Lynda Van Devanter
Lynda Van Devanter
Born May 27, 1947
U.S. Army nurse; activist for women veterans
Lynda Van Devanter was one of thousands of American women who served as nurses in Vietnam during the war. Like many of these other women, she worked grueling shifts in a poorly equipped hospital and treated horrible wounds. Upon returning to the United States, she struggled with feelings of anger, depression, and hopelessness with little support from either the U.S. government or American society. In fact, she found that women veterans were even more isolated than their male peers. Determined to help other women in the same situation, Van Devanter founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Women's Project in 1980. She also wrote a book about her experiences, Home before Morning, which brought national attention to the contributions of women veterans.
Becomes a nurse
Lynda Van Devanter was born in 1947 in Washington, D.C., and grew up in a close-knit Catholic family with four sisters. Her parents always encouraged her to find a way to contribute to society. "As we were growing up, both [my father] and my mother emphasized the obligation we all had to be of service not only to our family, community, church, and country, but to all of mankind," she recalled in Home before Morning.
From the time she was a little girl, Van Devanter dreamed of being a nurse. She read books about famous nurses, bandaged people's cuts, nursed injured animals back to health, and worked at a nursing home during high school. So it was no surprise when she enrolled in the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore following high school graduation in 1965. "Nursing was the way I was going to make my contribution to society," she explained in her memoir. "I was part of a generation of Americans who were 'chosen' to change the world. We were sure of that. It was only a matter of waiting until we all grew up."
Shortly before Van Devanter graduated from nursing school in 1968, she went to a presentation given by a U.S. Army recruiter. He asked the nursing students to consider joining the army and serve their country in the Vietnam War. At this time, the United States was rapidly increasing its military support for the nation of South Vietnam. The Communist nation of North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government.
But U.S. government officials felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. After listening to the army recruiters, Van Devanter decided that she could best contribute to society by working as a nurse in Vietnam.
"I eagerly anticipated my work as an Army nurse. I saw it as one of the best ways to help those in need," Van Devanter recalled in her book. "There were brave boys fighting and dying for democracy, I thought. And if our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me."
Serves in Vietnam
After completing six weeks of basic training at an army base in Texas, Van Devanter flew to Vietnam in June 1969. She was assigned to the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku province, located in the mountains near the Cambodian border. "One thing everybody agreed on was that assignments to certain medical facilities should be avoided at all costs, because of their unreasonable workloads and constant danger. One unit that was near the head of this list was the 71st Evacuation Hospital," she noted. "Pleiku was an area of heavy combat and the casualties were supposedly unending."
Within the first few weeks after she arrived, Van Devanter found out that the hospital deserved its reputation. She worked exhausting, twelve-hour shifts in poorly equipped operating rooms. She treated young soldiers with missing limbs, terrible burns, and huge blast wounds on a regular basis. "No amount of warning could have ever prepared me for the sheer numbers of mutilated young bodies that helicopters kept bringing to the 71st," she recalled. "The emergency room floor was practically covered with blood. Dozens of gurneys were tightly packed into the ER [emergency room], with barely enough space for medical people to move between them. And the helicopters were still bringing more." To make matters worse, explosions and sniper fire often occurred just outside the hospital compound.
Over time, the constant exposure to death and danger took a toll on Van Devanter. She began to lose her faith in what the U.S. forces were trying to accomplish in Vietnam. "I still tried to remind myself that we were in Vietnam to save people who were threatened by tyranny [a government that denies people their basic rights]," she stated. "But that became more and more difficult to believe as I heard stories of corrupt South Vietnamese officials, U.S. Army atrocities [extremely cruel or brutal acts], and a [Vietnamese] population who wanted nothing more than to be left alone so they could return to farming their land."
A bitter homecoming
After completing her one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, Van Devanter returned to the United States. But her homecoming was not the happy occasion she had hoped for. As the Vietnam War dragged on, the American people became bitterly divided over U.S. involvement. Antiwar demonstrations took place across the country. Some people viewed Vietnam veterans, or anyone in a military uniform, as symbols of an increasingly unpopular war. Like many male veterans, Van Devanter found that many Americans seemed to treat her with disinterest or even hostility. In fact, her homecoming experience was even worse than those of some male veterans because few people seemed to realize that women had served in the Vietnam War. Even the U.S. government did not provide support programs for women veterans.
"When I returned to my country in June of 1970, I began to learn a very bitter lesson," Van Devanter noted in Home before Morning. "The values with which I had been raised had changed; in the eyes of most Americans, the military services had no more heroes, merely babykillers, misfits, and fools. I was certain that I was neither a babykiller nor a misfit. Maybe I was a fool. . . . I was as popular as a disease and as untouch able as a piece of [garbage]. . . . I almost wished I was back in 'Nam. At least there you expected people to hate you. That was a war. But here, in the United States, I guess I wanted everything to be wonderful."
Van Devanter's memories of Vietnam, combined with the lack of recognition and support she received upon returning home, took a heavy emotional toll on her. She felt angry and isolated from other people. For many years, she suffered from depression, nightmares, flashbacks, crying spells, and angry outbursts. Unable to put her memories of Vietnam behind her, she drank and smoked heavily, and she even considered suicide. She had trouble keeping a job as a nurse because being in hospitals reminded her of terrible things from the war. "For years I tried to talk about it," she noted. "Nobody listened. Who would have wanted to listen? Mine were not nice, neat stories. . . . The stories, even the funny ones, were all dirty. They were rotten and they stank."
