The Life and Times of a Survivor by Marie Sweeney Heath

The Life and Times of a Survivor: Before, During, and after Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 40 pp., $12.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is Marie Sweeney Heath’s self-described “brief autobiography” of her life before, during, and after she served in the Vietnam War. Short chapters describe how she survived nursing school, Army Basic Training, the war, and life after coming home.

The author’s father served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. After a few years as a firefighter in Boston, he rejoined the army at the start of the Korean War. This time he would stay in for twenty-eight 28 years.

After graduating from high school Marie Sweeney entered nursing school, then went into the Army Student Nurse Program. Following Basic Training, she worked for a short while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before receiving orders for Vietnam. She told her family she wanted “to go where I can do the most good for my country and where I can provide medical care for those who need it.”

She landed in Saigon in early 1966. Being assigned to a base camp in Qui Nhon she volunteered to serve for six weeks in a small tent hospital in An Khe. Getting back to Qui Nhon she ended up marrying Bob Sweeney, an Army officer stationed there. For their honeymoon the couple went to Okinawa for a week.

During the war Marie Sweeney found it helpful to use “inappropriate humor” as a way of dealing with the daily stress. She says you couldn’t survive if you couldn’t laugh. It’s a technique she continues to use today.

Part of her time was spent helping treat Vietnamese patients in a leprosarium. Returning to the United States, she worked in obstetrics while stationed with her husband at Fort Ord. The couple resigned their commissions in September 1967, moving to Wisconsin then to Missouri and Virginia.

Her on-going story of survival has her dealing with the loss of a son and the death of her husband. She would be widowed for more than twenty-five years before remarrying in 2017.

Marie Sweeney Heath’s personality comes through in reading her book. Clearly she would be fun to talk to and you feel she has a lot more stories she could tell.

Having served as a nurse in Vietnam puts her in a group that every Vietnam veteran I’ve known places at the top of the list of people they love, honor, and respect the most.

Two dozen photos are crammed into this brief book.

–Bill McCloud

2D Surgical Hospital by Lorna Griess

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Lorna Griess served as a military nurse for thirty years, two in the Navy and the remainder in the Army. She retired as a colonel in 1990.

Her memoir—2D Surgical Hospital: An Khe to Chu Lai South Vietnam (Xlibris, 108 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle)—covers 1966-67 when she was twenty-eight years old and primarily tended to wounded soldiers in recovery rooms and intensive care units, working twelve hours a day, six days a week.

“In RR/ICU, every patient was acute, needing instant and constant care,” Greiss writes.

Greiss’s recollection of the time focuses on her duties and surroundings. She does not describe in detail the individual Americans the treated. She talks of a “push,” or mass casualty, and other medical events in general terms. For example:

“Gunshot wounds were always surprises. They took eclectic paths through the body, sometimes diverted by bones and sometimes clean. Medical people had to turn the patient over to find the full damage. Some of the slower rounds made little entry holes but large exit wounds. Chest and abdominal wounds from gunshot or blast injuries sometimes took hours to find and fix all the damage.”

Greiss does describe the impact that her duties had on her psyche. “If I dwell on it now, some of the sights, sounds, and smells are still very real,” she writes. “They were perceived at the height of emotion and are etched forever in my mind. Tears are filling my eyes and cascading down my cheeks as I write this. That was forty-eight years ago, and it is as fresh as yesterday in my mind.”

The book contains thirty-two full-page photographs Griess took. Mainly they show buildings from the locales where she lived, worked, and traveled.

Based on Griess’ closing comments, I believe she wrote 2D Surgical Hospital to help relieve her own war-related emotional problems. She proudly served her nation and paid a price. She has lung cancer attributed to exposure to Agent Orange and mentions PTSD as follows:

Lorna Greiss

Lorna Griess

“Those of us who made the Army a career had peer support and did much better than those who got out and went back home looking for the same world they left. Many are still seeking treatment today.”

Griess continues to work on behalf of veterans from the Vietnam War as well as returnees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The author’s website is 2dsurgicalhospital.com

—Henry Zeybel

Always the Children by Anne Watts

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

—Marc Leepson