Sisterhood of War Minnesota Women in Vietnam

Published 7:31am Thursday, May 10, 2012

One may be surprised to learn that during the Vietnam era more than a quarter million women served in the U.S. armed forces. In 2009, of twenty-three thousand women veterans living in Minnesota, almost four thousand of them had served during the Vietnam era. This book shares the memories of fifteen Minnesota nurses who cared for casualties either in Vietnam, in nearby evacuation hospitals, or in stateside hospitals. Author, Kim Heikkila, did a masterful job of weaving the riveting memories of the nurses into the history of the time. The book presents a perspective of the Vietnam War that is not often considered. The nurses generously share similar experiences as one nurse says, “caring for our finest, finest young men.” And as another tells, “Our job was to heal rather than to kill.” This book allows you to follow the nurses as they are rapidly swept from safe civilian life into caring for the trauma and casualties of the Vietnam War.

Many of the fifteen Minnesota nurses returned to civilian life bearing scars that are still healing today. The book talks about how the Minnesota nurses banded together to help each other begin their healing process. Significant is that two of the nurses interviewed, Donna-Marie Boulay and Diane Carlson Evans, were the driving force behind the campaign to build the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C. The Memorial continues to be a source of healing for all women who served during the Vietnam era.

As a Navy Nurse who worked with Vietnam casualties first at a stateside hospital, then at one of the “combat zone” hospitals from 1965-1968, I strongly identified with the memories in this book. The two Navy nurses interviewed are dear friends of mine. Mary O’Brien Tyrrell and I were deployed together to US Naval Hospital-Guam and served during the fighting surrounding ‘TET 68.’ This was the time during the Vietnam War when the most casualties and the most deaths occurred. We both retain vivid memories of that time. Catherine “Kay” Bauer and I have worked together at various assignments as career Navy Nurses. These two nurses, and I think most all veterans who served during the Vietnam era, have become experts at compartmentalization. We tend to keep traumatic memories buried deep and rarely open the compartments holding the memories of this life-changing time. This book affords a peek at one of the rare times the compartments of these fifteen nurses were opened. This is a book that would be excellent for book clubs to read and discuss. We must never forget the lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam War.

Author Kim Heikkila is an adjunct instructor in the history department at St. Catherine University. She teaches courses on U.S. history, U.S. women’s history, the Vietnam War and the 1960s. I truly hope she expands her research in the experience of women veterans during the Vietnam War. There is so much more to tell.

Published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, “Sisterhood of War” has been nominated for two prestigious awards including one for Minnesota Book Awards, “Minnesota” category.


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