Nurses Onscreen

Binge-Watching “China Beach”

What I learned from the highly acclaimed TV series about Army nurses in Vietnam

Colleen McMurphy stands in green Army uniform next to a DVD copy of China Beach

“China Beach” is a network television drama that ran on ABC for four seasons, l988–1991, decades after the Vietnam War during which the show is set.

The series told the story of fictional characters at the real China Beach, an Army base near Da Nang, Vietnam, for soldiers on R&R (rest and recuperation).

It had a beautiful beach (actually called My Khe — China Beach was an American nickname), a lifeguard, visiting entertainment and an Army recuperation hospital where the injured were stabilized and if possible returned to action.

Not Just a Soap Opera

The only TV series to focus on military nurses in Vietnam, “China Beach” wasn’t just a medical drama like “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The setting allowed for a diverse array of other characters, including USO entertainers, a morgue attendant and a cynical businesswoman/sex worker (played by Marg Helgenberger) as well as nurses and surgeons and the Air Force pilot (played by Tim Ryan) who becomes the heroine’s principal love interest.

Dana Delany starred as Colleen McMurphy, a young nurse from the Midwest. Trained at a Catholic nursing school, she had lived in a commune before joining the Army in search of some destiny other than becoming a housewife or a nun.

We quickly learn that McMurphy is a complicated character in a position of life-or-death situations that no civilian training could have prepared her for. Surrounded by young men who may never have been away from home before, she keeps her emotions inside while numbing them more and more with alcohol.

At times, this appears to be her attempt to just be “one of the guys,” but she often drinks alone, and her alcohol use becomes more of a problem as the series progresses.

Soundtrack of the War

McMurphy and her colleagues endure the heat, the lack of supplies and the poor infection control conditions with little emotional support. Grueling 12-hour shifts day after day are punctuated by enemy assaults. In one memorable scene, McMurphy sobs in the shower when she can’t get her sweat- and blood-soaked scrub top off because it’s stuck to her body.

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One reviewer called “China Beach” the war with a soundtrack, since the show incorporates more than 300 popular songs, including “Reflections” by The Supremes, which plays as a theme song over the opening and closing credits.

Over the course of its four seasons, “China Beach” won critical acclaim and a host of awards, including Golden Globe, Peabody, Emmy, Writer’s Guild and People’s Choice Awards, to name a few.

The show tackled many topics that are just as important today as they were 30 or 50 years ago, including racism, drug and alcohol use, organizational incompetence, stereotypical gender roles and sexuality. It also highlighted some of the problems facing real Army nurses of the war, occasionally interposing documentary footage or clips of interviews with women who served in Vietnam.

Emotional Triage

What about 1st Lt. (later Capt.) Colleen McMurphy? We don’t learn a lot about her nursing skills, but we see enough to imagine what life was like for nurses in Vietnam.  We see her constantly directing triage, sending medics here and there, examining injured patients on gurneys and deciding when surgery won’t be able to help.

Scenes often show her doing things like adjusting an IV, reading a paper chart or wielding forceps to remove shrapnel. McMurphy offers a world of support to everyone around her, which gradually takes a toll on her.

When new nurses arrive, she is the one readying them to see traumatic battlefield injuries, reminding them that “boys will be boys” and teaching them that the sound of a helicopter over the outdoor showers means it’s probably time to grab a towel. When she reaches out for support herself, it’s often to colleagues who are then lost or transferred.

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The writers don’t tackle the character’s PTSD after discharge, largely because the show was not renewed for a fifth season, but we witness McMurphy attending a wedding years later and can see that she still has difficulty with new relationships. This is a far different McMurphy than the weary but optimistic nurse we first met in the pilot.

Telling Their Stories

In later interviews, Delany said that before filming started, the entire cast met with real vets, some of whom worked on the show as technical advisers. She was so overwhelmed by the tales they told that she made it her mission to tell their story correctly.

Delany received a letter from one vet who told her that when her character entered rehab, it gave him the courage to do so as well. He even sent her his Purple Heart, which she said she treasured more than any other award she has received.

Not all veterans were happy with the series, which some former Army nurses criticized for its emphasis on sex and romance, but “China Beach” brought important recognition for nurses who served in Vietnam. (The show debuted a few months after Congress authorized the construction of a Vietnam women’s memorial, which was completed in 1993.)

My Road Not Taken

For me, watching “China Beach” allowed me to understand better what my life might have been had I chosen ROTC as a way to attend nursing school.

In 1971, I was repeatedly contacted by Navy recruiters, who offered me a full scholarship and room-and-board money at the nursing school of my choice in return for four years of service in what would likely have been the South China Sea.

When my dad, a disabled World War 2 veteran, learned of their offer, he told me that he would find the money to match it. Now, I know what that really meant for both of us.

Although the difficulty and cost of clearing all the songs on the soundtrack kept “China Beach” from being released on home video until 2013, all 62 episodes are now available on DVD, both in season-by-season sets and in a giant 21-disc box set with many extras.

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, writes the Nursing Book Club column. She is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

To learn more about nursing in Vietnam, please see “In Country: U.S. Nurses During the Vietnam War.”

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