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Ghosts of Vietnam


Ghosts of Vietnam

In 1972, after the Army, I attended a community college in Manchester, Connecticut. I was a Vietnam veteran and the school had an active Veterans Club comprised of individuals from all the Armed Services, students recently returned from duty in Vietnam or Korea. We studied hard and partied harder, enjoying the freedoms of civilian life as well as the camaraderie and empathy that ex-soldiers find in the company of each other. Together we enjoyed various social and recreational activities, and relished the time spent in the company of friends.

One member of the Vet’s Club was a girl named Jill Ann, a former Army nurse, Vietnam veteran, and girlfriend of an ex-soldier that I knew named Clifford. Jill Ann had always been cool towards me, icy even. I did not travel within her circle of friends and though our paths often crossed in school or at various club activities, I had remained content to spend time with those more appreciative of my friendship.

Prior to graduation, in 1975, Jill Ann hosted a gathering at her home. The mood was festive as we celebrated our successes. Yet all of us felt the sadness that comes with the realization that our time together was nearing its inevitable end as comrades married and had children, made plans to attend four-year colleges, or moved on to search out careers.

Years later, in 1987, I lived in New Hampshire. On a late summer weekend, I set off on a 4 day backpacking adventure into the White Mountains. I parked at the start of the Wilderness Trail and began the hike into Camp 16; an old logging camp located a little more than five miles from the trailhead.

Laboring under a heavy pack, I arrived at my destination in three hours and set up camp before making dinner. As the sun went down the temperature went down with it. Not having the energy to make a fire, I retreated to my sleeping bag and lit a lantern. From my pack, I pulled out a new paperback titled, 'A Piece of My Heart', compiled by Keith Walker and published by Ballantine Books in April of 1987. The book was a collection of twenty-six personal accounts written by women that had served in Vietnam during the war, whether as nurses, volunteers, or entertainers.

As the wind whistled through the trees outside the tent, I read of the poignant and sometimes terrible experiences that so many of these women had endured during their tours in Vietnam. The horrors these nurses faced on a daily basis were especially compelling, to wallow in the blood of war’s harvest amid the anguish and suffering of the wounded.

I turned to the next chapter and old ghosts came back to haunt me; there on the page was a picture of Jill Ann, member of the Vet’s Club back in the days at the community college in Connecticut. She had penned an unflinching account of her year as an Army nurse in Vietnam, and told of how that experience had affected her in the years after the Army.

While in Vietnam, Jill Ann served at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh from July 1970 to July 1971. She recounted her own frightful experiences of that year, horror upon horror that pulled at my heart and gave witness to the terrible brutality of the war. She was blunt and candid, not afraid to provide graphic details about the moments when she lost control or could barely continue under the pressure. Because I knew her, those experiences had a profound visceral effect on me; I felt filled with dread.

After leaving the Army, life was not easy for Jill Ann back in the States either. She described a haunting moment when she broke down crying while buying underwear at a store. She frequented a Woman's Center and became a radical feminist. Later, she met Clifford and started dating him, only to face abandonment by her friends because she was living with a man; she despaired about ever having children and a family of her own. Clifford and Jill Ann separated in Colorado, but she followed him east to Connecticut, and into the time and place of her life where our paths would intersect at the Veterans Club at Manchester Community College.

After reading her chronicle in the book, I extinguished the light. That night, in the dark of my tent, I revisited many old ghosts and memories from my tour in Vietnam, until I eventually fell into a shallow and fitful sleep.

In the morning, driven by something ineffable and deep within, I began my strange pilgrimage. Leaving my gear and tent behind, I set off on the trail back towards the road. In two hours, I reached my car and made the short drive west to the town of Lincoln where I found a phone booth.

A short bio of Jill Ann in the book stated that she lived in Glastonbury, Connecticut. I called directory assistance and gave her name. The phone rang and I heard a woman's voice answer. I asked for Jill Ann, and the voice on the other end said it was she. I told her who I was and asked if she remembered me; she replied that she did. I narrated the entire improbable story about discovering her memoir and picture while reading 'A Piece of My Heart' in my tent on the previous night, how moved I was by her war experiences, how the words had touched me so deeply that I felt compelled to leave camp and reach out to connect with her. We talked of the past and about old friends as I tried to express the emotions that I was feeling. When I mentioned that she was always cold to me, she replied that, generally speaking, she had a hard time relating to men back in those days.

I cannot remember exactly what we said to each other, but I know I imparted two things: how appreciative I was of her story and how sorry I was that I did not know who she was or what she was dealing with during those college years in Connecticut. Then we bid each other goodbye and I returned once again to the trailhead where, for the third time in less than twenty-four hours, I hiked the five-mile stretch of trail between the parking area and Camp 16.

I never talked with her again.

That phone conversation with Jill Ann transpired almost thirty years ago. I wonder where she is today and how her life has evolved. I hope she has found joy, whatever that is, and that her life is populated and blessed by people who love and protect her. Jill Ann and the many nurses like her gave so unselfishly during the war; some left parts of themselves in Vietnam that they never got back. Their service and sacrifice is the mirror that allows the rest of us, for better or for worse, a glimpse into our own hearts, and into the very soul and conscience of America.

A Piece of My Heart

Laudizen King
December 15, 2014
Modesto, CA