Army nurse recalls Vietnam service

For Kate O’Hare-Palmer, her time as a nurse in Vietnam holds many memories, some worth keeping, some she wished she could erase.

June 8, 1968, was O’Hare-Palmer’s first day arriving at the hospital where she was to serve in Vietnam and was immediately thrust into complete chaos. A Vietnamese woman was hurriedly admitted to surgery with a ruptured aorta from a gun fragment wound. O’Hare-Palmer didn’t even have time to put on her surgical gloves to treat the patient.

Despite her team’s best efforts, the wound was just too severe, the patient didn’t survive. This would be the first time O’Hare-Palmer encountered death, but not the last.

O’Hare-Palmer grew up in Long Beach-Seal Beach, California, with her parents and two brothers. Serving in the military was in her blood as her parents were both in the Army-Aircorp. Her mother was a radio operator and father a link simulator operator for the pilots in training.

O’Hare-Palmer’s older brother Tom had been serving in Vietnam as a mechanic and then a helicopter door gunner.

“He had sent me a picture of the tent hospital he was in when he contracted malaria. I thought that I could help if I joined,” she explained.

After graduation, and intense hospital training, O’Hare-Palmer went on to serve as an Army nurse in Vietnam, one of more than 7,000 woman who served in the Army Nurse Corps. She was stationed at the 44th Medical Btn, 68th Medical Group, 2nd Surgical Hospital, in Chu Lai and Lai Khe.

O’Hare-Palmer often worked in triage. The wounded came on helicopters to a helipad right outside where she took care of 18- and 19-year-old young men.

One patient in particular she will never forget. A young soldier came into surgery with live ammunition still in his back. O’Hare-Palmer volunteered to join the doctors and the munitions expert for the tricky surgery.

“I didn’t truly start shaking until it was all over, then I couldn’t stop, but he was saved,” she explained.

Only 22 years old, O’Hare-Palmer often worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week and more if needed. A 12-hour shift could consist of the treatment of head wounds, chest wounds, amputees, and shock.

There were also good memories for her in Vietnam, as O’Hare-Palmer was able to go on medical missions to villages near her base helping the local children with various medical issues.

O’Hare-Palmer shared her experiences in the book, “Vietnam War Portraits, the Faces and Voices.“ She was Sonoma County Veteran of the Year for 2018, and currently serves as the Vietnam Veterans of America National Women Veterans Committee Chair, and is a member of Military Women Across the Nation Unit 77 Petaluma, AMVETS Post #40 and The Women In Military Service For America Memorial (WIMSA).

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