There have been a good number of memoirs written by women who served as nurses in the Vietnam War. I can’t think of one, though, by a British woman. And that’s what we have in Always the Children: A Nurse’s Story of Home and War (Simon & Schuster UK, 386 pp.), a well-written autobiography by Anne Watts. In the course of telling her event-filled life story, Watts includes long sections on her time as a volunteer civilian nurse for Save the Children in Qui Nhon in 1967-68 and Kontum in 1969-70, and in Thailand in 1979 working with Cambodian refugees. She also relates details of return trips she made to Vietnam in 1990 and 2004.
Watts worked primarily with children in Vietnam, but also volunteered at the U.S. Army’s 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon. In doing so, she had a unique—and not often pleasant—close-up look at many kinds of causalities of war.
After four months in Vietnam on her first tour, Watts writes, she was “coming to terms with the horror of illness, injury and death on a scale that would have been unimaginable to me in what now felt like another life. I had learned to live with the constant uncertainty and chaos that the war brought to our doorstep; to cope with teeming refugees, fear, danger, poverty—a deadly cocktail laced with the oppressive, sapping heat of this place.”
On the other hand, she says, “there were huge rewards in knowing that one’s skills and compassion and love were making a difference to children whose lives had been decimated.”
Nearly a decade later, Watts again came face to face with the worst that war has to offer in the Cambodian Sa Kaeo Refugee Centre in Thailand. The “sight that met me on my first day of work in early October 1979,” she writes, “stunned me almost into paralysis. As I stood there in my loose-fitting white cotton uniform, Manchester Royal Infirmary penny pinned carefully to my chest, it took quite some moments and an effort of will to gather my wits and attempt to process what I was looking at.”
All she saw, Watts, says, “was a mass of blackness on the ground” that turned out to be thousands of people. “They lay there, on the ground, clad in ragged, black pajama-like outfits. Occasionally an arm was slowly raised in silent supplication, only to fall back weakly. What struck me then, and stays with me now, was the silence. There was no sound of talk or laughter; no babies cried, no one coughed or wept. And the stench was overpowering.”
The author’s web site is www.annewatts.co.uk