When 21 year-old Louise Eisenbrandt signed up for the U.S. Army in May 1967, she had no idea what she had gotten herself into.
Eisenbrandt, who now lives in Kansas City, went from nursing school in Alton, Illinois, to South Vietnam in the middle of one of the most dangerous wars in U.S. history — for adventure's sake.
“I saw the Army as my way of seeing the world. I got more than I bargained for,” Eisenbrandt told host Steve Kraske on Up To Date.
When people ask her what she was thinking, she replies, “Maybe I wasn’t.”
Eisenbrandt recently published a memoir based on the journal she kept during her time as a nurse in Vietnam titled, Vietnam Nurse: Mending and Remembering.
Though at 21 her sense of adventure might have been stronger than her sense of security, it didn’t take long for reality to set in.
Reality sinks in
For a year, Eisenbrandt worked 12-hour days, six days a week in Chu Lai, an area of South Vietnam that saw a lot of combat.
“The first three months I was on a medical ward, which took care of things like malaria, hepatitis, jungle rot — which is what you get when you walk in combat boots and they don’t ever dry out, intestinal worms and all kinds of stuff,” Eisenbrandt said.
“But then the last eight-and-a-half months I spent in the emergency room and that is nursing that I will never do again.”
The constant stream of wounded patients, double and triple amputees was difficult to endure.
“Nothing can compare to what we saw there,” Eisenbrandt said.
Even after a shift was over, the nurses sometimes had to keep working. Eisenbrandt said there was a standing rule that if they heard more than three helicopters coming in, nurses knew to drop whatever they were doing and run to the emergency room.
Coping with all those patients and all the carnage was no easy task.
Though she never got into drugs, like many soldiers during the war, she says that a few scotch and waters, along with Mateus wine, dancing and journaling helped her escape.
“You had to," she said. "You had to remove yourself from the situation. You couldn't take your daily work home with you at night and sit and stew about it.”
Though she saved many soldiers’ lives, she got to know very few.
“That’s a frustrating point to me. When I go to D.C. to the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial), I know that I touched, literally, quite a few of those men whose names are listed, but there was no time to remember,” she said.
Lasting hardships and no recognition
The decades following her time as a nurse during the war brought up different hardships for Eisenbrandt, who has Parkinson’s disease. Four years ago, she learned that the cause of her Parkinson's may have been exposure to Agent Orange during the war.
Eisenbrandt has returned to Vietnam four times since she left in 1970. She's visited all of the sites she knew back in 1969.
Her most recent trip was with with a group of other Vietnam veterans. Upon the return from their trip, she says that the men felt more of a welcome than they received when the returned home from the war.
But for the women in the war, there has yet to be much — if any — recognition.
“I think many of us women are still waiting.The men that I was traveling with last fall were astounded that none us got medals to speak of," she said.
She still doesn't know if that will ever change.