Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War

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"'I never got a chance to be a girl,' Kate O'Hare Palmer lamented, thirty-four years after her tour as an army nurse in Vietnam. Although proud of having served, she felt that the war she never understood had robbed her of her innocence and forced her to grow up too quickly. As depicted in a photograph taken late in her tour, long hours in the operating room exhausted her both physically and mentally. Her tired eyes and gaunt face reflected th e weariness she felt after treating countless patients, some dying, some maimed, all, like her, forever changed. Still, she learned to work harder and faster than she thought she could, to trust her nursing skills, and to live independently. She developed a way to balance the dangers and benefits of being a woman in the army and in the war. Only fourteen months long, her tour in Vietnam profoundly affected her life and her beliefs."

Such vivid personal accounts abound in historian Kara Dixon Vuic's compelling look at the experiences of army nurses in the Vietnam War. Drawing on more than 100 interviews, Vuic allows the nurses to tell their own captivating stories, from their reasons for joining the military to the physical and emotional demands of a horrific war and postwar debates about how to commemorate their service.

Vuic also explores the gender issues that arose when a male-dominated army actively recruited and employed the services of 5,000 women nurses in the midst of a growing feminist movement and a changing nursing profession. Women drawn to the army's patriotic promise faced disturbing realities in the virtually all-male hospitals of South Vietnam. Men who joined the nurse corps ran headlong into the army's belief that women should nurse and men should fight.

Officer, Nurse, Woman brings to light the nearly forgotten contributions of brave nurses who risked their lives to bring medical care to soldiers during a terrible — and divisive — war.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Drawing on hundreds of interviews, Vuic (history, Bridgewater Coll.) provides vivid insight into the nursing experience during the Vietnam War in a time when men and women were just beginning to rethink gender roles and norms. She explains that many young women signed on out of a sense of patriotic duty while others simply sought travel opportunities in foreign lands and put off the traditional marriage and children route expected of them. The Army Nurse Corp provided nontraditional opportunities for women while giving them a traditional role as caregiver. Facing a serious nursing shortage, the army was forced to offer equal rank, pay, and career advancement while implying that women would enjoy the attention of men from around the world and marriage proposals. While these women were educated, many holding advanced degrees, and expanding the role of nurses, they still had to cope with being objectified. As one nurse said, "You really learn how to maneuver, how to protect yourself." VERDICT Vuic demonstrates that while the army has made strides toward accepting women, it still has a long way to go. Anyone with an interest in military history or women's studies will want to read this accessible and engaging book.—Patti C. McCall, AMRI, Albany, NY

Vuic's book is important reading for anyone wanting a more thorough understanding of more than just the Vietnam War or nursing history. Its relevance also encompasses enduring complexities of gender, cultural representations, and collective memory. Highly recommended.

Minerva: Women and War

The best one volume treatment available that integrates the personal experiences of nurses with a nuanced understanding of social, political, military, gender, and women’s history alongside feminist theory.

Book Bargains and Previews

A very interesting social history that deserves to be wide read.

Minerva: Women and War
The best one volume treatment available that integrates the personal experiences of nurses with a nuanced understanding of social, political, military, gender, and women’s history alongside feminist theory.
H-Minerva, H-Net Reviews - Tanya L. Roth

Vuic offers an important new contribution to how we understand women's participation in the U.S. military after World War II.

Nursing History Review - Mary T. Sarnecky

Utilizing a feminist paradigm, Kara Dixon Vuic's evocative and unique dissection of the collective gender experiences of Army Nurse Corps officers in Vietnam and its aftermath breaks new ground in the history of military nursing... I found Officer, Nurse, Woman quite intriguing. I can unreservedly recommend it as a valuable addition to the literature documenting nurse participation in the Vietnam War.

Journal of American History - Susan Gelfand Malka

Excellent study... The strength of this book is Vuic's main source: nurses who served in Vietnam... Officer, Nurse,Woman enriches a growing body of literature on second-wave feminism’s broad impact and successfully challenges and complicates the dominant narrative of military history and destabilizes familiar categories—especially our notions about women and war.

Journal of Military History - D'Ann Campbell

A well researched, well written account that will be used by professors and students who wish to understand better the complexity of gendered military service.

Bulletin of the History of Medicine - Julie Fairman

Provides an important foundation for understanding how military women reflect social and cultural gender roles, how institutions respond to and influence gender norms, and how the response shapes and challenges our understanding of citizenship and nation... Vuic's book will be important for scholars of the time period as well as those interested in gender, women's work, nursing history, and the military.

Historian - Penelope Adams Moon

This is a wonderful book, chock full of oral history and riveting personal stories. It makes a meaningful contribution to Vietnam War and twentieth-century gender historiography.

Oral History Review - David J. Caruso

Vuic's Officer, Nurse, Woman is an important text for those interested in the history of nursing, the history of military medicine, gender studies, military history, oral history, and studies of women's work and serves as a superb example of the usefulness of oral histories in historical analysis.


Vuic's book is important reading for anyone wanting a more thorough understanding of more than just the Vietnam War or nursing history. Its relevance also encompasses enduring complexities of gender, cultural representations, and collective memory. Highly recommended.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801893919
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/2009
  • Series: War/Society/Culture
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Kara Dixon Vuic is an assistant professor of history at Bridgewater College.

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Table of Contents

Introduction "Lady, you're in the army now" 1

1 "The Bright Adventure of Army Nursing": Meeting Nursing Demands for the Vietnam War 13

2 "An officer and a gentleman": Gender and a Changing Army 43

3 "A wonderful, horrible experience": Nursing Education and Practice 71

4 "Helmets and hair curlers": Gender and Wartime Nursing 89

5 "I'm afraid we're going to have to just change our ways": Wives, Mothers, and Pregnant Nurses in the Army 113

6 "You mean we get women over here?": Gender and Sexuality in the War Zone 136

7 "Not All Women Wore Love Beads in the Sixties": Postwar Depictions of Vietnam War Nurses 161

Conclusion: Officers, Nurses, and Women 187

Notes 195

Essay on Sources 259

Index 265

Illustrations follow pages 82 and 178

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