Roberta "Bobbie" Jean Mershon, 71, of Canal Winchester treated some of the most badly wounded soldiers of the Vietnam War after she arrived in the country as a 22-year-old Army nurse in 1969.
Those severely injured and burned soldiers typically were 19 or 20 years old, she said.
"It was just like, 'Oh, my God. I just don't know how they could ... have the strength to want to go on,' but a lot of these guys did," she said. "A lot of these guys were just very grateful for everything you did for them and took care of them, even though you knew when you looked at them that their lives were never going to be the same again. Never. There was no way they could be."
A native of Indianapolis, Mershon graduated from high school in 1965.
At the time, she said, women had four basic choices for a career -- teacher, secretary, hairstylist and nurse.
Mershon chose to become a nurse.
She was attending St. Vincent School of Nursing in Indianapolis when she learned of an Army program to increase its number of registered nurses.
If students would agree to serve two years, those joining the program would have Army private-first-class rank during their senior year, when they would be paid at that grade, she said. They would be commissioned as second lieutenants upon graduating.
Twelve members of her nursing class signed up. Upon graduating, they reported to the Army and had "five minutes between discharge (as a private) and commission," she said.
"Why we didn't all get up and walk out the door, I don't know," she said.
The new lieutenants knew they would travel, and "everybody pretty much went across the country," she said.
An early assignment was at Fort Ord, a former Army post on Monterey Bay in California, about an hour from San Francisco.
"I couldn't have asked for more," she said.
Training and turmoil in Texas
Her most extensive Army training was at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where, "I was not a G.I. Jane," she said.
The nurses' basic training was more relaxed than that of enlisted personnel, she said.
"You could party every night if you wanted," she said, but nurses quickly learned "the right way of doing things and the Army way of doing things."
On a long walk during a map-reading course, a helicopter arrived and hovered above the nurses, and the pilot announced on a bullhorn, "You are completely off the map-reading course. Please return to the beginning," she said.
About this time, she met her future husband and then Army captain, Dan Mershon. He shipped out for Vietnam in August 1969, and his future wife recalled, "Oh, my gosh. My heart was broken."
In September, she telephoned the Department of the Army in Washington, D.C., and asked the soldier answering the phone to pull her name for orders to Vietnam.
"Why in the world would you want to leave sunny California for Vietnam?" he asked her before granting her request.
She arrived at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh, near Saigon. At the time, the U.S. military had a rule that two family members could not be in the same battle zone. So her brother, David, a Marine lance corporal, was sent back to the United States.
She was assigned to a ward that specialized in surgical critical care, with an intensive-care area and a recovery room. The hospital also was the U.S military's burn center for all of Vietnam.
"Unless you're in a war zone, you don't see wounds" like Mershon saw at Long Binh, she said.
Immediate acclimation to hospital in Vietnam
The first day she was there -- "in my bright green uniform and shiny black boots" -- she was being introduced to hospital staff members, she said. Sitting nearby was a wounded helicopter pilot. A graft had been used to treat a bullet wound that nicked his iliac artery, and "the graft that they had put on blew."
"I watched while all of my soon-to-be co-workers transfused about 30 units of O-positive blood into this guy -- because it was just pouring out of him -- and brought him back to the (operating room) to have that repaired. ... I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what have I gotten myself into? ... Am I going to be able to do this?'
"You don't really have time to think about those things when you're working in a surgical ICU setting," she said. "Within a week, because we didn't keep him that long, that patient was my patient, and I was almost afraid to touch him because I did not want that graft to blow again. So you learn.
"You realize what has to be done and you do it. It's just that simple. You let your instincts take over and you start working."
'Mass cal' incident for small, tired staff
Three nurses and three corpsmen were on duty one night when what the Army called a mass-casualty incident, commonly called a "mass cal," occurred. A mass cal is when more than 50 patients arrive at once, she said.
"I expected the recovery room to be filled. What I didn't expect was that so many of those guys would meet the criteria for staying in ICU," she said. "Generally, you didn't ask the next shift to come in and help you because you knew that they were going to (need) their strength and wits about them to carry on after you left. So you just learn to work with the corpsmen, and I can't tell you enough good things about the corpsmen that I worked with. They were fantastic.
"Their role was to help us, assist us in vital signs, and some of them did some of the blood draws; some helped get the patients up; ... some did respiratory therapy. You name it, they did it."
She continued: "We ended up with so many patients by the time morning shift came that we had filled all 38 regular ICU beds. Plus we had some in recovery-room beds that could not be discharged. You just simply had to work smarter, faster and more efficiently, and that's simply what you did."
It was the kind of scenario for which the nurses couldn't really train in advance, she said.
"There was no place to get that kind of training, if you think about it," she said. "This is a wartime situation. Even if it was some kind of mass cal with (an) accident or something like that, these wounds were not the same. The ammunition that they used didn't just penetrate. It was designed to stop the enemy, and that's just exactly what it did.
"So instead of going through the arm or whatever, it would take your arm off, and it would bounce around inside your guts ... and hit in as many organs as you could possibly imagine. I was used to a diagnosis of cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). Well, when you got these patients, the list of their diagnoses was half the page. Because the shrapnel, the bullets -- whatever -- would hit all of these organs. So you just didn't have a one-system injury. It was usually multisystem -- everywhere," she said.
The nurses worked 12-hour shifts six days a week.
"You don't even know you're exhausted," she said. "I'm going to tell you: You've got the adrenaline pumping. You call back to the OR, let the doc know what's going on here."
One patient began to bleed badly after surgery.
