By Jill Grant
Constance (Connie) Edwards,78, was in the Army Nurse Corps before knowing about the gravity of the Vietnam War.
One of nine siblings, she was the first child to enter the military despite her father having served in the military at the end of World War II.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Connie Edwards, 78, sought ways to practice nursing skills without knowing that someday she would be serving in the army.
A member of the Future Nurses of America Club in high school, she was mentored by the school nurse and practiced first aid on classmates injured during sporting events.
In 1962, she entered Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University), a historically Black college and university.
According to Connie, being at Tuskegee was like being in the military. The Dean was strict: Connie had to get her meal card stamped daily, wear a uniform, abide by a curfew, and, if she were disrespectful, she would have been sent home.
“The rules were in place for excellence,” said Connie. “According to the Dean, ‘nursing was a life and death situation. If you didn’t do things in order, someone could die.’”
In 1964, Connie was sworn into active duty, although she did not know it at the time because she did not dress in uniform.
She was just grateful that the army paid for her tuition and books even though she had to pay the military back with time in service.
Given her family’s grave economic situation at the time, she was relieved to be able to pay for her family’s living expenses.
At Tuskegee, Connie spent most of her time studying with the radio and TV turned off and therefore had little exposure to news about Vietnam.
It was not until she and eight other classmates’ board exams were marked “expedite” that she wondered if something was amiss.
At first, she thought her exam results were arriving earlier than planned because black students had complained that their test results were taking longer to receive than their white counterparts.
Later, Connie realized that “expedite” had a far different meaning. Connie received an army letter at her home address asking her to report to Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Connie first wore a uniform in Houston, where she had basic training.
During her two months of basic training, Connie practiced the rules and regulations of the military in case she had to assist with mass casualties. In addition, she practiced complicated procedures, including tracheotomies.
After she completed basic training, Connie went to a large stateside hospital for her one-year assignment in El Paseo, Texas. While on her assignment, Connie demonstrated kindness towards patients and their families but was not always rewarded for it.
A 22-year-old, Connie was accused once of stealing someone’s husband. She had offered to babysit for his children, so he could see his wife at the hospital. However, the wife assumed they were having an affair.
Connie soon after learned she would go to Vietnam. She was sure it was a punishment for her interaction with a married man, although it was harmless.
After taking part in the “overseas replacement” process, she realized that going to Vietnam was inevitable and not a consequence of wrongful actions.
El Paseo was a simulation of a war zone. Like Vietnam, it was hot; helicopters and airplanes were constantly flying overhead; and it had large reptiles and giant lizards.
At the beginning of her time in EL Paseo, Connie had not fully adjusted to her surroundings. “Still a little vain, I was cleaning the dirt and sweat off my face and wanting to apply lipstick,” she said.
It was not until she was pronounced “dead” one day during a simulation for failing to duck after a helicopter swooped overhead that she had a wake-up call.
After her field training in EL Paseo, it was finally time for Connie to go to Vietnam. However, before arriving in El Paseo, Connie was told that “whatever grows will grow in Vietnam.”
In Vietnam, Connie saw huge lizards, monkeys, and giant trees with their bark burnt off. During her first night, she recalls hearing lizards on the ceiling.
She stayed the rest of the time in a city in Long Binh where she worked in an evacuation hospital.
Attending 20 patients at a time while working 12-hour shifts six days a week, she provided medication, inserted IVs, dressed and sometimes fed patients, and assisted tracheotomy patients.
Taking patients to chapel services with the other nurses, she also supported them emotionally and spiritually.
Connie also accomplished procedures that nurses in the US did not typically perform. For example, on one occasion, she put a chest tube into a patient in critical condition, a responsibility usually assigned to a physician.
“I was really scared,” she said. “I thought I had done something wrong because the patient was filling up with fluid, and it was gushing out before I could put the tube in, but the doctor said I did exactly what I was supposed to do.”
An essential part of Connie’s responsibilities was triaging patients. When more patients were injured than medical professionals, she had to assess whom to take care of quickly.
