Unsung Hero: Navy Nurse ‘brought comfort and healing’ to the wounded

Written by Ann Friel


The Vietnam Women’s Memorial

An Unsung Hero – Lt. Maryann Rowland, USN

It was 1965.  We were just ready to graduate from college: me from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania and Maryann from Villanova University. As we neared graduation, Maryann informed me that she had joined the Navy Nurse Corps and owed them three years of service.  She did not know where she would be posted but I said, “Why not go together, wherever it is.  I am ready to travel and see something outside of Philadelphia.”  So, we set our plans in motion.

After Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, Maryann received orders to serve at the Naval Hospital Oakland in Oakland, California.  Of course, all we heard was California and that it was just outside of San Francisco. That was enough to ratchet up our enthusiasm.  Within three weeks, we and two other young women were on the road, driving across the country in a caravan of two cars: two girls to each car. We were on our way to fun, excitement and our futures.

Little did we know what impact this tour of duty would have on our Navy nurses, particularly Maryann.  While Mary Kay Swift, the other Navy nurse, was posted to the civilian section; Maryann was assigned to the Orthopedic Ward where she took care of young Marines with devastating wounds, some never to walk again.

Her first day on the job, she met her Commanding Officer, Commander Wathan, who proved to be a great example and influence on Maryann’s career.

While Maryann was never assigned to a combat zone, she still served with great honor. She was the one who met the plane at Travis Air Force Base to accompany the wounded to Oak Knoll. In many ways, her job was just as difficult as the ones experienced by her colleagues in the field.  They faced the initial and raw results of combat-related wounds. The nurses were intent on keeping the servicemen alive to be flown to long-term care for full recovery.

At Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, Maryann and her colleagues served these Marines, Naval officers and enlisted personnel with care that would enable them to 1. learn to live with the wounds they had received in the name of their country and 2. be discharged with the ability to face the future with confidence, both physically and mentally.  This was not an easy task for anyone to complete – especially for a 21-year-old, newly minted ensign.

Following her two years of duty in the Orthopedic Ward, Maryann was assigned to the Psychiatric Ward – for which she had absolutely no training.  It was a struggle for her to offer competent care when she had no psychiatric training to show her how to make that difference.  After an injured patient tore a steel door off the wall and threatened to kill her, Maryann’s sense of self changed.

Combined with a feeling of failure for not being able to help many of the wounded leave Oak Knoll with a positive attitude to face the rest of their lives, and dealing with her inadequacy and lack of training in the Psychiatric Ward, Maryann’s life took a hard left. She never felt that she made a difference in the lives of these young men who had served their country so well – and yet, she surely did.

When the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, we attended the ceremony.  That entire afternoon, we (Maryann, her sister, Helena and I) were asked if we had been nurses during Vietnam.  Her sister and I said no,  but we said that Maryann was. Men came up to her, hugged her and thanked for her service and for taking care of them. For the first time in a very long time, Maryann’s face shined with pride and gratitude to those brave men, once boys, who she served so well.

Maryann died a few years ago and was accorded a well-deserved full military funeral at her Alma Mater, Villanova. Her ashes are buried at both the San Francisco National Cemetery, California and St. Peter and Paul’s Cemetery in Springfield, Pennsylvania, where we grew up. She fought the good fight and now enjoys the peace that alluded her in life. She is finally home with her parents and visited often by her closest friends.

Maryann will be remembered as a shining star who brought comfort, humor and dedicated healing to boys who did not believe they could overcome their wounds. She and the other nurses at Oak Knoll showed them how.  Unfortunately, she never gave herself the credit for that healing service.

A true unsung hero who served her country well – Lt. Maryann Rowland, USN.