Dang Thuy Tram is pictured on the far left, Lynda Van Devanter second from right.
Because one of my goals in writing Courageous Women of the Vietnam War was to understand the conflict from multiple perspectives, I tried to feature women from different sides within each chronological segment. In the section labeled "Richard Nixon's 'Peace'", I included the story of Communist surgeon, Dang Thuy Tram, and American nurse, Lynda Van Devanter and found them to be movingly similar.
In 1969 Dang Thuy Tram was a three-year graduate from medical school and Lynda van Devanter a newly trained nurse. These young women could have put their skills to use in relative safety but chose instead to serve their countries -- North Vietnam and the United States, respectively--by going into a war zone: South Vietnam.
The United States had just sworn in a new president whose campaign promise had been “an honorable end” to the Vietnam War. Precisely what Richard Nixon meant by those words would not become clear till much later, but nothing he said before his inauguration or anything he did afterwards could shake the resolve of the leader in North Vietnam who remained determined to see Vietnam united. In the same month Nixon began his presidency, Thuy, already working with the VC in the south and longing to be accepted into the Communist party, copied a speech from Ho Chi Minh in her diary:
…This year greater victories are assured at the battlefront. For independence—for freedom. Fight until the Americans leave, fight until the puppets fall. Advance soldiers, compatriots. North and South reunified, no other spring more joyous. (1)
Ideology also spurred Lynda into the war. On night, during her last year of nursing school, she made up her mind to join the army and go to Vietnam, believing that the US was “pursuing a course that President Kennedy had talked about in his inaugural address: we were saving a country from Communism.” (2)
There were brave boys fighting and dying for democracy…And if our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me. (3)
Thuy traveled down the dangerous Ho Chi Minh trail and landed in the Quang Ngai Province, an area with a history of intense resistance to foreigners. On June 9, 1969, just six months after Thuy recorded Ho’s speech in her diary, Lynda became one of those foreigners, working 244 miles away at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleikuk.
Both Thuy and Linda were involved in life-saving surgeries and both found triage emotionally difficult. Lynda stated it bluntly: “Essentially we were deciding who would live and who would die.” (4) She later described her first experience of a “mal-cal”—a mass casualty situation:
The moans and screams of so many wounded were mixed up with the shouted orders of doctors and nurses. One soldier vomited on my fatigues while I was inserting an IV needle into his arm. Another grabbed my hand and refused to let go. A blond infantry lieutenant begged me to give him enough morphine to kill him so he wouldn’t feel any more pain. A black sergeant went into a seizure and died while Carl and I were examining his small frag wound. (5)
When Thuy’s team decided to not operate on a dying patient, she “conformed to the majority’s opinion” but poured regret into her diary:
He died with a small notebook in his breast pocket. It held many pictures of a girl with a lovely smile and a letter assuring him of her steely resolution to wait for his return. On his chest, there was a little handkerchief with the embroidered words Waiting for you. Oh, that girl waiting for him! Your lover will never come back; the mourning veil on your young head will be heavy with pain. It will mark the crimes committed by the imperialist killers and my regret, the regret of a physician who could not save him when there was a chance. (6)
Thuy never wavered in support of her government’s war aims. While the war was absolute hell for most Vietnamese people, it wasn't hard for Ho Chi Minh's followers to keep their motivations stoked. The US, in their minds, was simply following China and France as the most recent colonizer and the southerners, they thought, were wealthy traitors. Each new Viet Cong or NVA death increased Thuy's hatred for the enemy and her desire for victory.
Every American death had the opposite effect on people like Lynda; it was difficult for the average American serving in Vietnam to maintain their ideological reasons for supporting the war. How was their presence promoting democracy, exactly? Increasingly haunted by the deaths of far too many young Americans under her care, Lynda wrote home, “We should either pull out of Vietnam or hit the hell out of the NVA. This business of pussyfooting around is doing nothing but harm. It’s hurting our GIs, the people back home, and our image abroad.”
The war had a devastating effect on the lives of both women. It ended Thuy’s--she was shot by an American bullet sometime in June, 1970. Lynda boarded her “freedom flight” that same month but returned home to face the hostility of strangers, the misunderstanding and indifference of friends and family, and years of untreated PTSD.
But their stories were destined to have major post-war impact. When Lynda wrote her moving war memoir, Home Before Morning, in 1983, it became a bestseller, inspired the award-winning China Beach series, and illuminated the unique plight of American Vietnam War nurses.
Thuy’s diary was found by an American military intelligence officer who took it home but brought it back to Vietnam in 2005 where it was published that year. There were plenty of war memoirs and biographies in Vietnam by this time, but Thuy’s diary revealed the voice of a flesh and blood human being who questioned her own motives, grieved for the lost, and hoped for an end to the war; she was not a hero carved in marble spouting all the correct sentiments. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace became a bestseller and was translated into English in 2007.
War inflicts wounds not only on those who fight in them but on those who dedicate themselves to heal wounded warriors. Thuy and Lynda paid dearly for choosing the role of healers but they became the voices of their generations, and in speaking from their frame of reference, helped countless readers understand the war from the other side.
2. Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Lynda van Devanter, 49.
3. Courageous Women, 137.
4. Courageous Women, 138.
5. Courageous Women, 142.
7. Courageous Women, 145.