It’s been 42 years since Donna Rowe returned from a 369-day tour of duty in Vietnam, where she served as head nurse in the emergency room/triage unit of the Third Field Hospital. Since then, she has raised two sons with her husband, Col. Al Rowe (now retired), served more than 30 years as a volunteer Red Cross nurse, and spent 28 years as a realtor and broker.
But that doesn’t mean Rowe has forgotten about her experiences in Vietnam. When she’s asked to speak at Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations, Rowe always obliges.
“I start by telling the story of how soldiers saved a wounded baby clutched in her dead mother’s arms on the battlefield. She arrived by Huey helicopter and I accepted her,” said Rowe, RN, now an associate broker for Coldwell Banker.
Hospital medics saved the baby’s life. Rowe named her Kathleen, after the Irish-American song, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” The little girl, who was adopted by a U.S. Navy Corpsman, grew up in America and is now the mother of three. She and Rowe met in 2003, and they still keep in touch.
“We weren’t supposed to treat civilians, but soldiers and medics saved her life because it was the right thing to do,” Rowe said. “I tell that story as a way to talk about who our Vietnam veterans were and what they did.”
The soldiers weren’t misfits, reluctant draftees, high school dropouts or drug addicts, as they were often painted, Rowe pointed out.
“Seventy-four percent of the men volunteered and 100 percent of the women volunteered,” she said. “They were raised by the ‘greatest generation’ to be patriotic and serve their country. They were the best-educated military force that our country had fielded at the time.”
Rowe was highly trained and educated herself. “My father was determined that my sister and I would have a college education,” she said.
Rowe chose nursing, in part, because she had been stricken by polio when she was 9. She spent two months in an iron lung, several months in the hospital and two years in a wheelchair.
“Some nurses I loved and some I thought were mean,” she said. “My mom said, ‘Well, when you grow up you can be a good nurse.’ ”
Rowe enrolled in Hahnemann Hospital School of Nursing in Worcester, Mass. She went the first 18 months on a scholarship and paid for the last 18 months by joining the Student Nurse Corps Program.
The Army paid for the balance of her education in exchange for two years of military service. Her father was worried about the possibility of serving in Vietnam, but Rowe thought it was a good deal.
“I was trained by the Sisters of Mercy, and they showed us no mercy,” Rowe said. “They drilled us and would not accept [mediocrity].”
While waiting for her nursing license, Rowe became certified in emergency room nursing. She joined the Army and served in stateside military hospitals. While stationed at Womack Army Hospital at Fort Bragg, N.C., she met her future husband. In 1968, they got married and volunteered for Vietnam.
‘Horrors of war’
“I felt prepared as a nurse, but nothing can prepare you for the horrors of war, except war,” Rowe said.
As a captain, she became head nurse at the large, busy and bloody emergency room/trauma unit at the Third Field Hospital in Saigon. The only registered nurse assigned to the ER, she led a staff of LPNs, Army medics and Red Cross volunteers.
“The Red Cross gals were wonderful and gave the men the TLC that we didn’t have time for,” Rowe said. “Our job was to keep them breathing, keep them from hemorrhaging to death and get them home.”
Hospital ambulances continuously met the helicopters that landed in a field next to the hospital.
“You never knew when you opened the back of an ambulance what you’d find,” Rowe said. “Battle wounds, of course, but also guys with snakebite, heat exhaustion or broken bones. In Vietnam, we learned that the quicker they could get men to a hospital, the better their chances for survival.”
The dust-offs (helicopter aero-medical evacuation units) went in unarmed to collect wounded from the fields and fly them to hospitals. Her job was to receive the wounded, assess them and prepare them for surgery. That included checking body bags to make sure that there were no mistakes.
Rowe also supervised the evacuation of patients to hospitals in other countries, making sure they had ample pain medication and wound packs for the trip.
“The hospital could only hold so many, so we continuously had to empty it out,” Rowe said.
The pace could be exhausting for medical staff.
“There were no shifts for the ER. If casualties were coming, you didn’t leave,” she said. “Sometimes it would go on for days, and we’d have to take blood from hospital personnel to have enough. We had our hands full.”
Rowe learned to check her emotions at the door and operate robotically.
“I know I got all their names. We had to have that, but I don’t remember them. I do remember their faces and their casualties,” she said.
Importance of faith
While many nurses later suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Rowe’s faith carried her through.
“We had a code in triage. If a combat medic had risked his life to get guys from the field and a pilot and medic had risked theirs to pick them up, we weren’t going to lose one in triage,” she said. “The day I was leaving, I heard that we had lost one and I felt horrible, like I should have been there.”
Because of the danger of the Viet Cong in Saigon, nurses were confined to the compound when off duty. Rowe lived for the letters and tapes she got from home, but her mother never sent articles about anti-war protests going on there.
What Rowe went through during the war helped shaped the woman she has become.
“I wouldn’t trade the experience. My father said I went to Vietnam a giddy girl and came back a strong, determined woman,” she said. “It made a major difference in how I approach things. I’m better for having gone to Vietnam and serving my country.”
Although speaking about the war in public can bring back some difficult emotions, Rowe tells her story willingly because she wants people to hear about it.
“I believe Lt. Gen. Hal Moore [author of “We Were Soldiers Once... and Young”] said it best: ‘You can hate war, but you must love the American warrior,’ ” she said. “The country owes them gratitude for the sacrifices they made. It’s because of our wonderful military that we all enjoy freedom.”