The first month in Vietnam, I thought they would work me to death. It took time to toughen up and get used to the pace.
- The complexity and traumatic nature of her duties
in the midst of such chaos caused her brain to under-process much of the
detail of these memories. These
types of fragmented memories are remembered not in the neocortex but in the
limbic system and present as symptoms of PTSD.
I reported to my aircraft at dawn each morning, flew all day and returned
late at night. In the mornings, while I prepared the aircraft for the
day’s patients, the pilots went to briefing and came back with the mission
sheet, which told us where we went that day and whom to contact. Our
flight schedule was often determined by the firefights of the previous night
and the wounded that needed evacuation. In addition to our scheduled
sorties, we got numerous calls every day to pick up “urgents” from
the medivac choppers. When those calls came, we broke off whatever we
were doing and hustled out to a pre-arranged pick up point. We never
knew what came next. We just went where called.
Not all our evacuations
were under enemy fire, of course, but we treated them as though they were. In
the field, we never knew where the bad guys were, so we always made assault
landings, hit the brakes hard and got the ramp down quick. I got out
of the aircraft and screened patients while the technicians loaded them on
Usually, by the time the wounded reached us, the medics in the
field had tagged them, so I crosschecked the manifest and quickly went over
their injuries. This
all happened fast. We didn’t waste time on the ground. If
we could spare the precious few seconds, we strapped the patients in before
I signaled the crew chief to go. Every takeoff from a field strip was
an ear-splitting, bone-jarring event. To get out of enemy small arms
range quickly, the pilots applied maximum power, nosed the aircraft up and
rocketed to altitude as fast as possible.
- The psychological insults exacerbated by the physiological strain on her body.
We loaded patients according to where they got off, like in temporary warehousing,
so a single patient could be dropped at his destination without moving anyone
else. At the time, our C-130s were equipped with fifty litters stacked
five-high down the center of the aircraft and twenty-two along the cabin sides. Airborne
and en route, my first responsibility was to check for bleeding and make sure
all the IVs were running.
There was never any time for real nursing on
board evac flights, no time to spend with individual soldiers. Mostly,
we were up and down – short
turnarounds – get them to the hospital as quickly as possible. You
see, there were too many of them. Too many suffering young soldiers transported
in my aircraft. I was just one person – the only nurse on board – and
I barely kept up with the seemingly endless stream of bloodied and broken American
- Carol Jean couldn’t fight or flee, so the only survival
strategy left to her was to freeze.
Very quickly, it became clear to me I could not do my duty and remain the
person I was – sensitive, caring and emotionally involved. In a
real shooting war with a mission to accomplish, I had no time for fooling around
with any bullshit feelings. No time for crying or any kind of
Sometimes, as we drove to the flight line in the morning, I looked
out at the sun rising over the South China Sea and thought it a promise from
God, a new day – a new beginning – and I had to leave behind the
events of the day before. We transported between eighty and two hundred
wounded a day, a continuing parade of baby-faced victims, but I couldn’t
allow myself to lose faith in God. He was the only person I could talk
to – the
only one I could get pissed off with.
- Carol Jean turned to her faith for assurance that God, her
only sanctuary, had not abandoned her to the evil that was Vietnam.
I saw all the bullshit around me and wondered why He allowed it to happen,
but there was never any time to ask questions, no time to talk about it. I
just did what I had to. I saw all that stuff day after day and wondered
how man could be so inhumane, but that little flicker of light was always in
my heart, and I clung to it. I had to have that in my heart to keep going
and be the person my patients needed. I had to smile and touch them and
somehow convey I cared, even though I didn’t have time to do anything
for them. Not enough time – never enough time – to give those
young men the care they deserved. From the first moment I arrived in
country, I froze inside and locked my emotions behind a wall. I put on
an iron mask and kept it on every single day for three hundred and sixty-five
days. I kept everything I felt behind my mask, and I’d not realize
until many years later I’d never learned how to take it off and let my
- Psychologically avoiding the stimulus associated with her life in Vietnam, Carol
Jean became aware of a numbing of her prior emotional responsiveness towards
human pain and suffering.