Jeanne Diebolt's Keynote Address at the Women's Memorial


Some asked me to share my keynote address for the Women's Memorial when it was in Austin, Texas, 1 Sep 93 (excerpts of which were shown on video before the dedication of the Women's Memorial in 1993 on the big display screen. It was shown to a crowd of forty so-they-said thousand, so "they" said). Anyway, here it is.

"First of all, I would like to mention that even though the Army, Navy, and Air Force nurses who served in Vietnam seem to be getting the attention, there were other groups of young women who left a piece of their hearts over there, too. Among them most notably were the Red Cross volunteers, better known as Donut Dollies or over the airways, affectionately, the Delta Deltas.

"For those of you who have never been there, Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. From the air, you looked down on jade and malachite jungles, white sugar beaches, and inlets and bays of aquamarine blending into a turquoise and emerald sea. Its pristine beauty makes the Caribbean seem tacky. But down below, the grim reality of incoming rockets made me realize it was too late to get back on the plane and go home, and the Caribbean was half a world away.

"Anyway, I was a volunteer--as most of us were--and had orders assigning me to the hospital of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing at Cam Ranh Bay. Now, the vast majority of nurses in Nam were one-year--or less--out of nursing school. Remember, this was back in the days when nurses were essentially doctors' handmaidens. We were the most inexperienced group of medical personnel ever to serve in war time. And I was scared--not that I'd be wounded or killed--but that I wouldn't measure up, that I'd panic and freeze when a soldier's life depended on me.

"But when the waves of casualties came, there just wasn't time for self pity. We were too busy fighting to keep them alive, and they looked so young--just about the same age as the seniors in the Westlake High School Band here today.

"We didn't have 911, but we invented STAR Flight and called it Dustoff--ambulance helicopters with medics on board that picked up a kid and had him in an operating room in less than an hour from the time he was wounded.

"For those of you who might have had a son or loved one wounded over there, he had the finest medical teams in the world taking care of him (or her)--doctors without egos and dedicated nurses--who fought heroically to keep each kid alive and then collapsed with exhaustion to fight again the next day--or even later that night--and do it all over again.

"I learned real fast what war was all about. It wasn't patriotism and glory. It was about killing and maiming. Sometimes I felt the grotesquely mutilated kids who died were the lucky ones and then I'd be overwhelmed with guilt for thinking that.

"I mentioned that I was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay which the military considered one of the most secure bases in Nam. We were still apprehensive, but the pilots stationed there told us not to worry, that Charlie was a rotten shot. And, for awhile, he was--his rockets landed all over the place but never seemed to hit anything--until he changed tactics and did what Communists do best--fought dirty.

"One night, soon after I arrived, Viet Cong commandos, armed with AK-47s (assault rifles) and satchel charges (homemade bombs that explode into flames on detonation), blew up the Army hospital a mile away and gunned down patients as they tried to escape the burning inferno.

"Over at the Air Force hospital, we heard the choppers thundering through the sky and over the hospital Quonsets. They were so loaded down with wounded that, as they landed, sparks flew from their skids. I remember the crews screaming at us to get the casualties off faster so they could fly back to get more.

"It was the middle of the night, and the floodlights made the chopper landing area look like that awful scene in GONE WITH THE WIND--burned and bleeding kids on stretchers everywhere. Some cried out for their moms.

"Crisp black skin hung from burned bodies; and like charred meat on a barbecue pit, it just peeled off. The air stunk of blood, burned hair, and melted flesh.

"So, what was it like to be a nurse over there? Well first, there were the warriors, the handsome fighter pilots--traditional guys with traditional values--who helped to keep us sane with their compelling strength of character and fierce patriotism--and their friendship.

"But most of all, I remember the doctor who handed me a piece of paper with his signature on it and told me to be able to duplicate it the next day. When I balked, he talked to me about teamwork and trusting your teammates. And he also reassured me, guiding me through his protocols, that he wouldn't let me put either a patient or myself in jeopardy.

"There was my head nurse who taught me how to take care of my enlisted troops and solve our unit problems on the unit. She protected us from high ranking nurses who seemed to thrive on eating one and two stripers AND lieutenants for breakfast.

"Knowing that the TVs and newspapers were giving so much aid and comfort to the Communists by fanning the flames of protest at home, we knew the only people we could count on to stand by us, besides our parents, were those who shared our heartaches.

"There was Little Dot, whose bandage scissors are in the casting of this Memorial, who'd go back to the ward after working for twelve and sixteen hours just to be a big sis to a lonely and scared guy who was going home without his legs. Janie, who'd go back after duty to give back rubs and write letters for the guys too badly wounded to write their own.

"There was Big Dot who talked a battle-fatigued sergeant into giving up the M-16 and grenade launcher he had aimed at her, and then put her arms around him as he broke down and cried over the ninth kid he'd lost that week. And there was Duffy, whose dog tags are melted into this memorial, who held the hand of a pimple-faced teenager so he wouldn't die alone.

"Fueled by our own basic need to believe we weren't going crazy in a world that made very little sense, our concern for each other took on an intensity that can only be supported by the high drama of war--a world where there might not be a tomorrow--and where the future didn't exist.

"What was it like to be a woman in Vietnam? We saw the worst that man could do to man, and we saw the very best of the human heart."

Jean Youngstrom Diebolt, MSN, RN.............Lieutenant, USAF, NC
Family Nurse Practitioner Student..............Cam Ranh Bay AB, Vietnam
The University of Texas..................................June 1969-1970

Copyright © 1993 Jean Diebolt, all rights reserved