Oral History Interview Project

Date: Feb 4, 2019
Category: Interview

Case Interview Examples

This is Reese Owen. Today is September 4, 2014. Today I am interviewing Mrs. Jane Carling and we will speak about Mrs. Carling's experience as a nurse during the Vietnam War. Thank you, Mrs. Carling, for meeting with me today.

Q.• •➤ Why did you decide to participate in the Vietnam War as a nurse?

In March 1967, when my husband, Richard Carling, died in a car accident, I lost any sense of life. We had married two years before and we had no children, so with his death my life became really empty. I was some kind of crazy after that and needed some remedy, some occupation, which could let me start a new life. My friends advised move to another city where the memories are not so powerful, but I understood the only one acceptable way for me is to join our army.

I knew some girls who already left America to help the soldiers. Certainly, it would be more patriotic if I said the reason was to save the lives of our soldiers. Anyway, the only reason was to heal my grief. Now I even can confess that my despair was so powerful that I did not want to return from that war to the city where I lost my happy life. So the hidden reason was a chance to die while performing my professional duties of nurse. I was 25 and worked already as a nurse, so it was easy to join as a volunteer and in three months after the car accident I was already in a plane to Vietnam with other nurses.

Q.• •➤ What kind of atmosphere was in the plane?

In fact, the girls kept silence. Maybe, they just could not have a conversation because they did not know each other. We had a plane to the dangerous uncertainty and some of them confessed me in the future that they were very frightened – so was I. Certainly, the war was very important for us – it was one of the most discussed topics among the citizens. Everyone wanted to know the today’s news from our army in Vietnam. People in the streets, cafes and bars spoke about that all the time. It was some kind of national fever everyone shared.

War was in our heads and we dreamed to make some personal sacrifice for our nation. At the same time... Joining the army was very fearful trip to nowhere. Maybe, we understood that in some hours we would became the participants of the war, not just people in America who discuss it in a suitable cafe. This fact changed our relation to the war. I think the girls were not only afraid; some of them probably had thoughts about the future... As for me, I just wanted to stop the plane. I was very scared.

Q.• •➤ What did you think about during the flight? Did you have some doubts concerning your decision?

Yes, sure. The plane seemed to be very small because I had not enough air for breathing. When the flight started, I had an idea to scream: “Start the plane, let me out!” I was very scared and disappointed. I imagined the way of life in the war and while comparing it with my life in America the grief partly disappeared and only the fear left. I thought: “How will I survive that horror?” There was no positive answer which could soothe me and all the scariest things connected with war I could get from TV or books and newspaper appeared in my head. Those were very difficult temptations and I couldn’t help asking myself the question: “Why did not I stay at home?” I had recalled my mother who tried to change my decision and persuade me to stay at home. After some months of my practice in Vietnam it was a great surprise for me that the war is less fearful than I imagined. My doubts during the flight were an ordinary result of changing the way of life.

Q.• •➤ Can you tell in general about your life as a nurse in Vietnam?

It was really interesting and satisfying. Yes – satisfying. In Vietnam I played very important role as a nurse and through the performing of my day-to-day duties I had found a new sense of life. Before it was my family, and when I lost my husband, I lost everything. In Vietnam, everyone is a part of your family and the relationships between the people are much closer than in a peaceful state. That is why I could not lose my Vietnamese family, you understand? I felt responsibility for everyone who struggled and returned wounded from the battlefield. I wanted to save everyone.

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Some of those scary images of the war I thought about in the plane were true. Besides, the community I joined gave me much more than I lost because of my decision. In Vietnam I saw the most expressive examples of human rudeness, because it was war, but at the same time the experience of life with other nurses and soldiers, when I was the last hope and support for those poor fellows, returned me a pleasure of living.

Q.• •➤ What about your relationships with the soldiers?

