It has been four decades since 1Lt Bobbie Mershon served as a nurse in an Army Hospital in South Vietnam. Yet, tears still dominated our conversations regarding her experiences with those she served. "Countless American young men were lost and many more injured in a war ultimately deemed unworthy by the American public. It's hard to see young, healthy men blown to bits day in and day out and not have it affect you," she remarked.
Roberta Jean Foote was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bobbie's mother, a registered nurse, worked as a civilian staff nurse at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco in 1938-1939 caring for young soldiers. Unable to join the Army Nurse Corps because of her "flat feet", she eventually met her future husband, Robert. They married and returned to her roots in Indiana. Bobbie's father, an engineer, enlisted in the naval reserve. His unit was responsible for the installation of innovative communications equipment at several naval bases in Indiana during the 1940s. Bobbie's older brother, David, served in the Marines and was stationed at Da Nang, Vietnam. Her younger sister, Diane, is also a registered nurse.
Bobbie attended St Vincent's School of Nursing in Indianapolis at the height of the escalation of the Vietnam conflict. The Army had created a program in which senior nursing students could enlist in the Army as a private first class and be paid accordingly. After graduation and successfully completing state boards, they would be discharged and commissioned as a 2Lt in the Army Nurse Corps with a two year commitment. With her mother's encouragement, Bobbie and twelve of her classmates participated in this program. Considering that there only fifty-eight students in her class, this was a very high percentage of young women willing to serve their country by joining the military. Studies have shown that most nurses serving in the military at that time were from Catholic hospital diploma programs.
Bobbie received her basic training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. This was not your typical basic training. The Army concentrated on teaching these young registered nurses the "Army" way of doing things, while still making it an enjoyable experience for all. They learned to march in formation, shoot a .45, and were exposed to tear gas. They toured a "mock" Vietnam village showing all of the booby traps the Viet Cong used against our troops. They learned how to set up a field hospital and process patients through the assessment, surgery, and recovery phases. At one point during a training exercise at Camp Bullis, Bobbie arrived at the camp with her caduceus (medical badge on her collar) turned backwards. "Trust me," she said, "the drill sergeant had plenty to say about that. I was so embarrassed, I must have turned sixteen shades of red." She then got so lost on the map reading course that a helicopter overhead told her group to return to the starting point. GI Jane she was not!
Her first duty assignment was at Ft. Ord in Monterey, California. "This was a great assignment. A lot of my friends only got as far as Kentucky for their first assignment," she laughed. Bobbie was placed in the pediatric clinic as charge nurse. There she and her staff treated as many as fifty to sixty children and babies a day. Some had only minor ailments. Others who had illnesses of a more serious nature were admitted to the hospital on base for further treatment. While working this assignment, she met her future husband, Cpt. Dan Mershon. They were introduced at a New Year's Eve party at the Junior Officers Club that she and her girlfriends attended. She said they hit it off right away because Dan made her laugh. They started dating. He was serving his second tour of duty in the Army as a Basic Training Company Commander. In August of 1969 Dan received orders for Vietnam. She was devastated. There was no way she was going to let him go over there by himself. So Bobbie volunteered for duty in Vietnam. In October of that year she arrived in Vietnam to be greeted by Dan at the Bien Hoa Replacement Center. "There he was, sitting on the porch waiting for me," Bobbie said. The one good thing was that when she arrived in-country, her brother, David, who was stationed in Da Nang, was sent home. This was the result of a regulation prohibiting siblings from serving in the same battle zone. "I'm sure my being there saved his life," she said.
Bobbie was assigned to the 93rd Evac Hospital at Long Binh. There she was assigned to Ward 3, the surgical intensive care ward. "As I was being introduced to my co-workers, a young helicopter pilot, who had sustained injury to his ileac artery from a AK-47 round, blew his graft. I watched while the team infused him with thirty units of O+ blood and returned him to surgery to save his life.” She was shaking in her brand new combat boots. She wasn't sure she had the skills to help these young men. But by the end of the week, that young helicopter pilot was her patient. This war did not leave time for self-doubt. There were just too many patients. She soon was performing at the top of her game. "I was doing the very best damn job I could do. “If they needed 150 percent of me, that's what my patients got. After all they didn't deserve what had happened to them," she commented. Bobbie worked twelve hour shifts six days a week. Her co-workers became her friends and family; and her social life was on the ward, as there really weren't a lot of places to go off duty. In addition to American soldiers, ARVNs and Vietnamese civilians, many of whom were children and babies, were also cared for by the nurses at the hospital.
The amount of physical work in a combat ICU setting was tremendous. The patients required continuous thirty minute vital signs, recording urine outputs anywhere from every fifteen to sixty minute intervals around the clock, and providing breathing treatments every four hours. The nurses were also responsible for all blood draws for lab work, dressing changes twice a shift, dispensing all medications to include pain medications as needed and preparing and administering according to schedule all intravenous solutions. Patients needed to be turned, coughed and deep breathed every two hours. In addition, there were special treatments for those with chest tubes and those patients on respirators.
The 93rd Evac Hospital, like the others at Bien Hoa, was shaped in the form of the red cross. In the center, two desks were shoved together to make a nurses' station. Patients were separated according to injuries in one of the four wings. There was one wing for abdominal injuries, one for chest injuries, one for burns, and the last one was a recovery area, in which all patients were brought after surgery. Often times all of these beds were occupied."I can't tell you what it was like to walk into a unit where there were 38 beds filled with man's inhumanity to man," Bobbie commented. Usually a nurse and two corpsmen had the responsibility for the care of all of the patients on two of the wings. The corpsmen did everything from bed baths and breathing treatments to suturing wounds. "Without the expert help of our corpsmen, we would not have been able to accomplish what we did. They were our 'right hand'," she said.
