Army nurse Connie Edwards already could claim a lifetime of experiences when she arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airbase in South Vietnam in July 1967.
Edwards grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s and early 1960s, a city on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. There were the boycotts she helped with, and the time she served ice cream to the young civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited her church in Birmingham.
Then there was the incident in which she and a friend were arrested while passing by the Birmingham bus station during a protest, only to slip out of the police van when the officers were not looking. (She was more afraid of her parents’ reaction than the police in that one.)
She was proud of her involvement, however small, in the civil rights movement and so was disappointed in March 1965 when administrators at Tuskegee University refused to allow her and other students to join the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
All of that seemed a lifetime and a world away from sweltering Long Binh, South Vietnam, where Edwards was now posted as a nurse with the 24th Evacuation Hospital.
An old, stuffy Quonset hut served as the hospital’s post-op ward where she was assigned. That became her home for the next year as an endless stream of patients came and went, some back to the war, and others, those more seriously wounded, to another hospital in Japan or back home.
For her patients, Edwards was much more than a nurse.
“I was 22 and some of [the patients] looked at me like I was their mother,” Edwards recalled during her recent oral history interview. “I found myself having to force myself to be older and more mature than I really was. … That was only by the grace of God, because I tell you, I had no experience to be as mature as they forced me to be.”
The nurses were warned about getting too emotionally attached to their patients.
“Put your feelings on the floor and just step on them,” was one piece of advice Edwards recalled from nursing school at Tuskegee. “But that was better said than done!”
Several patients left Edwards with more lasting memories. There was a patient who came in unconscious and with no dog tags, and therefore no identification, known only as “Unknown.”
Another patient came in with his face looking like “a dirty mop, just stringy, stringy, stringy,” Edwards said. Following some initial surgery by the unit’s surgeons, his face was wrapped completely in bandages.
“He would ask me if he was ugly, … and I told him, ‘You’re not ugly.’ And he said, ‘Well, if I’m not ugly, would you kiss me?’ So I kissed him, but I said you’re not going to feel it because he was all bandaged up,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You didn’t kiss me,’ so I kissed his hand.”
Twenty-six years later, Edwards’s life intersected again with that patient. In 1993 ABC-TV picked up on a story about a veteran who had endured some 200 surgeries to reconstruct his face. The network wanted to reunite the patient with his nurse.
“They wanted me to go and talk with him, and so about 200 surgeries later he could then speak and he could swallow on his own, and they did an interview with him, and I gave him a kiss.”
That veteran was just one of the continuous stream of patients whose lives were touched by Edwards during her time with the 24th Evac Hospital in Vietnam, patients who were thankful that Edwards was there, in a year that she will never forget.
Mark DePue is the director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. You can hear Connie Edwards’s entire story, as well as those of many other veterans, in the “Veterans Remember” section of the program’s website, www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.