- Written by Robert Naeye Robert Naeye
In the December 2017 issue of 50plus LIFE I told the story of Ann Thompson, who served as an Army nurse during the early period of direct American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Now I turn to her friend and fellow nurse, Linda Goodhart, of Palmyra, who served in Vietnam four years after Thompson, from October 1969 to October 1970.
Goodhart was born in Philadelphia in 1947 and graduated from nearby West Chester High School. She went directly into a three-year nursing program at Philadelphia General Hospital, where she received her diploma.
The Army helped pay for her training in return for two years of service and four years of active reserve — although she was never specifically told about the additional four years.
“The Army was my way of saving money for college,” says Goodhart.
Like Thompson, Goodhart attended officer’s training school at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. She learned basic navigation skills and how to shoot 45-calibre pistols. She also performed tracheotomies on goats to learn basic combat surgery.
But she agrees with Thompson that her Army training was woefully inadequate for the grim realities of wartime medicine.
“I wasn’t expecting to go to Vietnam, so I didn’t think about it,” she recalls.
But her Philly hospital would often treat very sick patients or victims of gunshot wounds or domestic abuse.
“You really got to see terrible things, so I felt, ‘I can do this, no problem,’” Goodhart says. “I thought it couldn’t get much worse than this — then I found out it could.”
Goodhart took a flight across the Pacific to Saigon. When she arrived, the heat and humidity hit her hard.
Making matters worse, nobody at the airport had her name, so she had no idea where to go. But she eventually figured things out by asking questions.
A few days later she was flown by helicopter to the 91st Evacuation Hospital in the area of Chu Lai Air Base, about 100 miles south of the demilitarized zone. The pilot flew over the South China Sea to avoid enemy fire.
She spent her first three months in the South Vietnamese ward, treating primarily civilians and children. She was overwhelmed by the sight of so many patients.
“It was difficult at times dealing with that population because you couldn’t speak their language, but eventually we could figure out what they wanted,” says Goodhart.
Goodhart recalls one tragic incident where she and her colleagues were treating a comatose boy about 2 or 3 years old. His brain was swollen from malaria.
As was common in Vietnam hospitals, family members came to stay with the patients. The boy’s mother spoke very good English, so a nurse took her to the intensive care unit to translate for an enemy patient.
Shortly thereafter, the boy went into cardiac arrest. The doctors and nurses tried everything they could to save him, but he didn’t make it.
“When the mother came back, I had to tell her that her son had died and that we did everything we could,” recalls Goodhart.
The mother spent the night holding her baby. The next day the mother thanked Goodhart for trying to save her child, and Goodhart broke out in tears. But that was the last time she cried in Vietnam.
Goodhart’s evacuation hospital was relatively small, with about 70 beds and 20-25 nurses. But her Army base also had a surgical hospital. Goodhart’s hospital was located on a gorgeous beach, but with 12-hour shifts six days a week, she had little time to appreciate it.
Conditions were often primitive. The hospital’s only air conditioning was in the ICU. All personnel were given daily doses of antibiotics to fend off infections. And they had to contend with pouring rain without adequate clothing and footwear.
Goodhart asked her parents to send her a heating blanket, which she used to prevent items on her bed from collecting mildew.
Officers had to pay for their meals. The Army food wasn’t great, but it was edible. To spice things up, Goodhart wrote home and asked her parents to send bottles of A.1.
“Pretty soon people started sitting with me so they could use my steak sauce,” she says.
Her parents also sent her copies of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which would generally arrive about a week late.
“I would read these stories and think, ‘This isn’t what’s going on here.’ The secret war in Cambodia was secret to the news people and to the people in the United States, but it wasn’t so secret to us because we’d get those folks [at the hospital].”
The hospital had a triage system that prioritized military personnel over civilians. Abdominal wounds usually came first, and brain injuries often came last. Patients with less severe injuries were kept either in “the rear” or at another hospital.
“Our philosophy was that if they live 12 hours, they’ll live for the rest of the time. But if they get too well too quickly, they get to go back to the fight. That’s what Army medical is for — to preserve the fighting strength.”
Goodhart frequently cared for enemy prisoners. There was always a military police officer present — two if prisoners were numerous — so Goodhart felt safe.
North Vietnamese POWs sometimes showed genuine appreciation for the care they received. Goodhart befriended two North Vietnamese captives who were later shot in cold blood by South Vietnamese soldiers while being driven to a POW camp.
In stark contrast, Goodhart describes Vietcong prisoners as “very scary people” who would sometimes threaten to slit the throats of the doctors and nurses. These guerillas were often from the local area, so from their perspective, they were defending their homeland against foreign invaders.
The movie M*A*S*H came out in 1970, when Goodhart was on leave in Hong Kong. She says many of the characters were similar to doctors and nurses in Vietnam. The movie was set in the Korean War, but it was really about Vietnam.
One thing the movie (and television series) depicted accurately was what happened when wounded soldiers were coming in fast and furious. The doctors would have to practice “meatball surgery,” meaning they’d have to sew up patients and move them on.
“One of the biggest problems is that when we had new doctors coming in, they wanted to practice their specialties; they wanted to practice stateside medicine,” says Goodhart. “We would say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
Goodhart came home in October 1970 and attended college in Connecticut. She later went on to earn two master’s degrees in healthcare from Yale University. She moved back to Pennsylvania in 1980 to work in a nursing administration job at the Lebanon VA Medical Center.
After meeting at a Vietnam nurses group more than 25 years ago, in 1997 Goodhart and Thompson traveled with other nurses to Vietnam. The trip was pleasant and cathartic, and most of the locals were very friendly. She even got to reacquaint herself with one of her Vietnamese patients.
Besides their friendship born of common hardship and experiences, Goodhart and Thompson got together with three other Vietnam War nurses to coauthor the book Another Kind of War Story, which is available through Amazon.
Robert Naeye is a freelance journalist living in Derry Township. He is the former editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope magazine.