Whenever I mention my novel (which, you may have noticed, is fairly often), people ask me why I chose to write about a woman who served as an Army nurse in Vietnam. Did I serve in the war? Was I ever in the military? Am I even a nurse?
No, no and no.
But like most members of the Baby Boomer generation, my youth was shaped by the war in Vietnam – and by the movement to end it. One reason was the draft. Unlike today’s wars, which seem to be fought only by a small and grievously burdened community, the Vietnam war had the power to reach into almost any American home that had a teenage son.
The shadow of the Good War
My father and all my friends’ fathers had served in World War Two. We grew up in the glowing shadow of that Good War. But the Vietnam war was the first to be waged on television, and it became frighteningly clear that this was not a good war – and that our political leaders were lying to us about it.
The 1970 killing of American college students by uniformed troops – as the students peacefully protested on their own college campuses at Kent State and Jackson State – made me feel profoundly alienated from my own government. While it would be other issues that galvanized me, my life as an activist began that day.
Who could ever understand?
So what happened in 2000 that first gave me the idea to write a novel that would become Her Own Vietnam? Honestly, I can’t tell you.
I was walking down the street when it struck me: What would it be like to be a regular middle-aged woman, just living your humdrum life, but to have that experience in your past? To have participated in a war so hated by much of your nation that the hostility unforgivably slopped over onto you and your comrades, the very people your country sent to wage the war?
How would you feel? Who would you tell? Who could ever understand what you’d been through?
Starting from scratch
I had to start from scratch. I knew nothing about their lives. I started by reading everything I could find about women who served in Vietnam. There wasn’t that much.
Then I joined a listerv for women Vietnam veterans. They knew I wasn’t one of them, that I was there to research a novel, that in fact I had marched against the war.
Yet they welcomed me. They answered my questions and shared their stories – even some that must have been painful to tell.
“I don’t speak about Vietnam”
As I listened, I realized I had been wrong. I did know something about their lives after all.
Because many of these women, these war veterans, had for decades kept their service a secret. They were in the closet. And having come out myself in the pre-rainbow days of the early 1970s, that was an experience I understood all too well.
“I don’t speak about Vietnam, and most people in my world don’t even know I’m a veteran,” one woman told me. “I prefer it that way.”
Her name was Chris Banigan. She had been a Captain in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, and had served two tours in Vietnam, from 1969 to 1971, based in Quang Tri and then Chu Lai.
Chris generously shared her vast knowledge and experience, from specifics about how nurses learned to deal with gunshot wounds (they treated a live, anaesthetized goat who had been shot for that purpose), to the details of her recurring nightmares about the war.
The ghosts of yesterday
She was patient with my many questions, and told me, “I actually find them quite therapeutic because it makes me think about things I’ve chosen not to think about. I think it will help me to get past the ghosts of yesterday and burst into tomorrow with a greater exuberance for life.”
Chris was the first veteran to read an early draft of my novel, and gave me her careful corrections and quiet encouragement. Because she lived in California and I lived in DC, our conversations took place via email. That changed on Veterans Day of 2003, when I was thrilled to meet her in Washington at the Vietnam women’s memorial.
A miraculous encounter
Miraculously, that day she had encountered at the Vietnam Wall a soldier who had been her last patient in Vietnam. He had been visiting the Wall for years on Veterans Day, walking along its gleaming black expanse and asking everyone if they knew a nurse named Banigan. Finally, he asked her.
She told me later, “I remember when I took him to x-ray. He was terrified that his eye had been blown out, and he could not be reassured until he saw the reflection of his left eye in the x-ray machine. Odd, the things you remember.”
Chris seemed to remember everything. “Over the last three decades, I have never gotten over the sights and smells of Vietnam and the causalities of that conflict,” she said, “and I continue to monitor the death toll in the shape of Agent Orange, PTSD and shattered lives.”
Chris Banigan died suddenly, 10 years ago this weekend, on March 15, 2004. She was only in her fifties. I am quite certain a part of her died in Vietnam.
By telling the story of Her Own Vietnam, I hope to shine a light on a fascinating but hidden corner of our shared American history, and to honor women like Chris Banigan.
“They did not pick their war,” Chris said of her sister Vietnam veterans. “They only served.”
Click here to see Chris Banigan’s photos and descriptions of her time in Vietnam.