For Van Devanter, the turning point came when she met Bobby Muller (see entry), a disabled veteran who founded Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). This organization was designed to help American veterans deal with their painful memories and physical wounds from the Vietnam War. "I began spending my days at the VVA headquarters in lower Manhattan, where I met dozens of other veterans—all men—who talked about the kinds of experiences that I had been having since my return from Vietnam," Van Devanter recalled. "Suddenly, I didn't feel so alone anymore. These people were telling me that I could be proud of my service. The organization was trying to instill pride into all Vietnam vets. We had answered our country's call. It wasn't our fault that we were called for the wrong war."
Helps other Vietnam veterans
Encouraged by the support she received from VVA, Van Devanter decided that she wanted to help other veterans—especially women veterans—who might be struggling with the same problems she had experienced. She began studying for a bachelor's degree in psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles in order to become a counselor for veterans.
During her studies, Van Devanter learned about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the medical name for a set of psychological problems that are caused by exposure to a dangerous or disturbing situation, such as combat. People who suffer from PTSD often have the symptoms that Van Devanter experienced, such as depression, flashbacks, and angry outbursts. "It sounded like I was reading my own psychological profile," she noted. "I began thinking that . . . there must be plenty of other women in similar circumstances. There could be thousands of women vets experiencing PTSD who thought they were alone. My job would be to reach them before it was too late."
In 1980 Van Devanter founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Women's Project. The idea behind this project was to bring recognition to female nurses and other women veterans and to provide them with support. Through the VVA Women's Project, Van Devanter began counseling women veterans and conducting seminars about PTSD. "Since November of 1980, the Vietnam Veterans of America Women's Project has been my entire life," she explained. "I've done hundreds of interviews, spoken to thousands of people, and lobbied hard in Congress to get recognition for women who served in Vietnam."
Perhaps Van Devanter's most effective tool in reaching women veterans was her memoir Home before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. She started writing the book in the late 1970s as a way to gain a better understanding and acceptance of her own experiences. When it was published in 1983, however, it also helped large numbers of women veterans feel less isolated and alone. "My story is only my own, but many other women and men shared similar experiences both during and after the war," Van Devanter wrote in the book. "I hope to let them know that they are not alone, and that they, too, can find the way back home." Critics praised Home Before Morning for providing a woman's perspective on the horrors of war.
"These days, in spite of my work with others who are in pain, I can say that I am no longer unhappy," Van Devanter stated. "I can see, little by little, that progress is being made. I am optimistic. Other women vets are beginning to learn that they are not alone. They are forming groups, getting counseling and, in some small measure, being recognized for the contributions they have made. When each new woman tells me she's made her peace with Vietnam, I know I've helped in some small way."
Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
Norman, Elizabeth M. Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Palmer, Laura. "The Nurses of Vietnam, Still Wounded: Only Now Are They Healing Themselves." New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1993.
Van Devanter, Lynda, with Christopher Morgan. Home before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. New York: Beaufort Books, 1983.
Van Devanter, Lynda, and Joan Furey, eds. Visions of War, Dreams of Peace: Writings of Women in the Vietnam War. New York: Warner Books, 1991.
Anticipation of Coming Home
Like most other American military personnel, Lynda Van Devanter eagerly anticipated her return to the United States. A short time before she went home, she sent the following form letter to her family. (Van Devanter did not write this letter; it was available to all U.S. personnel returning home.) It was intended to prepare them for some of the changes they might notice in her behavior, but in a light and funny way. However, it also shows some of the dangers and hardships she endured during her tour of duty in Vietnam.
The above-named individual is very shortly returning to the WORLD after spending one year in the combat zone of Vietnam. In order that you may be adequately prepared to communicate with the named individual, it is highly suggested you thoroughly read and digest the following:
Her language will be totally Armyoriented. Please smile appropriately when she utters such terms as latrine, hooch, flak jacket, boonies, grunt, DEROS [Date of Expected Return from Overseas], Victor Charlie, incoming, Medicap, roger that, and negative.
You must realize she has worn combat boots and fatigues for a year. Please gently remind her of correct ladylike manners. Please do not get hysterical if she continually throws her feet up on the furniture or on the walls.
The first few times she should ride in a vehicle, please remind her to close the car door. Jeeps do not have doors. Do not allow her to throw her feet up on the dashboard.
If she should ask you which unit you are with, or when your DEROS date is, make something up.
If she should turn the shower on and then let the water run for thirty minutes, don't yell about the water bill. She is merely waiting for the water to warm up. When she discovers hot water is a standard item in your house, don't be surprised if she insists everyone take a shower before the hot water system breaks down.
If she insists on putting blankets, flashlights, books, helmet, and flak jacket under her bed, please do not remove these items until she is thoroughly convinced incoming rockets and mortars are not likely in your neighborhood . . . .
Never, under any circumstances, mention the word HELICOPTER.
Please allow her to open the refrigerator at least twenty-six times a day. If she insists on standing in line for meals, gently guide her toward the table. Assure her she does not have to sign for meals . . . .
If you have any green objects in the house, remove them. Never wear any green clothes in her presence.
Never serve meals on a tray of any type. A plate will bring her total happiness . . . .
Do not allow her to go shopping alone. She is accustomed to the small PX [post exchange, or military store]. She may well buy six bottles of shampoo, twelve bars of soap, and four toothbrushes because you can never tell when the PX will be resupplied.
And NEVER make any loud, sudden noises unless you are prepared to pick her up off the floor.