(Reviewed by Caroline A. LeBlanc, Army wife & mother, former Army Nurse, and retired psychotherapist who has worked with military service members and families for over twenty years.)
Anyone who follows the topic knows that, even today, women veterans often are not recognized as veterans, nor do they always appreciate their own veteran status. Many men as well as women who served in Vietnam also went to great lengths to forget their veteran status. Some were successful in this repression of combat trauma and their mixed feelings about their service, until our present generation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan triggered their old “stuff.” Another reason Vietnam veterans forgot or hid their war service was to avoid verbal and social abuse by very hostile anti-war activists—from hippies to college professors. The atmosphere was much different from the “Thank our troops” encouraged today.
Imagine what it was like during the Vietnam War some forty-plus years ago. Most male troops were draftees in the Army or men who enlisted in other services rather than be drafted. They were all but guaranteed at least a 1 year tour in the jungles of Vietnam. Women service members, whose numbers were significantly fewer than today, were all volunteers in the armed forces, if not Vietnam. Most, but not all, of the women who served in country were Army or Air Force Nurses.
Her Own Vietnam is the youth to middle age story of Della, a woman from a single parent, working class family, whose only chance at nursing school was to sign up for Army sponsorship. Not surprisingly, she naively—and mistakenly—trusted the recruiter’s promise that she would not be sent to Vietnam unless she volunteered. The main story line meanders between a young Della in her early 20s, her service as a combat trauma nurse in Vietnam in 1969-70, including to her return stateside, and an early 21st century Della in her 50s, juggling the roles of daughter, sister, divorced mother, nurse on an Oncology ward, and a veteran with re-awakened PTSD.
Through Della’s story, Kanter, whose research for the book included interviews with Vietnam combat nurses, paints a compelling and largely accurate picture of nurses, nursing in general, and military nursing, including combat trauma nursing. The book’s second thread is Della’s post combat life, traced from the time of her return from Vietnam to the time when a letter from Charlene, a nurse with whom she served in Vietnam, triggers Della’s flashbacks for the first time in years. The story of their friendship—the salvation it offered in Vietnam, how it was fractured at the time of Charlene’s premature return to “the world” for her KIA brother’s funeral, and how it picks up, almost 4 decades later, where it left off—is the third major thread in the book. Charlene’s story as an African American nurse, though less detailed, takes the reader from the realities of the racial climate of the 1960s to her, contrary to racial stereotypes, affluent modern lifestyle, subtly contrasted with Della’s comfortable but much less prosperous circumstances.
Scenes located in Vietnam contain graphic images of wounded soldiers, and what was required of the nurses who cared for them. On first reading, these passages sounded a bit pedantic to me. I wondered if it was because Kanter, who is not a nurse, was trying to describe realities she knew only second-hand. On second reading I found these sections down right captivating. I came up with two hypotheses about my different responses. First, a number of images are so graphic that they are numbing enough to paralyze. Second, as viewers and readers, we are used to encountering similar graphic images in the context of male combat tales where the adrenaline kicks us past our numbness into a hope that something or someone will save the day. Usually new action moves us through the numbing terror. We don’t spend a lot of time with the dead or dying. Perhaps we even grasp at the time honored glory of war.
No such promise or hope survives in Della and Charlene’s combat hospital. The wounded just keep arriving, in waves as endless as the ocean’s. By the time injured bodies and souls arrive at the field hospital, the futility of hope is apparent. The damage is done. The price of warfare is all too obvious. The fighters’ adrenaline has subsided. Many of those not too badly injured despair about their return to battle. Those too badly injured for return to duty, face death, long recoveries, and/or a life of debilitating injuries. The adrenaline drains out of them with their blood, their lost limbs, and their paralyzed bodies. Doctors, nurses and corpsmen pump enough adrenaline for their battle to save lives, but it is not adrenaline that energizes a reader the same way the flash of bullets, the suspense of capture, escape, or victory does. With these realizations, things clicked for me. Kanter has captured not only the facts combat trauma nurses had shared with her, she has also captured their weight in the bodies and souls of these women (for then they were primarily women) at the time and throughout the rest of their lives. And, as reader, it weighed me down as well.
In mirror fashion, Kanter’s story of two Vietnam War nurses elucidates and comments on the experience of many modern day combat veterans and combat health care veterans. Veterans’ ambivalence about, and often refusal to, talk about their traumatic experiences. Their self-medication with alcohol or other mind altering drugs. The self-destructive spiral many never escape and the residue that the veteran lives with even if s/he does break free. The families’ ambivalent, awkward, even insensitive and intolerant response to their veteran member who has returned home dramatically changed by war. The inhumanity of war—necessary or not—which much of society prefers to deny. The invisibility of women veterans, and way the system, as well as many male veterans, disregard the service and needs of women veterans.
