In Country: U.S. Nurses During the Vietnam War
Young recruits were promised romance and adventure. Here are their stories.
The nurses who served in the Vietnam War are among the least recognized of American military veterans. Many films and TV programs about U.S. involvement in Vietnam do not depict a single American nurse.
In fact, more than 6,000 U.S. nurses — the large majority of them women — served in Vietnam during the war. Some didn’t make it home alive, and many others were changed forever.
Recruiting Nurses: Operation Nightingale
Although some American forces were stationed in Vietnam in the ‘50s, U.S. involvement in the region escalated dramatically in the 1960s. Between 1963 and 1969, the total number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam grew from 16,000 to around 550,000, although until 1965, American troops were still officially considered advisers to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
As early as 1962, the buildup in Vietnam highlighted the urgent need for more military nurses. The civilian healthcare sector was struggling with nationwide nursing shortages, and both the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and Navy Nurse Corps had shrunk to a fraction of their World War 2 strength.
Facing a shortfall of more than 2,000 nurses, the Army launched an ambitious recruitment campaign called Operation Nightingale. Recruiters targeted high schools, colleges and career fairs; ran newspaper articles; aired radio and television commercials; and assigned existing Army nurses to work as recruitment counselors.
The Lure of Romance
The nurse recruitment ads of this era were a world away from the images of chaos and brutality that would soon fill Americans’ evening news broadcasts, instead focusing on the opportunity, adventure and romance that supposedly awaited nurses in the U.S. Army.
During World War 2, military regulations had expressly forbidden nurses to marry while in service. Now, Army recruiting ads actually emphasized dating and romance.
One 1964 ad showed an attractive, well-scrubbed nurse at work and out on the town, emphasizing that “modern nursing’s most stimulating jobs” also included “the fine social life that is part of being an Army officer.”
Another Army brochure actually declared, “Don’t be surprised if a diamond crops up on your left hand!”
As the war escalated, some ads appealed to nurses’ patriotism, but glamour and empowerment remained central recruiting messages. “Today’s Army Nurse can do more,” proclaimed a 1969 ad. “Heading up her own staff. Making her own decisions. Specializing in the field of her choice.”
Average Age: 23
Most Vietnam-era military nurses were in the Army, with smaller numbers serving in the Navy Nurse Corps and a handful in the Air Force. The average age was 23, but some nurses were as young as 20 and a few were in their 40s. Many nurses were recruited directly out of nursing school. Only 35 percent had two or more years of nursing experience when they were commissioned.
While nurse recruitment efforts were often aimed at women, about 20 percent of the military nurses who served in Vietnam were men. The Army Nurse Corps had accepted men since 1955, while the Navy Nurse Corps commissioned its first male nurses in 1965.
A few male nurses who served in Vietnam were draftees, part of a mostly unsuccessful effort to fill ongoing shortages. Although there were proposals to draft female nurses, they were never implemented.
“I Wanted to See More of the World”
Nurses’ motivations for joining the military were as diverse as the nurses themselves. Some joined to satisfy a sense of adventure.
“I didn’t join for a noble cause or thinking I could change the world, I just wanted to see some of the world, like Germany, Japan or England,” says former 1st Lt. Louise “Lou” Eisenbrand, RN, who was an ER nurse at the Army’s 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai in 1969–70.
As today, some nurses joined for financial reasons.
“They had something called the Army Student Nurse Program, through which you could have your last year or two paid for,” explains Phyllis Breen Cogan, who was stationed at Chu Lai’s 27th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital from 1969 to 1970.
“Six months before I graduated, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps, and they paid for my last year of school. It was wonderful.” Cogan eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Some nurses were driven by a desire to help, even if they disapproved of the war. “I thought, ‘I have got to go over there and try to stop this war and stop the hurting,’” says Marj Graves, RN, who was stationed at the Army’s 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh in 1971–72 and rose to the rank of captain.
“Why I ever thought that I would be able to have any impact on the war that way was … way out in left field. But, I knew I could make a difference nursing-wise, and so I volunteered to go.”