Angels of War: A Vietnam Nurse
“I learned so many lessons, but it took me years to put them into words or concrete thoughts. Vietnam hardened me.”
One tour in Vietnam was more than enough for Janis Nark, who served as a nurse during the Vietnam War from 1970 to 1971. Inspired to serve others after she lost her Drama scholarship from Eastern Michigan University, Janis found herself shipping off to boot camp in the spring of 1970.
In 1956, the first female service members arrived in Vietnam. 83% were nurses. Janis Nark was one of them. The others held positions in special services, supply, air traffic control, cartography, the USO, American Red Cross and many other jobs in support of our combat troops.
The day Janis left for Basic Training in her new Ford Maverick, her father checked the oil, the weather, the antenna – anything to avoid acknowledging his little girl was leaving home for the Army. “Bye Mom! Bye Dad! I love you!” She waved one last time and headed out, never contemplating that would be the end of her childhood and a brutal induction into irrevocable adulthood.
Janis, like her fellow nurses, went to her job and faced the perils of enemy fire, horrific heat and humidity, disease, insects, isolation, long work hours and sleepless nights. She treated wounded and dying soldiers in Southeast Asia for a tour, later serving in a West Coast military hospital. Jets carried the injured from the frontlines in Vietnam back to the U.S. for care within mere hours. Janis sometimes cared for men who were still boys by age, but were taken from their innocence in the blink of an eye. She would see the faces of 19 and 20 year-olds who would be paralyzed forever.
It was quoted by Former Sec. of State, Colin Powell that “the men came back and rested, but you [nurses] looked at death every day.”
It was not an easy job, but no one said it would be.
One quiet morning around 2 a.m., the soft sobs of a seventeen year-old resonated through the quiet halls of the medical ward Janis was working. The crying patient was skinny with blonde hair and big blue eyes. He had lost both legs and one arm to the war. Reaching his bedside, the young soldier looked up at Janis, tears building up in his eyes and desperately asked, “Why?”
“He had been to war and back and couldn’t answer it, and was looking to me…for answers,” Janis recalls. “I smoothed the hair back from his forehead and I gave him morphine for the only pain I knew I could take away.”
Through heart-wrenching moments like these, Janis said she and her fellow nurses did the “best we could with who we were and what we had.” Hard realities were not an easy thing to swallow, but necessary. Janis learned about everything from gunshot wounds, to different weapons, booby traps, and the toll of war on the young mind.
“I learned never to wake a vet standing next to him. You could get hurt that way.”
However, Janis mostly learned about amputations. “Almost half of my patients were amputees; many of them had lost more than one limb.”
There were times when she felt helpless; feeling like treating wounded soldiers would have no end. One of the hardest realizations was sending men back into battle. Soldiers would arrive in the medical ward half conscious, only to open their eyes and come face to face with nurses like Janis. They looked for reassurance and peace. The patients called them “angels.”
After seeing the faces of those she helped, Janis knew these soldiers were grateful to be alive and that they were wonderful to her. Janis remembers, “There was a great feeling of camaraderie…It was wonderful to see wounds heal, to see physical and mental progress. A lot of good happened…”
While there were a lot of lessons to be learned in Vietnam, it took Janis years before she could put her memories into words or more concrete thoughts. Her experience as a Vietnam nurse caused her to become destroyed emotionally by PTSD. Like so many women who served with her, they were haunted by the very injuries they treated, and the death they faced day in and day out.
Through this tumultuous time in her life, she said it made her stronger. “It heightened by sense of humor. It made me realize what’s important in life and what’s not. ”
Many returning veterans did not speak of their service – in other words, they came home quietly. Society did not seem to want to acknowledge that young men and women had been there. Others simply did not want to discuss their service. Janis did not do so for 20 years. “I was just another nurse. I never told any civilian I was in the Army.”
If Janis ever wore her uniform in the outside world she was “looked at with one of two emotions: curiosity or disdain.” Even during the Women’s Liberation Movement, underlying messages of ‘nice girls wouldn’t have gone to war’ rang loud and clear.
Following Vietnam, Janis wasn’t done. She stayed in the Reserves, serving once again in wartime during Desert Storm. She retired in 1995 with 26 years of service. Looking back, Janis said, “I learned skills that I never would have. I learned to think outside the box at a very young age. I learned survival skills, how to improvise, the list is long. And I am grateful.”
When The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, it became a symbol for national reconciliation. The Wall quickly became sacred ground, bringing men and women veterans together. Many began to mourn and confront demons they felt they could not do for so long. Eight women are inscribed in black granite on The Wall, alongside their 58,300 ‘brothers’ in war.
The recognition for women came on Veterans Day of 1993, when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. With attendance in the thousands, including but not limited to: air traffic controllers, Red Cross workers, intelligence operators and nurses, these “angels” and veterans were met with praise and thanks. Men saluted and cheered, others yelling, “Thank you! Thank you!”
Vietnam women veterans were not alone and their service would not go unnoticed.
When asked how she thought women’s service in
Vietnam impacted or inspired women serving today, she replied, “We served, suffered, paved the way, like so many women before us.”
These angels, women who risked their lives to selflessly give all they had to comfort and heal, are forever memorialized and honored on The National Mall in Washington, D.C. Once bringing peace and comfort to the suffering, they now bring solace to one another. Through their words and tears, their healing continues. Today, they hold each other close and lift themselves up. Their service is immeasurable and we thank them.
Thank you to all of our Vietnam “angels,” and “Welcome Home.”
You can help VVMF honor our “angels” by clicking here.
Parts of this blog was contributed to by Scattered Memories, written by Lt. Col. Janis A. Nark, USAR (Ret.). Nark is currently serving on the VVMF Board of Directors.