Neither does Kanter shy from sexuality issues: the sexual harassment of women in the military or the consensual sexual relationships in combat areas—the latter, a concern for many military spouses waiting while a husband or a wife are in lonely, high-stress, high-contact deployment situations. Della and Charlene might have been angels of mercy, but their time in hell tarnishes each of them in various ways. Hit and miss references to their harassment by service men, officers and enlisted, begin on the plane to Vietnam and continue through in country scenes. Kanter gives more in-depth treatment to the reality that deployed troops often assuage fear and loneliness in ways that betray loved ones at home, generate guilt, and affect existing or future relationships. Interestingly, during their 21st century reunion neither Charlene nor Della can remember the name of the helicopter pilot who was a young Della’s first lover. Both she and he were surrounded by carnage and death and the constant possibility of their own deaths. This vignette nods at the fact that in deployment situations, service members, male and female, may share the most intense life, death, and sexual experiences without ever learning much more about each other than an “operational” nick-name. In my ideal world, military wives and women service members would feel a sisterhood, but, as portrayed so well in Her Own Vietnam, the lines of a song of the era are often more apt: “when you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Reality often undermines my hope for womanly solidarity.
In fact, men are conspicuously peripheral in the lives of these self-sufficient women. Della’s father abandons his young family leaving his sister and her mother, who wait tables, to raise Della and her sister. Della’s adult sister is in a stable and loving lesbian relationship. Della’s ex-husband is helpful, kind, and fair but “ex,” and in his single appearance, he claims she never really let him in. Plus, he falls apart in emergencies. She does not know the real name of her lover in Vietnam or the many one-night stands during her post Vietnam years lost to alcohol. Even Charlene’s husband is off at a medical conference when Della visits. This lack of a significant manly presence could fill another review.
Spell binding as Kantor’s book is, several things tripped me up. There are small medical inaccuracies which, I’m sure, would bother no one but a nurse. Some of the dialogue between the women is a bit too snappy and witty, perhaps to lighten the content of the intense exchanges. While everyone is witty at times, routine snappy repartee begins to sound scripted. Lastly, some of the health care back story has a didactic flavor. Unfortunately, one of the places where this happens is in the last few pages of the book when, after a serious car accident, Della’s daughter receives what Americans now consider routine trauma care. The somewhat redemptive fact is that many improvements in trauma care over the centuries have grown out of methods developed to care for the catastrophic injuries incurred on battlefields. Vietnam established a new benchmark in this regard. In Her Own Vietnam, Della sits with her daughter and muses over the fact that, because of what was learned during the war, such things as plastic IV bag have replaced the archaic glass IV bottles used at the beginning of the Vietnam war. The musings felt stale after the vibrancy of a story that had kept me turning pages. I wish Kanter could have found a more engaging way to end this powerful and important story.
However, none of these limitations significantly tarnish Kanter’s imaginative and lively writing, and the way she evokes compassion rather than judgment for her characters. Her Own Vietnam will captivate you, and bring you to tears. It will also give you a deeper understanding of what military nurses endure both when they care for injured service members and over the course of their lives, as well as some of the things family members who love them go through. I believe you, like me, will not want to put the book down.
Kanter, Lynn. Her Own Vietnam. Shade Mountain Press, Albany, NY, 2014.
About the Author
Lynn Kanter is the author of two previous novels, The Mayor of Heaven and On Lill Street. Her short stories and essays have been published in a number of journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife, and works as a writer for a national social justice organization called the Center for Community Change. Her web site lists her hobbies, rather charmingly, as “reading, raging against injustice and being sarcastic.”
About the Reviewer
Caroline LeBlanc, MFA, MS, RN is a former Army Nurse, an Army wife & mother, and retired psychotherapist. As the Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family since 2012, she wrote the script for the museum’s Summer 2014 exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories. In 2014 she directed & performed in 4 Voices on the 4th, a collaborative spoken word performance with three other women military family members.
Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.
Read Lyn Kanter’s blog
More from Caroline LeBlanc in the Military Spouse Book Review:
“Still, the Sky Clears: Two Poetry Collections”
“Many Forms of Service: An Interview with Caroline LeBlanc”