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Remembering Vietnam has been difficult. Memories, mostly of individual patients, coworkers and situations flash through my mind. Thirty-three years later, it is impossible to distinguish how my young age, my new-graduate status, my first job, my military culture, Vietnam and a Christian response affected my experience. It was all rolled into one. That experience was a jump-start into nursing. Little wonder I experienced culture shock when I arrived home and entered civilian nursing.

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I joined the army as a fourth year nursing student, having always dreamed of being in the military. I had a romantic sense of women helping at war, fueled by a biography of Clara Barton and Cherry Ames stories. I wanted to travel, and the tuition money was helpful. As a new Christian, I thought being in another culture would give me a feel for whether I was called to be a missionary. However, when my letter of appointment arrived, I struggled with whether to actually sign, wondering if it was right for a Christian to go to war. This was thirty-five years ago, during the days of campus unrest and anti-war demonstrations. I finally decided, after praying with a friend, that I wouldn't be bearing arms or trying to kill someone, so I signed on.


Fear of the unknown was the biggest hurdle. Current military nurses face the same fear. For me this was tied up with being a new graduate, not certain that I knew much of anything.


We worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, leaving little free time. My commitment as a Christian to abstain from sexual involvement outside of marriage, from drugs and the abuse of alcohol protected me from many painful situations, but, at times, I felt isolated. The feelings were similar to what I would have experienced at home, but the options for social life in the military were limited and the situation was difficult. The social life revolved around parties at the Officers' Club. The military policy of "no fraternization of officers and enlisted personnel" disturbed me. How could this fit with the biblical injunctions to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ?


The nursing experience was amazing, broadening and intense. The patient population of healthy people who get sick or shot is quite different from the broader spectrum of civilian hospitals. In Vietnam we did not have to deal with patient families, so we were spared that emotional drain and challenge. Nurses substituted as the family at times, especially on night shift when patients couldn't sleep. They tended to talk more about the war in the darkness than during the day. There was an unwritten rule that the soldiers felt protective of nurses, even though they were the ones receiving care.


Years later, I'm deeply troubled that the United States is once again at war. My heart is heavy with a sense of how young most soldiers are. I vividly remember making rounds in Vietnam on night shift, wearing my regulation green army cotton sweater, placing blankets on the "boys" who needed extra warmth. I thought of it as a motherly task. I was twenty-two and older than most of my patients.


Currently, I serve as a visiting nurse near a Veterans Administration psychiatric center. I see some veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They have become my cardiac patients as they enter middle age. My view of war is slanted; I see the problem side, not those who survived intact, as I did.


In view of the war with Iraq, I consider how to support nurses currently serving in the military. Prayer is the biggest need. I pray for energy, wisdom, health and the Spirit's leading each day. When the nurses return home, I try to provide a listening ear. Intense experiences need to be exposed to the light, not stuffed away because no one will listen. War forever changes a person.


I still feel torn about whether Christians should enlist in the military. The Army Medical Corps' motto is "To Conserve the Fighting Strength." That doesn't seem a worthy Christian goal. But Christian nurses and chaplains serve in the military to offer compassion and caring in the midst of hate, anger and killing. It's a tough spot.