"You start getting blood in to replace the blood because ... there were four patients already on that operating table," she said. "There was no place to send this guy back to be repaired again. So the blood flowed, let me tell you. We transfused and transfused, keeping his blood pressure up, monitoring, but that took one nurse and one corpsman just to take care of that particular patient and make sure he did OK.
"So the rest of us had to then step up again and start assessing and making sure everybody that we had taken care of was stable and in good shape. ... It was quite the night."
Burns 'beyond the third-degree category'
The burn injuries at the hospital were "probably the worst of the worst," she said.
The patients were anywhere from "75% burned to 90% burned, and you're talking 6-foot-3 guys."
"The exposed areas would be the worst, so you would have facial burns, hands that went well beyond the third-degree category," she said. "It was almost like well-done meat on some of these patients."
Burn patients were treated with sulfodene, which resembles a cold cream, she said.
"Once a shift, you would take tongue (depressors) and start scraping off all of that sulfodene, debriding as you went," she said. "It was OK if you had 100% third-degree burns. You didn't feel anything. But there were a lot of people who were not third-degree burns and you would have to medicate them."
Patients being flown to U.S. hospitals in Japan were heavily bandaged before the trip to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. It was not an easy thing for them to go through, she said.
Napalm caused most of the burn cases, she said. U.S. soldiers were hit by napalm in friendly-fire incidents, she said.
Others were injured while riding in tanks hit by enemy fire. In a tank, "there's no place for the compression of a round to go except on that patient," she said.
"They would come in with limbs missing, all kinds of injuries, in addition to being burned," she said.
Napalm also hit "a lot of Vietnamese who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was very sad," she said.
Humor, laughter as medicine
Amid the human suffering, Mershon said, she didn't have time to cry.
"You don't think about it," she said. "You compartmentalize it. ... There were 38 tragedies just about every day I went in, just because of the fact I was in ICU. If you thought about those, you would be in a heap on the floor, crying. So you simply had to put that in a place in your mind where you didn't think about it and just go and do the things you needed to do to get them in the best possible shape so that they could go home and continue their lives."
Those working in the hospital bonded as a family, she said.
"They were your family because those were the people you interacted with 12 hours a day," she said. "And a lot of times after your shift was over, we'd go out to one of the clubs and have a steak because there was more steak at Long Bihn that you could possibly imagine. And then you go home and go to bed because you were so tired. ...
"I actually went home after a shift. I got off at 7 and overslept till 7 the next morning," she said. "Those guys were your family. They were totally your family. In the middle of the night, if there wasn't anything going on -- and sometimes there wasn't -- ... we would play slapjack, and it was usually the corpsmen and us, and I was a slapjack queen, I have to tell you."
Mershon recalled a particular patient whose injury wasn't quite as severe as he had thought, and she used humor to comfort him.
"Most of (the patients) were younger than I was," she said. "I had this one guy who came in. He had some sort of abdominal injury, and they put a drainage tube in his incision. During the night, it had slipped out. Oh my gosh, he thought he was going to die. No matter what I said -- 'You're going to be fine' -- it was in his mind that he was going to die because he lost that drainage tube on the first night, post-op.
"Finally, I looked at him. I said, 'Look soldier, that was property of the United States Army. You don't get to keep it.' And even he had to laugh at that," she said.
At Christmas, she flew to Phu Loi Base Camp, where boyfriend Dan was a security officer.
During an R&R, "we just decided we were going to Hawaii to get married, and that's what we did," she said.
"We went on R&R to Hong Kong and vacation to Hawaii," she said.
They were married by a justice of the peace, with his secretary acting as maid of honor and a janitor as best man, she said.
Struggles upon return to United States
When she returned to the U.S. at Travis Air Force Base in California, the military there suggested they change into civilian clothes so they wouldn't be harassed by civilians in San Francisco.
She had sat next to "a young college kid" on a plane ride to Denver, and he told her, "You took care of those baby killers," she said. "And I thought, 'Oh, my God, things have changed.' "
She began working at a civilian hospital and was asked if she "knew how to start an IV, properly suction the patient," the things she had been doing "nonstop for the last year. It was demeaning. It truly was demeaning," she said.
"The person who really suffered that the most was my husband," she said. "I believe there were times he was considered one of those crazy Vietnam vets and was held back in his job because of it. ... It was not unusual then for that to happen."
She said she would think about the patients from time to time, wondering whatever became of them.
"Because we only kept the patients four days just to stabilize them," she said. "In most of my nursing, when you discharge someone, we're good to go. (Many of the patients in Vietnam) had the most struggling yet to come when they left us. So that has always been a hard thing, I think, for all of us nurses to try to live with."
Because Dan Mershon grew up in Groveport, the couple decided to settle in Canal Winchester, where they stayed.
She served on Canal Winchester City Council for 28 years and worked at Grant Medical Center for 40 years. She is a member of the Franklin County Veterans Service Commission and participates in several veterans organizations.
Her decorations include the National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Campaign Medal with two bronze stars and an overseas bar.
Her advice to struggling veterans is this: "Your time in the military should not be the high point of your life. That is something that occurred. You did your best. You did what you were supposed to do, but that doesn't mean that's the last thing you can do. ... Too many people, their claim to fame is their time in the service.
"You need to use that as a basis to move on, to use what you learned in the military, to exceed in other areas of your interest and use that knowledge to help you get where you want to be. Because there's a whole heck of a lot of life ... For two or three years that you served in the military, don't let that be the highlight of your life. ... Keep moving up."
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