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Carol Sundling - Air Force Flight Nurse

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.

C-130I 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 board. 

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 boys.

  • 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 acting out.

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 emotions out.

  • 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.


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