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The Vietnam War — Pam Swennes Barrows — new nurse at the 71st evacuation Hospital, Pleiku, Vietnam

We’ve been learning about Pam Swennes and her service in Vietnam as an Army Nurse. Pam graduated with the Marshall High School class of 1963 and completed nursing school in Denver, Colorado. After passing her Minnesota licensing boards, she reported to the Army Nurse Corps Officer Basic Course with her nursing school friend, Diana Stewart. The Army assigned the two young officers to Fort Polk, Louisiana where they volunteered for early reassignment for Vietnam service.

When they arrived in Vietnam in March 1968, Pam requested assignment to the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku to be close to her fiancé, Jack, who was assigned there. The Army assigned Diane to the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Tuy Hua. The two friends headed up-country to their different assignments, separating at the airfield in Qui Nhon.

Pam continued her journey to Pleiku alone.

“[It] was another C-130 that got me from Qui Nhon to Pleiku. Landing there — it was just stark. I got the tour of the compound and then shown to my hootch. There was no transition program to acclimate to the country.”

She described their nurses housing, their “hootches,” and her introduction to danger in Vietnam.

“It was a central hallway with a door in the back and in the front and individual rooms. The first one on the left side was the bathroom, the latrine. They were sandbagged a third of the way up. So, when we had a rocket attack, we would just get down on the floor. That first week I was there we had a rocket attack. It was a new experience, pulling on my fatigue pants and trying to crawl down the hallway because we’d end up in one person’s room. Whoever was in that hootch, we’d all kind of huddle together. It got to be routine after a while. If it happened while we were working nights, then we would cover our patients with a mattress.”

Pam described the wards of the 71st Evac.

“They were wooden units with screen windows that had flaps and a front and back door. All the wards were the same. You’d walk in and there’d be a utility room and then across from that would be another cubicle and then the ward. You’d have the nursing desk and down the middle of the ward would be a half-wall and there’d be cots on each side and on the outside walls.”

She explained how her particular ward was set-up.

My 1st assignment was Ward Six, Surgical, which was a post-op ward. We had ten or twelve [cots] on each wall. That’d be about 48-50 patients in one ward. With a center half-wall, you could see the whole group. The back part of that, on the left side, would be for all the guys who wanted to come in to have circumcisions to get out of the field.”

Pam described the staffing on the two wards she worked.

“Normally, we would do twelve hour shifts, six days a week and we didn’t have much down time during those twelve hours. If I were on a day shift, my first head nurse was Major Haney. So, it would just be me and Major Haney. There might be another nurse on, but no more. Then on the night shift, it would be me and a corpsman. The last half of the year I worked on the ICU/Recovery [ward]. You get somebody in recovery, you’ve got to deal with them right away. So, there’d be at least two nurses and at least one corpsman on that shift. But, then it wasn’t full like we would [have] on a surgical floor.”

The nurses’ uniforms were the same as any other soldier, but their work involved caring for injured soldiers.

“It was always fatigues and then you’d have your flak jacket and your helmet and liner with you. [I had] typical nursing duties; wound care, medication administration, starting IVs, and giving blood.”

Pam explained her learning curve.

“Well, as a new nurse (Pam laughed) I learned along the way. I think that there were so many new nurses that that was kind of the norm. I think there was a lot of support. You know who made it work — the Corpsmen. I learned so much from the Corpsmen. I have nothing but high respect for them.”

She described the process the 71st Evac. staff used to process inbound casualties.

“They came via chopper. There was a helipad and they’d be triaged. We would stabilize them and send them out. We didn’t keep them long-term, but we’d keep them for a few days to stabilize them. We had many head injuries to stabilize and ship to Japan. We didn’t see them die. They were usually sent before that point. They might have come in and died as the expectant ones during triage.”

Pam explained how serving at this busy evacuation hospital came at a cost to the staff.

“We did what needed to be done for our patients. All those young, healthy, perfect bodies injured – that was tough to deal with. The 71st had no decompression program. I saw people do things that were probably outside their value system, but there’s nothing to counterbalance that stress.”

The Lyon County Museum is organizing an exhibit about the impact of the Vietnam War on Lyon County. If you would like to share Vietnam experiences or help with the exhibit, please contact me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com or call the museum at 537-6580.

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