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

Book Review: Our Vietnam Nurses

— by COL (Ret.) C. J. Moore, AN

Not well known in the United States, one of America’s allies, the Australian military, brought nurses and other medical personnel into the Vietnam War. Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley beautifully and poignantly fills this knowledge gap by illuminating the experiences of medics, and military nurses. It also tells the stories of civilian nurses from that country who participated in the medical efforts. The stories of the healthcare professionals are told in an engaging, understated way. There is humor, sometimes boredom and sadness, as these nurses and medics focused on their missions. They were all changed forever by their experiences.

The book proceeds chronologically from October 1964 to June 1971 with personal narratives for one or sometimes two people in each chapter. To assist the narrative, there are captioned photos, a map of Vietnam, and a brief timeline of the Australia’s ten-year involvement in the war. The American reader learns that a “digger” is a soldier and a “secondment” is a temporary transfer or attachment to another unit, and “Butterworth” is not a name of a pancake syrup, but the title of the Royal Australian Air Force Base located in Malaysia.

The author is a nurse who writes capably about challenges in wartime nursing practice. For example, when nurses were short of supplies, from pillowcases to parenteral fluids, they could ask and readily receive support from the American medical services. Australian nurses were also very adaptable as they were “seconded” (detailed) to American Air Force units for flight nurse duties. The system might have been slightly different, but nursing is nursing and they fit in quite well.

Nursing history is never boring, and this book definitely grabs your attention as you follow the lives of the medical personnel as they cope and care in a challenging environment. Especially, moving is their adjustments when they returned home. Many transitioned and went on with little issue; however, some are haunted by intrusive thoughts, troubled by difficult family relations, and psychological problems. Yet, the majority do not regret their time in Vietnam.

I strongly recommend this book as an essential resource for scholars interested military nursing, international nursing, and military history. The comprehensive approach of telling the medics’ and nurses’ stories also enhanced the understanding of the importance of team work in time of war. Scholars interested in women’s history will especially appreciate how these service women demonstrated that they coped with harrowing experiences as successfully as their male counterparts.

More History:

The “AMEDD Historian” is a  quarterly electronic history newsletter published by the Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. The Autumn 2016 issue includes an interesting story by COL Elizabeth Vane, the ANC Historian, about the challenges faced by the Army in providing uniforms for the massively increased numbers of ANC officers during WWII.