“You’d have 20 minutes, and you would save the life that could be saved and come to the reality that another person was going to die,” she said.
However, all the nurses ensured that the other patients did not die alone. Attending to those who were the most abled first meant that either a nurse or a patient could sit with other patients close to death.
Connie developed a thick skin for handling injuries.
She learned to do as the Tuskegee Dean had told her, “When you enter a hospital, you drop your feelings at the door and step on them.”
Connie maintained that you cannot panic during an emergency because you must remain the expert. “When you’re away from the situation, that’s when you have time to put yourself back together,” she said.
Before she left for Vietnam, she was told that “whatever internal body part a person has, you might have seen it,” as a result of war injuries in Vietnam.
After mass causalities, it was not uncommon for Connie to see human body parts preserved by medics in case they needed to be re-attached to a living patient. On one occasion, she recalls seeing a person whose backside was open, and she could see his kidneys pulsating.
Experiencing highly stressful situations, Connie often went to the local chaplain to help herself process traumatizing situations.
Connie faced other challenges.
As a result of her age and race, she recalls people sending letters addressed to her, the “Captain Black Nurse,” to start sexual relationships. Since she was the only black captain who had achieved that rank, she knew the letters were addressed to her.
“They assumed I was easy, and that was insulting, “ she said.
Looking back, she realized that there were instances where she had been sexually harassed. “It probably happened to me, but I didn’t have anything to compare it to at the time,” Connie said.
As an officer, Connie also dealt with ageism and resentment from nurses. She was younger, yet she had ranked above them because she had achieved a higher education from Tuskegee and also fulfilled more requirements during her time in the army.
Still, Connie continued with her responsibilities and went beyond the call of duty by healing the wounded and praying for the dead.
When she left Vietnam in 1968 after 12 months in service, Connie spent a month in her hometown of Birmingham. At times, she recalls feeling misunderstood and disconnected from everyone except other Vietnam veterans. Her parents also did not talk much about the events that had unfolded the year before.
“While in Vietnam, I sent my parents pictures of water that people had been drinking out of, bathing in, and doing every else in, but, by the time the pictures came back, the environment looked beautiful, not like the mess I’d been in,” Connie said.
Despite the magnitude of her contributions to her country, Connie was mistreated by people when she arrived back in the US. She was called hateful names such as “baby killer” in Chicago when in uniform;
she was accused of not providing adequate patient care in Vietnam; she was verbally attacked by hippies in San Francisco.
“We were considered the enemy, not the warrior,” she said. “Coming back to the United States was the hardest part because of everyone’s response to us. That was actually worse than the trauma of Vietnam” she said.
Connie maintains that she does not have a PTSD diagnosis. However, one night, she told her husband that she was “smelling burnt flesh” while watching coverage of the war in Kuwait. Luckily, turning the TV off seemed to alleviate the problem.
Connie rose through the ranks throughout her career in the army and as a nurse, serving in the Army Nurse Corps 30 years with 5 years in active duty including 12 months in Vietnam and in the Army Reserve with tours of duty as Chief Nurse at the 801st General Hospital, and first Black Brigade Chief Nurse at the 30th Hospital Center at Ft. Sheridan. Meeting all her requirements, she retired as Colonel.
She was formerly Vice-President of National Women Veterans United (NWVU). She served as co-chair of the Chicago Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Parade Committee and the Illinois Veterans Advisory Council. She is currently an Associate Professor and former Nursing Program Director at Governors State University, an officer in the Coalition of Veterans Organizations (CVO), and a member of the Military Officers Association of America and the Reserve Officers Association.
Today, having earned a PhD in Public Health, she plays an instrumental role in keeping military and veterans’ issues at the forefront while she advocates for women, minority groups, mental health, and beyond.
Jill Grant is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has a special interest in biography writing. She has covered stories for the Pioneer Press, Chicago, and the Columbia Daily Spectator, NY, and more. She is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University and has worked in public relations. Jill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org