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Carol Sundling - Air Force Flight Nurse

I told you that was a bad night. We loaded wounded Vietnamese soldiers as fast as we could, but they kept coming. We tied them down in the middle of the cabin and stacked them like dominoes along the sides.  I don’t know how many we put on that aircraft. Two hundred and fifty? Three hundred?  The air in the cabin was thick with the coppery odor of blood and the floor so slippery we could hardly walk.  When we ran out of room in the cabin, the crew chief raised the back ramp, and we strapped down more wounded there.

  • The olfactory is considered the most powerful of the senses related to triggering traumatic recall.  Carol Jean would later be exposed to this stimulus time and again in her nursing career. 

In those days, Vietnamese women sometimes traveled to battle with their husbands like camp followers in Roman times.  On this night, in the middle of a serious firefight, a crowd of hysterical Vietnamese women had formed at the back of our aircraft screaming and moaning and tearing their hair.  We were taking their husbands away, and they wanted to go along.  I pitied them, but of course it was impossible.  I turned my back and tried to put their cries out of mind while I strapped down the last of the injured. 

Suddenly, the mob surged, and two women locked onto my legs and pulled me down onto the tarmac.  They shouted and screamed what could only have been vile and profane curses.  I tried to fight back, to get them off me, but there were too many, and they were unbelievably strong.  As I was forced to the ground, I saw their angry faces and hate-filled eyes and choked on the sour odor of adrenaline.  Mine or theirs?  

They kicked and spat and tore at my hair.  A mob of enraged Vietnamese women vented frustration over their shattered lives on the blonde round-eyed woman privileged enough to fly away and leave that awful place behind.  I lost consciousness for a moment, and the next thing I knew, the crew chief, pistol in hand, waded through the crowd, picked me up and carried me to the flight deck.  Thank God.

  • This incident clearly demonstrates a severe threat to Carol Jean’s personal integrity.  She was in danger of being killed by the very people she had been sent to Vietnam to help.

More wounded needed evacuation from Dong Ha that night, but I told the pilot I wouldn’t risk the crew’s safety.  We’d wait until daylight before going back.  My entire life, I’d thought myself a caring person, all grace and kindness and goodness, but that was one decision I had no trouble making.

A week later, we got another urgent.  There’d been a riot and a lot of shooting in a prison camp on Con Dao, an island just off the coast of Saigon.  We landed hard and hot on a tiny runway lighted only by smudge pots and left the engines running while they brought out the wounded VC POWs.  They weren’t on litters – I doubt the prison camp had any – so we went to work on them on the floor of the aircraft. 

Twelve or thirteen in all, they were VC captured somewhere and sent to that remote and isolated prison for who knew what methods of interrogation.  We’d just begun strapping them down when a patient lying on his back moaned and cried out, so I examined him again for something I may have missed the first time around.  In the dimmed cabin lights I saw no sign of entry, but when I turned him over, I found a huge exit wound, his back covered in blood and torn flesh.  I signaled a technician to begin an intravenous transfusion.  

Suddenly, I don’t know why, maybe we’d taken incoming, but without my okay, the pilot applied power and began his takeoff roll.  The ramp was lowered, the floor of the aircraft slick with blood and gore, and we hadn’t yet had time to tie everyone down. 

When the plane accelerated, my technicians, the wounded VC and I all slid to the back of the aircraft.  The pilot had initiated a full-power, maximum climb takeoff, and we scrambled for cargo straps, stanchion posts, legs and arms – anything to hang on to.  The aircraft roared out over the dark South China Sea, turned north, and as things settled down in the cabin, I became furious.  What the hell had we just done?  What kind of insanity was that?  The high brass had sent us to a tiny island in the middle of the night to take Viet Cong prisoners to a hospital in Saigon where they’d probably be killed anyway. Why? To what end? Politics?  Arrogance?  Stupidity?  Did they care so little for our lives?

  • Carol Jean vented her rage and frustration on the government over the useless threats to her life.  Eventually, She would turn this inward and into self-destructive behaviors.

I never found out why we were sent on that mission, but as we flew home in the wee hours, it occurred to me that six months earlier, when I arrived in country, I wouldn’t have complained about any mission that saved lives – ours or theirs.  Goddamn it, I was a nurse!  Selflessness and caring for others went to the core of my being.  No sacrifice was too great if it brought comfort to someone suffering.  Now, anger outweighed compassion – a dark sign something inside me had changed.

  • A change that contributed to her restricted range of affect and to her core belief about the essential decency of her character.

  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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