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Pam Barrows graduated from Marshall High School in 1963. Following dreams of career and adventure, she left Minnesota for Denver, Colorado and the Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing.
As Pam approached her senior year of nursing school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduation, but she was certain of two things. First, she wanted an apartment her last year, rather than the student dorms. Second, she wanted to get away from Denver.
She applied for a commission in the Army Nurse Corps, believing this would accomplish both goals. The Army offered her a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant upon graduation in exchange for 2 years service. Pam and a nursing school friend, Diana Stewart, decided to join and stick together no matter what.
They attended their Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, then the Army assigned both to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Fort Polk in late 1967 was hardly a garden spot. Four months there under the thumb of a very stiff chief nurse convinced Pam that she needed to get away. She volunteered for Vietnam service.
She stepped off the plane into the heat and humidity of Vietnam in March 1968. She also stepped into the unknown. The war had just taken a discouraging turn during February’s Tet holiday when Viet Cong insurgents attacked government and U.S. facilities all over South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
If the Army had a transition program for new arrivals to Vietnam, Pam never saw it. The replacement system swept her up without so much as a “let’s get acquainted with Vietnam” film.
Pam was engaged to an officer assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Desiring to be as close as possible to her fiancé, she requested assignment to the 71st Evacuation Hospital (71st Evac) in Pleiku, the closest hospital to her fiancé’s unit. The chief nurse did not want to send a female nurse there because the Viet Cong had hit Pleiku during the Tet Offensive. Pam insisted, though, and got her wish.
The 71st Evac was busy. Pam recalled working 12 hour shifts, six days a week. She also recalled with great fondness her first head nurse at the 71st Evac, Major Haney. He was kind and supportive and made sure she and the other nurses knew where to go and what to do for their patients.
Pam recalled another group of colleagues who kept her head above water during her first months as an Army nurse at Fort Polk and in Vietnam – the enlisted corpsmen. They taught her a lot about nursing, patient care, and how to get things done.
The work at the 71st Evac was demanding, constant, and stressful. Pam recalled in a quiet voice, “Seeing all those young, healthy, perfect bodies injured was tough to deal with.” The 71st Evac did not have a program to help the staff deal with the strain of all the suffering or of fighting to save patients and not always winning that fight.
“We were only there for 365 days, Pam reflected, “and we started counting from day one.”
The stress came out in different ways for different people. “I saw people do things that were probably outside their value system,” Pam said, “but there was nothing to counterbalance [the stress].”
Being engaged helped Pam stay centered. She took leave in July 1968 to get married, then returned to Pleiku and the war.
Being a nurse enabled Pam to make a difference in her soldier patients’ lives every day. Sometimes they were small differences like changing a dressing or administering medication. Other times they were bigger differences like discovering a post-operative patient with the wrong medication in his IV hang bag. She quickly changed the medication to avoid a post-operative allergic shock to the young soldier.
She cared for many injured, young soldiers. Most, but not all of them left the 71st Evac with the rest of their lives ahead of them.
Pam completed her 365 days in Vietnam and returned to the U.S. for her next assignment in the hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia. She left the Army shortly thereafter in July 1970.
Pam explained that the biggest lesson she learned in the Army was, “To appreciate this country . . . particularly being out of it and coming back in, even with all its flaws.” Looking back at her time in uniform, she said, “I’ve never ever regretted being in the service. I almost wish everyone had the opportunity.”
The Vietnam War was controversial to many, but what should not be controversial is the service and sacrifice of those we sent there who served honorably.
Pam Barrows continues to care for soldiers today as an administrator for the Minnesota Veterans’ Homes in Minneapolis and around the state. Thank you for your service, Pam. Welcome home.
*Originally published in March 2005 and found in “To The Colors – 2005.”