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. Approximately 11,000 women would end up serving in Vietnam. Close to 90% were nurses. Janis Nark was one of them.
Civilians also served. They held positions in the Army Special Services, supply, air traffic control, cartography, the USO, American Red Cross and others in support of the 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, then left to serve in a West Coast military hospital. Jets carried the injured from the frontlines in Vietnam back to the U.S. for care within hours. Janis cared for men who were still boys by age, but had their innocence taken away in the blink of an eye.
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.” She learned about everything from gunshot wounds, to different weapons, to 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,” she said.
However, Janis mostly learned about amputations. “Almost half of my patients were amputees; many of them had lost more than one limb,” she added.
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. She said the patients called them angels.
“There was a great feeling of camaraderie,” she said.”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 emotionally destroyed by PTSD. Like so many women she served with, she was haunted by the very injuries she treated, and the death she faced day in and day out.
She says this tumultuous time made her stronger. “It heightened my sense of humor. It made me realize what’s important in life and what’s not. ”
Many returning veterans 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 serving her country. She stayed in the Reserves, serving once again during Desert Storm. She retired in 1995 with 26 years of service behind her. 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 Wall was dedicated in 1982, it became a symbol for national reconciliation. It brought men and women together to face loss and begin a process of healing. Eight women are inscribed in black granite alongside their brothers on The Wall.
The recognition for women came on Veterans Day of 1993, when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. Thousands were in attendance, including: 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.”
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.