H O M E
Vietnam Nurse Told Harrowing War Story |
Myrna Oliver, L.A. Times
Lynda Van Devanter, an Army surgical nurse in Vietnam whose autobiography focused attention on women's struggles with post traumatic stress syndrome and chemicals including Agent Orange, has died. She was 55.
Van Devanter, whose 1983 book "Home Before Morning" inspired the 1988-91 television series "China Beach," died Nov. 15 at her home in Herndon, Va. The cause was systemic collagen vascular disease, which she had attributed to her exposure in Vietnam to chemicals including the defoliant Agent Orange.
A spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans of America said the organization will pursue an Agent Orange claim against the government on behalf of Van Devanter's daughter, Molly.
Van Devanter was the founding executive director of the Women's Project of the Vietnam Veterans of America from 1979 to 1984, testifying before Congress and other government agencies on behalf of the 7,465 women Vietnam veterans.
She joined the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, South Vietnam, after telling herself: "If our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me."
But the idealism spiraled downward quickly amid the constant gore, noise, fear and fatigue of war, and would lead after her return home to recurring nightmares of one of her patients, a teenage soldier whose face had been blown away.
The nurse's highly successful book, which described doctors and nurses indulging in drugs, alcohol and sex to ease the horror of what they saw on their operating tables, opened new dialogues about women's problems in war. But it also sparked criticism from a group called Nurses Against Misrepresentation that spread from the Pentagon to Hollywood.
The opponents were led by Patricia L. Walsh, a civilian nurse in Vietnam, who had published a fictional account of her experience, "Forever Sad the Hearts," in 1981. That book was being considered as a motion picture for Cher at the same time actress Sally Field optioned Van Devanter's book for a film. (Neither movie materialized, but CBS developed "China Beach," starring Dana Delany, based partly on Van Devanter's book.)
Walsh and other nurses opposed any "Home Before Morning" film, Walsh told The Times in 1987, because "we know the power of Hollywood [and] we didn't want what was in Van Devanter's book to be put on the screen. She portrayed medical teams in an utterly disgusting fashion.
"She wrote about a neurosurgeon who abused drugs and alcohol and about euthanasia and about GI bodies decomposing in a morgue. And about a nurse and surgeon who fell into bed together -- covered with blood from the operating room. Well, those things didn't happen."
Van Devanter responded to The Times then: "In Vietnam, some of us did things that we were not so proud of at the time. But we were under enormous stress -- physically, emotionally and spiritually.... The fact is, my book is not about sleazy people -- it's about people who have been through an insanity. It's about attempts to find a moment of sanity in the midst of that."
Her book, written with Christopher Morgan, earned generally good reviews, including one in Business Week stating:
"As one of thousands of forgotten women Vietnam veterans, she has had special burdens to bear in her long effort to 'come home' emotionally. With intelligence and grim humor, her book describes her stint, at 22, as an Army nurse in 1969 and 1970 -- for her a year of transition from middle-class idealist to battle-scarred cynic. Her gruesome ordeal did not end with a return to civilian life. Van Devanter's ongoing struggle to overcome grotesque 'flashback' hallucinations, a drinking problem, an unstable personal life, and the unique stigma of being a female veteran evokes sympathy and admiration. Her story demands respect and provides a view into an American netherworld still too often ignored."
Born one of five daughters in a Catholic family in suburban Washington, D.C., Van Devanter earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at Antioch University and her nursing degree at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore. After her wartime service, she had a few jobs as a civilian nurse, including at Torrance Memorial Hospital in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, she descended into uncontrolled drinking and crying, and was on unemployment, food stamps, then welfare, and in therapy but still unable to discuss Vietnam.
"You learn pretty early on that if you drink enough, you don't dream and if you don't dream, you don't have nightmares," she said on CNN in 2000, the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. "That's why you have all these people coming back drinking."
Van Devanter was visiting friends on Long Island in New York in 1979 when, during the night, she heard a fire siren -- the same sound as the alert signaling rocket and mortar attacks on Pleiku. She compulsively crawled into the living room.
That was the painful breakthrough that sent her into a post-traumatic stress therapy program called "walking through Vietnam." She began writing her book as part of the healing.
Van Devanter, in addition to becoming a spokeswoman for women veterans, contributed to other books including the 1985 "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam."
One of her quoted letters stated, "This war disgusts me.... I'm sick of facing, every day, a new bunch of children ripped to pieces."
She also wrote and edited books of poetry, including the 1991 "Visions of War, Dreams of Peace," and spoke widely at seminars.
Van Devanter is survived by her husband of 16 years, Tom Buckley; daughter, Molly; stepdaughter, Brigid Buckley, of Raleigh, N.C.; her mother, Helen Van Devanter of Sterling, Va.; and four sisters.
We Met in 1980
I had just moved to Hawaii with my family. My son, who was 12 months at the time was still recovering from his second major operation from a life threatening illness. My 5 year old daughter was recovering from almost losing her beloved little brother. Hostages from Iran had been released and given a ticker tape parade in New York. Something called a "Vet Center" was created in various cities and Honolulu thankfully was one of the luckier towns.
