The Nurse with Round Eyes (1971)
Gayle Smith

I wanted to go to Vietnam to help people who didn't belong there.  I objected to the war and I got the idea into my head of going there to bring people back   I started thinking about it in 1966 and knew that I would eventually go when I felt I was prepared enough.

One thing that I hadn't anticipated was that it made a difference that I was a woman with round eyes who could speak English.  I think there were about twenty American nurses at Binh Thuy.  There were a lot of American nurses in Saigon.  I went up there for a vacation. Can you imagine?  A vacation in Saigon.  I was desperate.

We were shelled close only once at Binh Thuy.  But we could always hear it.   Every night we could hear it,  three or four miles away.  The hospital compound wasn't big, but engineers were behind us and Air Force on one side and the Navy and dust-offs on the other.  It was the Air Force that used to get hit.  And then one night it came in a few yards away.  Let me tell you, I moved that night.  It was like thunder and landed right beside me.  That was halfway through my tour.

Actually, I was queasy the first three months because I had visions of somebody opening my door and throwing in a grenade.  I had trouble sleeping the first three months because of that.  Then I got used to the idea that there wasn't anything I could do to prevent that from happening, so I may as well forget about it and get some sleep, and if  I woke up the next day, that was good.

I came into Vietnam at Long Binh.  There was a replacement camp there,  Camp something-or-other,  I can't remember the name of it.   On the bus from the airport to this camp,  the first thing I saw was some Vietnamese guy peeing on the side of the road.  And I thought, "Oh, geez, this is a backward country." And the next thing I saw was Coca-Cola signs. I thought, "This is very strange  .This is a very unusual mixture."  I saw barbed wire all over the city.

The first night I was there, the compound next to ours was shelled. A couple of guys were killed.  I went over and there was a big hole in the barracks and it just dawned on me that . . . this was it.   I was here,  in the middle of a war. It was all around me. That day I went down to Binh Thuy and it was probably the first and last time I cried  I realized I was halfway around the world from home and I couldn't go home if I wanted to  ."what have I done?  Here I am in the middle of this godforsaken country.  I might get  killed.  I can't see my parents. " I have to say I did cry a couple of times after that, but it mostly was because of my patients.  It was when they died.

Boy, I remember how they came in all torn up. It was incredible. The first time a medevac came in,  I got right into it.  I didn't have a lot of feeling at that time.  It was later on that I began to have a lot of feeling about it, after I'd seen it over and over and over again.

But an interesting thing happened in that it was very painful for me to keep seeing the same thing happen. And instead of doing I don't know what, I got to it.  I turned that pain into anger and hatred and placed it onto the Vietnamese. You know what your head does, the way you think to survive . . . is different.  I did not consider the Vietnamese to be people. They were human, but they weren't people.  They weren't like us, so it was okay to kill them.  It was okay to hate them.  I see now that they're people just like us. But at that moment ....

I never knew what the word "hate" was until . . . I would have dreams about putting a .45 to someone's head and see it blow away - over and over again.  And for a long time I swore  hat if the Vietnamese ever came to this country I'd kill them.  Or maybe the only thing that would stop me from killing them was that it was against the law in this country to kill people.  I had thoughts . . . I was . . . I remember one of the nurses saying,  "Would you be interested in working on the Vietnamese ward?" And I said, "No, I think I would probably kill them."  So she said, "Well, maybe we won't transfer you there."

It's weird,  isn't it?   What you do, the things you do.  You know,  if I thought of a child dying,  that's the way it was.   That's war. Children die. You kill them,  they kill you.  Women kill you,  you kill them. That's it.  There's no Geneva Convention.  There's no rules. There's nothing....

Who knows? There was bad stuff going down.  Like the food on our compound being sold to the Vietnamese and the restaurants,  and I didn't have enough food for my patients.  They wouldn't let us give the patients seconds.  I tried to report that and nothing was done about it.   I mean, you guess why . . . I'd get in more trouble with the Army and I thought,  "What the hell, I might as well put in my time."   I knew I was going to hate the Army.  But what surprised me was nothing comes as close to organized crime. I thought organized crime was the last word in bad guys,  but I swear, the Army has them beat. You just pay off the right person and that's it.   That's what goes down
I knew my patients were shooting up.   They would come in and we would have to rule out gastroenteritis or appendicitis because they were sick from heroin or were withdrawing from it, so we had to be careful   And so I told them. I got to that point. I never thought I would care or not if somebody was on drugs, but it got to that point.  I said to them, "I have enough to worry about with patients who have been wounded in battle or have had accidents without worrying about whether you are going to run out the back door and take heroin. You want to do it,  just don't do it in this ward, because frankly I don't give a damn whether you die or not   If you do, that's your problem;  if you OD, that's your problem,  not my problem. I can't afford to worry about it.  That costs me too much emotionally."   I had too much invested in other people to divide myself with something like that

