Nurses at the front

Rosalea Ryan | Bendigo Weekly | 12-Aug-2016

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As the civilian casualties kept coming, their bodies shredded, Janet Glasson remained on her feet – for up to 32 hours in a single shift at times. 

Theatre nurse Glasson was on duty at Long Xuyen hospital in January 1968 when the North Vietnamese launched one of the major campaigns of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, against the South.

Yet, if not for an episode of Love Child on TV last month, few young Australians would realise this country had medical representation in Vietnam.

In all, 300-odd Australians – some enlisted, some not – were involved between 1962 and 1973, complemented on the frontline by first-aid-trained soldiers known as medics.

Now, half a century later, Annabelle Brayley relates with sensitivity and careful detail the stories of 22 individuals who worked on the ground in Vietnam or on a fly-in fly-out basis from airforce bases in Malaysia and the Philippines.

She records Pam Bell’s acceptance of medivac pilots’ orders to execute nursing staff on their planes if shot down, the lack of essential medical supplies in chronically over-crowded wards with multiple patients in every bed and the unsuitability of stiff formal dress uniforms in the tropical heat.

She documents, too, the experiences of Australians receiving their first passports, the shocked reactions of those touching down at the airport in Saigon to find the tarmac blanketed by military aircraft and the disenchantment years later of nurses denied government recognition of their active service.

Brayley also describes heartwarming incidents: June Miinchow and Di Lawrence meeting their future husbands in Vietnam and former midwife Terri Roche discovering that her perfume offered reassurance to wounded soldiers unable to see.

With Vietnam Veterans Day to take place next Thursday – 50 years to the day since the Battle of Long Tan – this book acknowledges the extraordinary efforts of Australia’s wartime medical teams.

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