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Carol Sundling - Air Force Flight Nurse

Of course, I never had the time to know patients individually, but very quickly, I came to know the type of men they were.  During my tour in Vietnam, I cared for thousands – literally thousands – and to a man, they were courageous beyond belief, loyal, and if they expressed emotion at all, it was hope for the future and prayers for the comrades they left behind.

  •  Desperate not to identify with the wounded soldiers, Carol Jean attempts to compartmentalize her feelings towards the people she interacts with each day.

Nurses MemorialOn bad days, we stacked them like cordwood, young men with horrible wounds, and though I couldn’t do much for them, I felt they were comforted just knowing they were en route to a medical facility.  I think I mentioned there were only four female flight nurses in the 903rd AEF.  You should have seen the look on those wounded faces when they saw a blonde American girl in their war zone. When I got off the aircraft to load patients, they lay on their litters with huge eyes, and invariably, they wanted to reach out to me.  Some even asked, “Lieutenant – Ma’am.  May I touch you?” 

One severely wounded soldier asked whether he could smell me.  On duty I never wore anything anyone could smell, of course, but I sensed the boy craved feminine contact, so as I examined his wound, I leaned over and let him breathe on my cheek for a few seconds.  They wanted the skin, the touch and the smell so badly.  Not a sexual thing, just something that made them feel like home – made them feel alive – like a human being again.  As a woman, I understood what they felt, and I couldn’t deny them what they needed at that level.

  • The vast numbers of dead and dying young men Carol Jean dealt with initiated the development of survivor’s guilt even before she left Vietnam.

Before we flew, patients were prepared for transport.  If a boy had a major wound and the hospital technicians had time, they opened the wounded area and inserted an intravenous antibiotic drip.  Then, they placed him in a bi-valve cast – a cast cut in half to prevent further injury to the wound during transport.  Think of boxing groceries before taking them home.  Occasionally, there was time to stop the bleeding, administer morphine and such, but mostly, we only had time to get them on board, and then deal with their injuries the best we could.

Ground combat in Vietnam was particularly hazardous to heads, arms and legs.  Sometimes however, we got a chest or abdominal wound, often a problem because we couldn’t always determine the extent of the injury.  If the medics on the ground had time, they tagged patients before transport.  For example, AKA meant amputation above the knee. BKA meant below the knee.  Bilateral BKA meant both legs below the knee.

Cracker BoxesOne day, we got called to Quang Tri.  The guys on the ground had made significant enemy contact, and the wounded were everywhere.  As we touched down on our first sortie, a fleet of army litter trucks barreled onto the flight line.  These trucks, similar to those in the T.V. series, M.A.S.H, carried four litters in back, and we called them “cracker boxes.” 

Our aircraft rolled to a stop, I jumped off and ran to screen the wounds, check the manifest and make sure the patients were all still alive and not bleeding.  I crawled into the nearest cracker box and squatted down to check the two men on the lower litters first.  The young soldier on my right, tagged AAK – amputee above the knee – had a blanket over him, but when I glanced down, it almost looked like he had two legs.  Under a lot of morphine, he was awake and pretty hyper.  When I looked into his face, his eyes lit up, and he smiled.  I was probably the first American woman he’d seen in months.  He reached out, grabbed my arm and said, “Ma’am, I’ve got something I want you to see!”  The tarmac overflowed with cracker boxes, and I had other patients to tend, so I told him I’d be back in a moment. 

While I checked out the other three patients in the truck, the amputee called out,  “Ma’am, look under my blanket.  I want to show you something!”  The poor kid was out of it but as excited as a child at a circus.  I had to give him a moment.  When I lifted his blanket, I saw what the medics had done.  They’d placed IV bottles below the stump of his amputated leg.  To fool him?  I don’t know.  He was so sedated, to this day, I don’t know whether he knew the extent of his injury, but he wasn’t thinking about that.  He wanted only to show me the Purple Heart pinned to his shirt – show this round-eyed nurse the medal his company commander had given him.  I remember then saying a silent prayer, but not for him.  I prayed I hid my expression of sad pity.  I prayed I kept it behind my mask.

  •  This overt effort to hide her feelings and perhaps deceive a terribly wounded soldier contributed to Carol Jean’s future survivor’s guilt.

The technicians loaded the boy into the aircraft, and I turned my attention to the patient on the litter above.  He looked in pretty bad shape.  When I checked, I found his IV bottle full of blood on the floor under the lower litter.  In the litter driver’s ignorance, he had placed the IV bottle on the floor of the cracker box, and the patient’s blood siphoned out of his body down to the bottle.  That was the start of a busy day.

  •  Her personalization of other caregivers’ mistakes added to her psychological distress and contributed to the severity of her PTSD later in life.

  Excerpts:

1. Time to Toughen Up
2. Pissed off at God
3. The type of men they were
4. A bad night
5. Rape.
6. New location, same environment.
7. The right choice
8. My own needs
9. Not all wounds are visible
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