I had sent Lynda an audio tape of my experiences since I returned home from Vietnam. I had found a small ad in Ms. Magazine requesting information on women who served in Vietnam. I had no idea who she was, but she was the first person who ever asked about the experience and I felt I needed to help. She called me as soon as she received the tape and we developed a friendship over the phone; thousands of miles between Washington, DC and Honolulu, HI. It was then I learned about agent orange (I told her I never spayed it and she said, "But you bathed in it and ate the food cooked in contaminated water). I also learned about this thing called PTSD (I found out I wasn’t going crazy, it was common among war vets) and I learned about Vietnam Veterans of America (an organization that truly advocates for Vietnam veterans). She had been traveling around the country training Vet Center staff about the special issues women veterans suffered from and gave hundreds of interviews to outreach them.
When I learned more about Agent Orange, I found myself becoming extremely angry. My blood truly ran cold within my veins. My son had suffered so much as the result of my exposure to agent orange (and blue and white) and continues to. My twin boys may have died as a result of my exposure to these chemicals and my unusual health problems could also be related. I wrote to my Congresswoman. I received a letter back from her and the rest is history. With the support of Lynda, I became the "expert". I testified, I met powerful people who helped me, and I worked with the state legislature to create an "Agent Orange Bill" in which Hawaii’s Public Health Department worked on research to identify the relationship between agent orange exposure and poor health. Of course the results indicated a connection.
At the time, the VA seemed scornful towards women vets and Senator Inouye from Hawaii had seen Lynda in an interview and got in touch with her. He ordered a GAO study to see how pervasive the problem was. The results indicated that the experiences of women vets were worse than expected. That information gave the women vets a major boost and forced the VA to correct the problems. For example, in those days, women did not have their own bathrooms and had to have someone "guard" the door while they took showers. And my only experience with the VA was not good. The clerk wanted my husband’s social security number and I wasn’t married! It never occurred to her that I was the vet and when I told her, I felt I had just revealed I had a contagious disease!
As a result, Lynda successfully talked the VA into creating a Vet Center Women Veterans Advisory Committee with the Senator’s help. Most of the women served incountry and we identified the problems that needed to be addressed by the VA. We even recommended that the VA have one Vet Center devoted to women vets. This was the first time Lynda and I had met along with Rose Sandecki who was the first incountry woman vet to be team leader of a Vet Center. Lynda’s position with VVA was that of Director of the Women Veterans Project in which she collected all the information she could and the feedback she was receiving was devastating. With other women from other Vet Centers, we learned more about the many incountry women who attempted or committed suicide or died from cancer. The VA never gave her the honor she deserved for being one of the leaders who planned, implemented and wrote up the thick report that was the result of this committee’s meeting. And it was stuffed away somewhere for many years.
We needed a study. In government one has to prove a need via studies. Jenny Schnair, a grad student approached Lynda and an in-depth study was implemented with costs covered by Lynda. She felt we couldn’t waste the time seeking funding when so many women were taking their lives. The results were presented at one of the first PTSD Society meetings and we cried as we learned of the suffering and pain these women were reporting. Some had written many pages when offered a space for comments. Many stated no one had ever asked them about their experiences and aftermath. Many profusely thanked the researcher for caring….
We experienced the dedication of the Wall together along with a handful of other women vets. There must have been no more than 10 of us and we all knew we had to find more of them. The politicians spoke of how the men died for our freedom and we felt totally left out. Then when General Price spoke of the nurses in Vietnam and told the audience find one to hug we found it hard to maintain our cool. The men started to line up to give us the hugs, the love and respect we truly deserved. It broke the ice and we knew we had a long, difficult job to do finding our other sisters.
Afterwards, Lynda returned home to go over her book’s "galley" while I read a copy. I was blown away. I could have written the same book with the same stories, the same feelings, and the same behavior. My life after Vietnam was very dark, like in Lynda’s book. We discussed it. Should she leave that darkness in? Yes, because we believed that we were not the only ones who experienced that darkness and the other women needed to know that. We were also aware there would be critics, but Lynda’s determination to find these other women erased the thoughts of consequences. Sure enough, a number of years later there was a group of women, lead by a civilian nurse who served in Nam who attacked the book, "Home Before Morning". That episode in Lynda’s life was a very painful one.
Lynda was able to locate many more women afterwards. And many women found that they could express their feelings in poetry and Lynda began to collect them. Joan Furey, who served with Lynda in Nam, co-edited a book with her called, "Visions of War, Dreams of Peace" with profits going to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project. Feelings poured from the book and it gave many of us an opportunity to express ourselves and share those emotions with others.
Lynda was involved in many projects. She spoke at universities, attended veteran functions and basically made herself available to educate the public and outreach women vets. To say she was tenacious is an understatement. Once she found a project that could help women vets, she became involved and often took the responsibility to make things happen. But she became very ill and experienced many peaks and valleys. The last important project she was involved in was the legislation providing VA benefits to children with birth defects whose mothers served in Vietnam.
With Lynda’s passing, I see an end to an era. She was the most dedicated, devoted advocate anyone could have. And I will surely miss her.
Thanks, Lynda. You can rest in peace knowing your work has saved many women and helped them on to their individual healing.
H O M E