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

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

Sisterhood of War by Kim Heikkila


Kim Heikkila’s Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 232 pp., $19.95, paper) looks at fifteen women from the Land of 10,000 Lakes who served as nurses in the Vietnam War. She melds their stories into six chapters that look at the nurses’ relationship with the troops, their war-zone experiences, their homecomings, and their postwar adjustments to life back home.

“It is a story of venturesome women who chose to practice their traditionally feminine career in a decidedly masculine setting,” Heikkila says. The collective stories in the book rise “to heights of adventure,” fall to “depths of despair as they experienced the carnage of war,” ascend “again as they eagerly left the war zone and returned home, only to descend once more as they encountered public hostility, institutional indifference, and psychological stress in the aftermath of war.”

Heikkila, who teaches U.S. history, U.S. women’s history, the Vietnam War, and the 1960s at St. Catherine University, found that the women’s experiences in Vietnam “were both similar to and different from men’s.” Their stories, she says, “are not merely interesting additions to men’s stories of the war—though they are that. They are also part and parcel of the war story itself.”

The group of women includes Diane Carlson Evans, who went on to spearhead the effort that led to the creation of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Several other Minnesota women nurses, including Donna-Marie Boulay, also worked to build the memorial—which is the subject of the book’s final chapter.

—Marc Leepson