient services. Medical, surgical, pediatrics, obstetrical, and community health nurses augmented the nursing complement. Fifty Army Nurses served under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Velma Barkley, and later Lieutenant Colonel Maurine Hill, during the deployment.5

The work in the hospital was challenging because of the difference in culture, language, and the perception of illness between the care providers and the clients. With the help of translators and volunteer Indochinese health care workers, Army nurses learned about Southeast Asian health and illness beliefs in order to explain the purposes of immunizations, and other medical therapeutics. Pediatrics nurses quelled the anxieties of frightened children who feared being abandoned by encouraging their parents to stay with them in the hospital. The obstetrics department was especially busy as Operation New Arrival launched many "new" citizens.

Five Army Community Health Nurses (CHNs) contributed significantly to the preventive medicine efforts. Key to the organization of health care was the initial assessment at the Reception Center. Volunteer Red Cross nurses and a CHN manned a busy nurses station in the "welcome center."6 With the offer of water and refreshments, the nurses gave advice, dispensed Tylenol for headaches, Band-Aids for minor cuts, and provided pampers and formula for the babies. For refugees who needed assistance they "case managed" to three levels of care: hospital, clinic, or CHN in the housing area.

CHNs in the cantonment area were responsible for health teaching, gathering epidemiological data, monitoring hygiene, and treating minor medical problems. Simple things were addressed like providing clotheslines so the evacuees could hang their wet clothing up rather than drying on the grass that was full of lice and chiggers.7 Classes in childcare and recreational programs were set up by volunteer agencies.8 CHNs drafted pamphlets on infant feeding and care of the patients in the home,9 written in English and Vietnamese. When the number of clients requesting outpatient appointments threatened to overwhelm the system, the CHNs established clinics staffed by volunteer Vietnamese health professionals to ensure timely health care for all who asked for services.

On 20 December Fort Chaffee closed as a refugee center. Army nurses of the 47th Field Hospital aided the transition of "evacuees to new immigrants" in very personal ways. They showed sensitivity to health concerns, tried to bridge the communication gap with classes and translators, provided thoughtful nursing care, and attempted to improve hygiene standards in the temporary quarters by vigilantly monitoring sanitation.
  1. Four sites were used as U.S. resettlement centers: Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; Camp Pendleton, California; and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
  2. Daniel Maher, “Indochinese Resettlement Program,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (Accessed January 13, 2012).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Anderson, Gerald and Silano, Robert, Department of the Army after action report: Operations New Life/New Arrivals, US Army support to the Indochina refugee program, 1 April 1975 – 1 June 1976. (Washington, DC: Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, 1977): I-C-3.
  5. Mary Sarnecky, A Contemporary History of the Army Nurse Corps (Washington, DC: The Borden Institute, 2010): 146.
  6. Joel C. Gaydos and others, “A Preventive Medicine Team in a Refugee Relief Operation—Fort Chaffee Indochina Refugee Camp (April–July 1975),” Military Medicine 143 (May 1978): 320.
  7. Wiggins, Melanie Spears. “Escape to America: Evacuees from Indochina arrive in Fort Smith-1975–1979.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 31 (April 2007): 20.
  8. Robert E. Marsh, “Socioeconomic Status of Indochinese Refugees in the United States: Progress and Problems,” Social Security Bulletin 23 (10, 1980): 12.
  9. Joel C. Gaydos and others, “A Preventive Medicine Team in a Refugee Relief Operation—Fort Chaffee Indochina Refugee Camp (April–July 1975),” Military Medicine 143 (May 1978): 320.