The 93rd Evac was the burn center for Vietnam. That meant that anyone in-country with a serious burn came to that hospital for treatment. A lot of these soldiers had gone far beyond the designation of third degree burns. These patients were particularly work-intensive. An antibiotic cream was applied to the burned areas. The old cream had to be scraped off with tongue blades before applying the new. This was done twice a shift. Even though the patients were medicated prior to this treatment, it was not very comfortable. "Some of my most poignant memories are caring for these men. The extent of the burns was horrific, but these soldiers showed acceptance, courage and spirit that was inspiring. Their concern was often for their fellow comrades and not their own injuries," she said.
Multi-organ injuries were the norm. Shrapnel and rounds from AK-47s do not discriminate. Bullets used in combat are not the not the round-nosed ones used in civilian firearms. The military rounds have been designed specifically for the task of killing and maiming, and they were efficient at doing just that. They would expand and/or tumble in the victim's body, destroying or damaging organs and shattering bones with a single round. 100% of the wounds were infected. That meant treatment with large doses of antibiotics. "Pseudomonas bacterial infection ran rampant, and it has a distinctive odor that I will never forget," Bobbie said. In addition, she was amazed at the number of injuries that were a result of accident, error and just plain stupidity. Far too many lives were lost because of this. She added, "When you put young men in a country with very few rules and give them weapons, bad things are bound to happen. As I took care of these men, I knew that if they survived, their lives were never going to be the same again. Never. We became their family over there. When they would wake up from anesthesia and see us nurses, the guys would call us 'round eyes' and smile. To them we were their mothers, wives, sweethearts and sisters. And they will forever be our brothers. We were the ones who held their hands as they slipped into unconsciousness for the last time."
Bobbie says she never cried during her tour in Vietnam. Humor was used by all the medical professionals to get through the difficult times. Bobbie recalls one incident with a soldier in which his penrose drain fell out of his suture line prematurely. This was not a big deal, but she could tell he thought he was going to die because of it. She teased him by sternly stating, "Look soldier, that drain is property of the United States Army. You didn't think you were going to get to keep it, did you? He didn't say anything for minute; and then, even though it hurt, he had to laugh.” A major problem was that the nurses gave so much of themselves in their patient's care, but never knew what happened to them after they left the ward. Did they survive? Were they able to cope with their disabilities? It's like writing a book but always leaving out the final chapter. She still wonders about them today.
During her time in Vietnam, Bobbie was promoted to 1Lt and spent one week in Hong Kong; but, most importantly, she and Dan were married in Hawaii on R & R. Upon her return stateside, she was stationed at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado, where she worked as a staff nurse on the pediatric ward. Bobbie distinctly remembers her travel from Travis Air Force Base to Denver. She was asked to change out of her uniform and into civilian clothes before going into San Francisco. She was amazed at the anti-war sentiment. This had not been there prior to her tour of Vietnam.
Upon both of their discharges, Dan and Bobbie eventually settled in Canal Winchester. By then they had three children, Lesley, Renee and Dan. Dan worked for the Franklin County Sheriff's Office and Genoa Township as Asst. Chief of Police. Bobbie worked for Grant Medical Center as a staff nurse in Recovery Room for thirty-five years. Now they are both retired and are enjoying each other, their seven grandchildren and their two dogs. Bobbie has also been serving as a Council member for the Village of Canal Winchester since 1990 when she was first elected. She commented. "My whole life has revolved around service to others. I look upon my Council job as just an extension of that only on a broader scale. Instead of monitoring urine outputs, I now look at water and sewer lines. It's all the same thing." By the way, Dan was a childhood friend of Warren Motts, our museum's founder/director, and was best man for Warren when he married Daisy Nell Blair on July 1, 1962.
There were approximately 8000 women who served in Vietnam, most of whom were nurses, but little has been documented about them for a number of reasons. One is that most came home to a public that had a negative feeling about the war itself and shunned those who served. Bobbie commented, "It was easy for women to blend into the wallpaper on this one; because, if you didn't talk about it, no one realized you even served in Vietnam." The majority of women simply remained silent, unlike their male counterparts who formed organizations and/or held reunions. Some had trouble staying at one job, others suffered from PTSD. Whatever the reason, transition to civilian life was difficult for many.
In 1984 a non-profit corporation, The Vietnam Women's Project, was founded by Diane Carlson Evans, a nurse who served in Vietnam in 1968-1969.The purpose of this organization was to recognize the female Vietnam veterans with a monument in Washington, DC and to educate and remind Americans that women participate, sacrifice and deserve recognition for their particular contributions to their fellow citizens in war and in peace. On the Vietnam Memorial (“The Wall”) in Washington DC, there are the names of eight women who died in Vietnam, two as a result of combat action. One of the two is Sharon Lane, a Canton, Ohio native. Bobbie Mershon was very active in this organization and its fundraising efforts. Their project became a reality on Veterans Day, 11 Nov 93, with the unveiling of a life-sized bronze statue of two uniformed women about 100 yards from the Vietnam Memorial ("The Wall.") One nurse is attending a wounded soldier, while the second is anxiously looking skyward for the medevac helicopter to arrive. Of course, Bobbie was present for that ceremony.
I cannot imagine the sights, smells, and emotions you experienced while taking care of our soldiers. What an honorable thing you did in Vietnam. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice!