‘Sisterhood of War:’ Nurses who served in Vietnam will tell their story

Kim Heikkila’s book “Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam” focuses on nurses who served during the war. (Vonny Rohloff/Review)

Former Army nurse Valerie Buchan of Arden Hills tended wounded soldiers in Vietnam during the war. (submitted photo)

Kim Heikkila is the author of “Sisterhood of War” a tale of women nurses who served in Vietnam. (submitted photo)

Library program part of Women’s History Month events

Vonny Rohloff
Review staff

March is Women's History Month, and the Ramsey County Branch Library in Roseville is celebrating it with programs about some of the more interesting aspects of being an American female.

The one that caught my editor's attention was historian Kim Heikkila's talk on her book "Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam." She knew immediately that I would have a particular interest in the topic since I worked for Special Services in Vietnam during the war. It provided recreation programs for U.S. servicemen.

While I did not deal with the physical trauma like the nurses did in their jobs, my colleagues and I had many commonalities -- the hot weather, incoming mortars (being attacked by the enemy), sparse living conditions, being far away from family and friends, and working in a military, male-dominated environment.

As I read the book, there were many pages and points made to which I could relate. 

'Dedicated healers'

Heikkila of St. Paul along with two veteran nurses who served in Vietnam during the war, Kay Bauer and Valerie Buchan, will present a program based on the book and the nurses' personal war experiences.

"People want to hear from the nurses and learn about their experiences in Vietnam," Heikkila said during an interview over coffee earlier this month. "This is a golden opportunity as the nurses are great storytellers and have a good rapport with their audience," she added.

Since American history of the Vietnam War focuses on the men and the role they played during the controversial military conflict, it is not surprising that most people are unaware that women served in Vietnam as well, Heikkila explained.

Through her research, she came to realize that the men and women, who served in Vietnam during the 1960s and early '70s, had overlapping experiences.

Librarian Judy Woodward, who organized the program, said, "Dedicated healers, the women found that some of the most difficult wounds they encountered were the physiological ones."

Buchan, an Arden Hills resident, was a member of the Army Nurse Corps caring for wounded American soldiers in a thousand-bed hospital in Japan when she was reassigned to Vietnam in 1968. In Heikkila's book, Buchan said that at the time, she requested the change and wanted work more closely with soldiers wounded in the war.

"We were still fighting the Communists. That was the reason that I went in and that was still worrying me - the communism."

I spoke to Buchan, who explained her career path included behavior science and mental health. She saw young soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and expressed regret that for decades after the war people questioned whether it was a genuine medical problem.

Buchan said it is a very real, serious anxiety condition.

Even some nurses who served in combat zones developed PSTD and formed informal support groups to help in their healing following their return from the war.

Heikkila discovered that a few of the nurses she interviewed for the book had not talked much about their wartime experiences. Although the nurses were humble and hesitant to draw attention to themselves, they were willing to share their stories.

"They worked hard on behalf of the men," Heikkila said. In the book she writes, "Nurses wanted the public to know that they did their best to provide excellent medical care, to save lives, and if all else failed, to provide as much comfort as possible to dying soldiers."

Buchan said she is grateful to Heikkila for writing the book.

"The experience was valuable; I learned so much and feel good about what we did there. I'm thankful I could make the contribution," Buchan said.

Reflecting on wartime experiences

"Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam" was written after Heikkila began an oral history project for the Minnesota Historical Society that focused on military nurses who served in Vietnam.

She conducted 15 interviews for the project, which are now part of the society' Oral History Project collection.

These interviews also became the basis for the book. "It came at a culturally good time -- a point where people are able to go back and think about the war again," Heikkila said. "People get emotional at these events."

The vets, mostly baby boomers, are beginning to reflect back on their lives and open up about their wartime experiences.

Heikkila grew up after the Vietnam conflict ended, but became interested in war when a high-school social studies teacher briefly touched on the My Lai Massacre where unarmed civilians were killed.

Many films of the '80s dealing with Vietnam era issues, such as "Platoon," Full Metal Jacket," "Born on the Fourth of July" and the Rambo series also sparked her interest.

She earned her Ph.D. in American studies with a minor in feminist studies in 2002. Her dissertation, "G.I. Gender: Vietnam War-Era Women Veterans and U.S. Citizenship" was based on interviews with 20 women Vietnam veterans, both nurses and enlisted and line officer women, from across the country. This led to the oral history project and then the book.

In addition to the "Sisterhood of War" presentation, Woodward has other programs highlighting women throughout March. Woodward said she is always on the lookout for writers who appeal to the public and thought the Vietnam program would be of great interest.

Heikkila will begin the March 21 program with a 15-minute broad historical background on women's service in Vietnam and then lead a question-and-answer session with Buchan and Bauer focusing on why they joined the military in the 1960s, how they ended up in Vietnam and what they experienced there and afterwards.
Vonny Rohloff can be reached at advertising@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7861.

If you go ...

What: "Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam." Author Kim Heikkila will lead a talk about military nurses who served during the Vietnam War. She will be joined by two local nurse veterans who will share their experiences.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21
Where: Roseville Public Library, 2180 N. Hamline Ave.

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