Casualties waxed and waned. It depended what was going on in the field. What I saw were young men coming in,  eighteen or nineteen years old.  Some of them didn't even have enough hair on their faces to shave and they would be without a leg. Then you would hear of things going on in the Vietnamization program - like an American pilot trying to teach a Vietnamese pilot how to fly.  I heard of one case where the Vietnamese pilot did something wrong and the American swore at him and the Vietnamese pulled a gun out and put it to the pilot's head and said,  "Fly us home."  Then there were cases that came to our hospital from dust-off ships called into a hot landing zone to pull out wounded Vietnamese.  We got them to our hospital and pulled off their bandages and there was nothing wrong with them. And when you see stuff  like what it makes you want to put them back on the ship and throw them out at about one thousand feet.  And I'm not sure that didn't happen.

I used to shake when I would talk about this.  I would shake and I would want to kill them all over again.  I'd feel my face get hot,  I'd become incredibly angry.  But, well,  it worked out.  Now I understand myself a little bit better and I don't have that feeling....

I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. There was something wrong with me,  but I didn't know what it was.  And it was in a Vietnam veterans group that I realized that all my hatred for the Vietnamese and my wanting to kill them was really a reflection of all the pain that I had felt for seeing all those young men die and hurt . . . and how much I cared about them and how much I would stand there and look at them and think to myself, "You've just lost your leg for no reason at all."  Or "You're going to die and it's for nothing."   For nothing. I would never,  never say that to them, but they knew it.

I just never said anything and they never said anything to me,  but I knew it somehow.   I remember there was a young man, he was nineteen and he had a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.  I still remember his name . . . He was in a helicopter crash.  He had caught on fire and had burns over 100 percent of his body and his leg was a mess, all torn up. There wasn't anyway we could save him. It was an impossibility to save him, but he was still alive.  He came in around noontime and he was very alert. His eyes were swollen shut by that time. His face was all bloated up.   I came on duty at three o'clock and the nurses gave me a report and they said . . . they showed me . . . they lifted up the sheet and I saw this incredible-looking person.  They said, "We've been talking to him about how he's going to go back and about his scholarship and about him going home, but of course he's not going to make it .We've put him on oxygen to make it a little bit easier for him to breathe." And I thought to myself,  "There's no one in my experience that I've ever run into that doesn't know that he is dying. Without exception,  everyone knows when they're dying." And I said, "He knows.  And he doesn't have much time left,  so we better talk now."   So they took me over to him and I introduced myself and I said, "I hear you have a fun scholarship to
the University of Pennsylvania."  And he said, "Yeah, but I don't think I'm ever going to be able to use it.  I don't think I'm going to make it o t of  this one." And I couldn't say anything. I knew and he knew and I  just didn't know what to say at that point. I said, "Is there anything you want me to write to your folks or to your girlfriends?"  And he said no.

We had morphine ordered about every two hours, which is very close for morphine, and I gave it to him about every hour and a half.   I knew it was accumulating - but just couldn't stand to see him suffer.  So he died a few hours later. And he looked so bad the medics didn't even want to touch him or put him in the bag.  I went over and did It.   I'll never forget that as long as I live. What a waste, huh?  What a wasted,  wasted,  wasted life.

Over and over and over.  I used to see these people - they'd come in and give them Purple Hearts on the ward.  And I'd look at them as they'd get their Purple Heart.  At that point, it looked like it might be meaningful to them,  so I didn't say anything.  I never said anything, never said anything about what a waste it was. I would never dream of doing that, because they knew it and it would hurt like hell if they heard it anyway. But I would watch this ridiculous little ceremony, and they'd get a Purple Heart for what was left of them, and I'd think, "You're getting this?  What are you getting this for?  It's not going to get your leg back.  It's not going to get your looks back.  It's not going to make you avoid all the pain you're going to have to face when you go home and see your family and get back into society.  It's all sitting in front of you and you're going to have to deal with it . . . and nothing will make up for that."

I remember one young man,  he had lost his leg and he was walking around on crutches.  He had adjusted pretty well. This was probably the first few weeks after he lost his leg. We didn't keep them more than sixty days. Our standard was:  If you couldn't cure them or kill them in sixty days, you had to lose them somehow. And he went down and called his mother and told her he had lost his leg.  He had been doing pretty well up to this point. I said, "What did your mother say?" He said, "Well, she cried." And I could see he was going to get a little teary-eyed, but be didn't want to because it was a twenty-two-bed ward.  All the guys are looking at each other and they don't like to cry in front of each other. So I just gave him a hug, in front of all the guys, and that made him feel good.

The women who served in the Vietnam War were predominantly nurses. Gayle Smith was attached to the 3rd Surgical Hospital in Binh Thuy, South Vietnam, between 1970 and 1971.
From Everything We Had by Al Santoli, pp. 141-48. Copyright  1981 by Albert Santoli and Vietnam Veterans of America