I was like a sister for them; a sister who wants to help her wounded brothers; to help not only through some medical way. The most important duty was speaking with the soldiers. They needed someone not mutilated by the experience of war, some civil conversation partner who could support and soothe them. Nurses symbolized for the soldiers their home that they had left to struggle. We were like oasis of humanity amongst the cruelties of the war. So, nurses performed the function of psychoanalyst and maybe of chaplain. Sometimes soldier wants to confess some fearful things he saw on the battlefield, but cannot do it with a chaplain and calls a nurse. Yes, those stories passed through us – we thought it was one of our duties to be patient listeners. Usually, nurse has to calm soldiers after operations because of a very big stress they survived. Army was some kind of close community of spiritual relatives for me. Certainly, some soldiers were closer to me than the others as it always is in collectives, but I tried to be kind with everyone. In Vietnam I realized that the spiritual strength of nurses has very close connection with that of soldiers. So, our army particularly depended on my strength.

There was also another side of my work in army: soldiers who do not have any relationships with women during the war always declared their love to nurses and many soldiers wanted me to satisfy their sexual purposes. Certainly, I think it is an everyday situation for the war, because everyone thinks this day is the last one and everyone needs some love and intimacy... Besides, I was faithful to Richard... I loved him despite he was dead, so I always rejected any offerings of such kind. I remember, other nurses were not so virtuous and satisfied the soldiers and themselves with pleasure. Maybe they considered it was also their duty as nurses to make the life of soldiers better, to heal them from stress. I do not know, but I have no right to judge them.

Q.• •➤ Can you tell about your relationships with nurses?

Sure. Everything I said about soldiers concern also nurses, but there was one specific detail: we knew how difficult it was to be always spiritually strong. When we were alone, without soldiers, we confessed each other our fears, our despairing feelings. We knew the souls of our colleagues. Now I can compare the relationships between nurses in Vietnam and in the USA. We do not really understand the prize of our lives when there is no direct threat to them. In Vietnam people died every day after each battle, and every day could be the last one for everyone, even myself. We appreciated each other and were opened and sincere.

One of my friends, Alisa, died during the war... She provided first aid during the battle... I was in despair of this loss, but I also had to be positive and inspiring while speaking with the soldiers just like other nurses. I could reveal my real feelings only when the night came and I went to sleep. Everything I could was to cry silently. We became very close friends with Alisa during the nursing practice in Vietnam. Other nurses understood my pain, but it was very difficult to hide all the impressions in the soul, indeed. It was very hard for every of us. Only nurse can understand the feelings of another nurse.

Q.• •➤ What did you feel when you returned to the USA?

It can be surprising, but I had the same feelings as during the flight to Vietnam. Certainly, I wanted to see my parents with whom we corresponded during my work in Vietnam, but in general, I was afraid to return to the society of individualists and egoists where everyone is separated from the others. People do not appreciate their lives, they do not understand that death can come at the most unexpected moment. That is why they live in incorrect way. In the hospital, where I used to worked before Vietnam, there were always the competitions and the struggles between the medical personnel. Everyone wanted to get the best position. Nurses in peaceful cities are traditionally indifferent to the patient as they have no personal connection with them. They have their own families and want to return to them from the boring work.

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In Vietnam we had no family except our patients and we really revealed our compassion to them. It was not only because they needed it or because it was our work, but also because these soldiers became our relatives, our brothers and also lovers for some of us. I thought about new life which would start after my arrival to America... and it scared me.

Q.• •➤ Did you have any psychological problems after you returned to the USA?

It was very hard to accept that I am at home and there is no war here. Every night, especially after my arrival, I saw some horrors of the war in my night dreams. Anyway, the war gave me not only negative impressions. Certainly, it was very cruel, but only during the Vietnam War people revealed me their human nature. I still feel a lack of the community we had in Vietnam, big family in which everyone is close to others. In a year after my returning, I started attending the Church and there I had found something close to what I need. Before Vietnam I was not very religious and my relatives always had discussions with me concerning my faith. My mother is from Poland and our family was very Catholic, but when I grew I could not accept the religion of my parents. Vietnam made me return to God, and I still attend the Church.

In fact, the Vietnam War was really positive experience for me, because I departed from the USA with suicidal thoughts and returned with strong desire to live. It means that even through the war God can speak to people and to reveal them real values of the world. I think everyone who doubts concerning the sense of life has to participate in war.

Thank you for this interview, Mrs. Carling!

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