The Vietnam war was going on in the background of my life when I was a young girl and teenager and, although it didn’t directly affect me or my family, there was such broad media coverage brought right into our homes each day that it became part of our lives. It is for this reason that Our Vietnam Nurses, by Annabelle Brayley, caught my eye.
The fifteen stories told in this book are personal recollections from nurses who made the decision to go to Vietnam and contribute to Australia’s war effort. Most of them saw it as an adventure – perhaps an experience of a lifetime – and something that would take them out of their comfort zone, but I don’t think any of them could foresee the impact it would have on their lives.
They all agreed it was one of the best things they had ever done and they wouldn’t have missed it for the world. They made strong friendships and met wonderful people, but they were also impacted by their Vietnam postings such a long way from home.
The terrible injuries they treated, the lives lost, the constant danger and not knowing whether the people they treated before being transported back home ever recovered or survived. There were a few whose fates they knew, and they were happy to discover that some with shocking injuries actually went on to lead very full lives, marrying and having children.
Quite often their family members would discourage them from going, being concerned about their welfare, but these people had adventurous souls and saw it as an opportunity to escape from the mundane. Some of the women met their future husbands whilst they were serving and made lifelong friends.
Chapter 5 particularly caught my attention – Running on the Edge of Reason. Pam Bell nee Keenan told her Vietnam story, but her’s had a twist.
Pam met the love of her life, Robin, in the quaintly named Wyalkatchem in Western Australia when she was 17. They fell for each other and became inseparable. Pam trained as a nurse and Robin joined the police force; they were engaged on Pam’s 21st birthday and married in 1964. After a wonderful honeymoon, they returned to work and were extremely happy despite their lack of possessions.
But life was waiting to throw them a curve ball – in the December following their wedding, Robin was on traffic patrol and was involved in an accident which claimed his life.
Pam says that she remembers she no longer cared about anything and felt she had entered a time warp, but managed to continue to work in a professional manner until a friend suggested she join the air force. This led to her service in Vietnam, which provided more trauma and stress to deal with on top of her already heavy load.
When eventually Pam returned home she continued in nursing and eventually remarried, unfortunately to an abusive husband. What amazed me was that she was able to continue working in an extremely professional manner whilst dealing with a bad relationship and taking care of her children. But eventually the chickens came home to roost, and if it weren’t for a car randomly pulling up behind her on a lonely bush track, she may well have taken her own life. Pam felt there was a guardian angel watching over her that day and she eventually sought help for her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and received well-deserved recognition for her service.
It wasn’t until later in life that many of the nurses started to show symptoms of PTSD, as there was little if any facility for debriefing after experiencing such stress, trauma and exhausting work. As with previous generations of nurses who served their country, they also had to fight for their right to be recognised officially, for their service to our nation.
The nurses are however recognised by the Diggers as if not for these courageous and determined professionals, many of our service personnel would not have made it home. We owe so much to these wonderful people.
Join Books at 60 on Facebook, or sign up for our weekly newsletter below for more great reading recommendations!