The Forgotten Veterans

They Treated Hundreds Of Wounded A Day. . .

Twenty-four years ago, the longest, most divisive war in U.S. history finally came to an end. A decade ago, 60 Minutes' Morley Safer focused on some forgotten veterans of the Vietnam War. At that point, most Americans were oblivious to the fact that 10,000 women, mostly nurses, served in Vietnam.

In 1988, some of those women were struggling to get a monument, a memorial of their own. There was great resistance. One Washington official even suggested that giving the women a statue would mean having to give the K-9 Corps a statue, too. Women veterans felt neglected and insulted. But that was nothing compared to the cold, even hostile America they found when they came home after the war. A few years later, they got their statue.

60 Minutes II went back to find out what had happened to these women over the past ten years.

Interested in finding out more about the Vietnam War's women veterans, or about the men? We've compiled a list of Web sites and organizations where you can get started.
Diane Evans, who was 21 when she was stationed at the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku, was one of the women Morley Safer met ten years ago. "I remember coming home from Vietnam in August of '69," Evans said then, "and my dad took me, he said, 'Let's get in the truck and go to town. I want to take you to the feed store.' So we went to the feed store. And the lady is adding up, you know, the feed that he's bought. And my dad says to her -- who's a lifelong friend -- 'Diane just got home from Vietnam.' And she wouldn't look at me. She would not look at me. And she wouldn't say anything. And my dad is feeling very embarrassed, and I want to crawl into a hole and disappear. We get in the truck and we drive home, and I said, 'Dad, don't ever tell anybody I was in Vietnam. Just don't talk about it.'
Jackie Rhoads

For Jackie Rhoads of the 18th surgical Hospital at Kong Trw, the homecoming reception was also harsh: "When we landed, we were told -- we were given a briefing and told not to go out in our uniforms, not to be seen in the streets. And I remember how confused I was at that time, because I thought. 'Well, God, we've done good. We've saved a lot of lives. I know we've saved a lot of lives. We're somebody important.'"

They did save a lot of lives. And it was not easy. On days when there were mass casualties, these nurses, many of them just out of nursing school, had to practice triage. "We just looked at the wounds to decide who was salvageable ad who wasn't," says Rhoads.

Every day they saw a stream of mutilated and dying men, many of them teenagers. In the face of this horror, these young women tried to remain above it all, tried to remain true to the mythology of their profession: cool, detached angels of mercy, always giving aid and comfort, never needing it.

"When I first started seeing things," Evans says, "I reacted, and I was sick. I was ill. I would go back to my hooch and I would cry. After about a month I think our defenses built up and if we were going to save lives and if were going to be any good to ourselves and our patients, we couldn't react emotionally. So we kept our feelings inside. I didn't cry after that."

When Patty Langford arrived in Vietnam, she was a 21-year-old bride. In California she had met and married a young infantry lieutenant named Russell Reinel. When she was shipped out, he volunteered. He followed her to Vietnam. They were stationed together in Likay.

Patty Langford
One day, the chaplain came to talk to her. "The fifth of November, '69. I had a break--I don't know if it was a day off or it was slow or what, and I had gone to -- we had a little PX in the perimeter. And the chaplain came and got me at the PX and said, 'We have something to tell you.' So, I mean, when the chaplain comes to talk to you, it's usually not good news. And that was my big fear the whole time, something's going to happen to him. They told me that -- they told me he had stepped on a land mine. What they told me was that his head was blown off. I mean, I don't know, they wouldn't let me see the body. And I mean, I always -- I always wished I had, but I'm probably glad that I didn't." Patty Langford Reinel came home a 21-year-old widow.

Because nurses were not officially in combat, few people believed they could suffer the aftereffects of war, like nightmares and flashbacks. Jackie Rhoads was one of these skeptics: "I remember thinking, 'Oh, I don't think they really exist.'"

But in 1984, while on a training exercise in Texas, flying in a helicopter for the first time since she'd been in Vietnam, she had her own flashback. "It was a slide show that you couldn't control, pictures and memories that came rushing back," she says. "I saw blood on the windshield. And I remember one particular case where there was blood on the inside of the windshield."

Like many men, women Vietnam vets find solace in sticking together with other vets. For many years, Patty took part in a support group of veterans in Lynwood, New Jersey.

The male veterans welcome the nurses. "They have an amazing respect for the nurses that took care of them," says Patty. "Almost all of them were woundedThere's one guy in the group who was shot three times. And he was hit -- three tours of duty. Well, he was probably shot more than that, but every time, when he got shot, when he got injured, and he was getting dusted off to the hospital, he said, 'Great, I'm going to fall in love with another nurse.' And that was what kept him going."

In October, 1988, Patty Langford got married again to Pat McGarvey, also a Vietnam veteran. Says Patty: "It's taken a long time. But things are starting to turn around, and I'm very, very fortunate right now. I married a wonderful guy, and it's like -- at 40 years old, I'm finally starting to live again."

"I think about Vietnam every day," says Diane. "Once I would see one face, another face would come back. And it was like I needed to grieve, for the first time since Vietnam, cause in Vietnam we didn't have a wake, we didn't have a funeral. We didn't grieve. And I think the grieving process for me started when I went out to the [Vietnam Memorial] Wall, because I could cry."

To find out what's happened to these nurses over the past ten years, go to The Forgotten Veterans: Part 2

Web story produced by David Kohn;