Tuesday evening approximately fifty students gathered in the Gig Harbor High School library to hear Mary Ann Jacobs speak about her experience as an Army nurse in the Vietnam War. he students were a mixture of Peninsula High School and GHHS students and the evening was the culmination of the juniors reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in English. This was the 20th year that the forum had been organized by Dr. Doug Perry, English Teacher at GHHS.
Jacobson was “in country” during 1970-71, fresh out of nursing school. Nursing for an Evac. Hospital was different than nursing in the civilian world. Because of the nature of their work, nurses were allowed to do more procedures, request tests and diagnose patients than their state-side counterparts. Twelve hour days, six days a week, sometimes while being mortared, forever changed Jacobson. “It was the best year of my life and the worst year of my life,” she told the students. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” How had it changed her? “I came from a military family, growing up on Air Force bases all over. I had always thought I’d go into the military, but my experience has made me anti-war. I suggest that Americans think long and hard before getting into a conflict like Vietnam. I don’t know why we were there. Syria scares me now.”
Jacobs told the audience that between 5 and 10,000 women served in Vietnam and that 92-98% were nurses, the others being support personnel. The reason for the estimate as to numbers is that the military did not keep good track of those numbers as even though these women were in the line of fire, officially the United States did not have women in combat. Therefore at that time nurses were not allowed to qualify with weapons. “We had NVA patients sometimes and VC would attempt to come in to assassinate them to prevent their giving away secrets of the North Vietnamese. We had no way to protect our patients except throw something at intruders.”
One statistic that surprised me was when Jacobs told that 99% of casualties survived if they made it to a hospital and the military set up medical facilities to be no more than 30 minutes away. It was the highest survival rate of any war and stood until one hospital in the Iraq war matched it. That hospital was run by a nurse commander who had been in Vietnam
In talking about the war related deaths, Jacob mentioned that the names on the Wall in Washington D.C. are artificially low because those that died stateside from war related injuries were not counted. Ten nurses, eight of them women, were killed in Vietnam. When talking about the statue that’s been erected in remembrance of those who served as nurses, Jacobs says that she hopes that eventually both it and the statue commissioned by Ross Perot will be taken down and let the Wall stand just as it was envisioned.
After discharge she worked at Tacoma General which she found boring because she wasn’t given the level of responsibility that she’d had in Vietnam. Eventually she went to work at Madigan Hospital at Ft. Lewis where she felt valued.
Jacobson went back to school and obtained a PhD in medical anthropology, doing her dissertation on PTSD in American Vietnam nurses. “This is information you won’t read about in history books. About what we went through. Initially the VA didn’t recognize PTSD in nurses and still does not recognize the effects of Agent Orange in women. Nurses handled patients who had come into contact with Agent Orange. Sometimes hospital compounds were sprayed. Because dioxin, the main poison in Agent Orange, is stored in body fat women are more likely to carry it for a longer time. The five diseases and mutations that can be traced to Agent Orange have lasted twelve generation in lab mice.
Jacobs had nothing nice to say about the television show “China Beach.” She said that gave a poor portrayal of what the lives of nurses and the war were like. “If you want to get an idea of the atmosphere of the situation over there, watch ‘Mash’.”
Jacobs concluded by telling the students that serving the country is good and there are many ways to do that don’t involve going to war. “Honor veterans and the rights they fought to protect. Use your voice and exercise your right to vote. Question the government.”