Wartorn Heart by Kathleen Trew Swazuk

Kathleen Trew Swazuk was an Army nurse at the 93rd EVAC Hospital in Long Binh during her 1969-70 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Her “scars have taken years to heal,” she writes in Wartorn Heart: Poems and Art Inspired by the Vietnam War (Blurb, 48 pp., $41.49)

This large, thin, and beautiful book contains very short poems bolstered by art work by many different artists. The poems and the art resonate with, and support, each other. And they resonate with the reader.

The poem that spoke loudest to me is  “Agent Orange.” It’s almost as if the poem was written for me, or by me.

Agent Orange

Sprayed orange in a yellow war.

Breathing in and out the pixie dust that coats the air…

Seeping into body trying to destroy the soul.

 

I am old now.  The body is racked with pain

bones soft and bones broken.

Lungs no longer willing to expand

and let in the reborn air of spring.

Inert too long, I must climb out of this

bunker I have built,

to isolate my wornout

body to try and heal my war torn soul.

 

There will be no choppers to rescue me.

Escape must be on my own.

I wave the white flag of surrender

so that I can move into the light.

I walk toward the sunrise

and brightness of a new day.

 

A new beginning…A new landing zone

where the dust is no longer orange.

 

The book contains many photographs of the people and the work done at 93rd Evac during the author’s time there. The horror and pain of the butcher’s bill of war are well communicated in this book. It takes a place of honor in the literature of nursing in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Her Own Vietnam by Lynn Kanter

Lynn Kanter, the author of Her Own Vietnam (Shade Mountain Press, 211 pp, $18.95, paper), works as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a social justice organization, and has written two previous novels.

The main character in Her Own Vietnam, Della Brown, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969 as a nurse. Something bad happened to her there, something so traumatizing that decades later it still haunts her. She gets a letter from her best friend in Vietnam, Charlene Johnson, and is overcome with fear. This all happens in the first chapter.

Chapter 2 flashes back to an August morning in 1965 in the 12th Evac Hospital in Cu Chi. Soldiers are screaming in pain and delirium. Della Brown had been in country for three months.

She was sent to Vietnam in May 1969 on a commercial airliner, a fact that seems to nonplus her. When she steps off the plane in Vietnam, the heat, she says, “just flattened you.”  Later we are told that “Della had offered herself to the war and it had burned her to the bone.”

This is the kind of carefully written, detailed book that informs us that when Della sits down, the cushion she sits on “was worn to a velvety stubble like the miraculous new hair that emerges after chemo.” This fine novel of nursing in the Vietnam War covers virtually all the bases: We get mentions of  R&R in Hong Kong, the Freedom Bird, cheap charlies, Robert McNamara, million-dollar wounds, Agent Orange, China Beach, the Vietnam Wall, defoliation, shit burning,  Donut Dollies, being short, “back in the World,” FNG, and on and on.

Lynn Kanter

Early on, Della mentions that she never wanted to be in the Army.  “I just wanted an education,” she says. When she returns home and tries to tell her loved ones about her war, she sees horror, distaste, and fear on their faces. Many of us know what she is talking about.

Della’s husband is not a bad guy, but he has limitations. He’s a Vietnam veteran who had stacked boxes in a PX in Long Binh during his tour. But when he discusses PTSD with Della, he says, “You can’t have PTSD.  You saw no combat.”

She gets asked why she can’t leave the war in the past. Good question—and one I can’t answer.

To me, all Vietnam veteran nurses are heroes. To read about how they were treated when they returned to America breaks my heart. Frequently this is a painful book to ready. Because it is written back and forth in time, Della’s past as a nurse in Vietnam is intertwined with her present in America. The memories overlap and inform her present-day life.

This novel is one of the best books about nurses in Vietnam. I rank it up there with Anne O’Connell’s In Love and Honor: A Novel of a Navy Nurse and Lynda Van Devanter’s acclaimed memoir, Home Before Morning.

—David Willson