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A Frontline Nurse for the Vietcong

For many in Vietnam, memories of what took place remain vivid. I recently visited Nguyen Thi Do, a former nurse with the National Liberation Front, also known as the Vietcong. After 10 years of wartime service, Ms. Do moved to Qui Nhon, a beachfront city in her home province on Vietnam’s Central Coast, where she helped administer a fishing company until retiring in 1989. She invited me into her living room with its stylish wooden furnishings, poured two cups of green tea, and shared her story.

When I was 17, National Liberation Front recruiters came to my village, Lo Dieu in the Hoai Nhon District of Binh Dinh Province. People in the region called Lo Dieu, about 130 miles south of Danang, a “cradle of revolution” because everyone there was so devoted to the cause.

They were enlisting everyone my age, and so on Jan. 1, 1966, I became part of the revolution. I was so young and naïve that the only thing I could do to help was to cook meals for officers and wounded soldiers at the military camp in the jungle nearby. The pot was too heavy for me to carry, and when I cooked rice, I had to use a big shovel to stir it. But I did a good job, so my boss decided I was ready to become a nurse.

After a few months of training, I was assigned to the 22nd Regiment. Even though my main job was delivering first aid, I also hauled rice, and sometimes joined battles, fighting just like an actual soldier. No matter who you were, your mission was to be devoted to contributing in every way to the revolution.

During the 1968 Tet offensive, the other nurses and I were on the front lines with the soldiers, treating wounded fighters and civilians right in the middle of the battle. I’ll never forget seeing my comrade, a 22-year-old medic from Yen Bai, die right in front of my eyes when an American bomb exploded in our small bunker. He was just a foot ahead of me when shrapnel from the bomb ripped him apart as the roof collapsed on us. A piece of the bombshell lodged in my head, and I lost consciousness. Someone must have found me and taken me to the field hospital for treatment. My wounds healed, but I will never recover from the wound in my heart whenever I think about my friend.

Once I recovered, I went back to working as a nurse, this time in a hospital behind the front, so I didn’t have to go into battle. There was never enough food for our unit and our wounded veterans. Some days we had nothing to eat but a fistful of roasted dry rice. We drank as much water as we could to fill our stomachs even though we knew the Americans’ release of toxic chemicals like the defoliant Agent Orange had poisoned our streams and groundwater. The alternative was to die of thirst.

After the Tet offensive, the war was so intense. At one point, 1,000 reinforcements joined our unit. But after two days of fighting, all of them had been killed.

When my unit ran low on medical supplies, I was sent out alone on a daylong journey through the forest to pick them up. My comrades at the warehouse gave me the supplies and two tapioca roots for dinner. On the way back the rain poured. As it grew dark, I heard loud noises that I knew must be a large animal. I was scared to death and stood motionless until it left. Then I walked on, my heart still beating fast.

Around midnight I hung my hammock just before another soldier on a mission appeared. But as we talked, I began to worry. I was alone in the middle of nowhere with a stranger who had been away from his wife for a long time. I raised my voice and began talking to him about moral values. “You are a woman,” he said, “but so abrasive.” When a group of troops came marching past at dawn, I was relieved to be able to follow them back to my unit. It’s hard to believe how strong I was back then.

The next day, after completing my mission, I was admitted into the Communist Party.

In 1972, I was chosen for a three-year doctor-training program. My companions and I walked for three and a half months up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi.

The leeches were the worst. There were so many of them, all along the way. We didn’t feel them sticking to our bodies and would notice them only when they were so full of our blood they fell off.

It’s embarrassing saying this, but we didn’t even have enough clothes to wear. Everyone had two pairs of dark clothes. We walked through the forest all day, and at night, we stopped to bathe in streams or rivers. Then we changed and washed our clothes, trying to squeeze them dry so we could use them as blankets to stay warm. Our body heat also helped them to dry more quickly.

Female soldiers didn’t even have underwear, let alone sanitary pads. We were so embarrassed every month. Whenever we came to a river, we waited for the others to cross first, so we could stop and rinse off as best we could.

We were hungry the whole way there. Sometimes we had to eat leaves, or roots. Our route took us past communication posts where we were supposed to be able to find food for the next leg of the journey. But often there was no more than tapioca roots. Once, in Quang Binh Province, we got a pack of dry food the size of two fingers instead of just tapioca. I remember thinking, Life is still so beautiful.

When we finally made it to the relative peace of the North, we were greeted as southern brothers and sisters, and everyone treated us so kindly. We were fed with shrimp, meat and vegetables every day.

During my third year of training, the South was liberated. I was so happy, I just wanted to go home right away. My fiancé wrote to me telling me not to worry about finishing the course — just come home. This time, I was able to take the bus instead of walking. The school paid me 50,000 dong, which is now only worth $2.50, but at the time, it was so much money that I didn’t even know what to do with it.

It was only after liberation, when I saw Americans celebrating on television, that I learned that people in the United States had protested against the war. Nowadays, more and more American veterans are returning to Vietnam. Our two countries have had normalized diplomatic relations for years. Many Americans regret what they did. I don’t have any feelings of revenge. I think national reconciliation is the most important thing.

However, there is a problem that makes me concerned. The young generation in Vietnam now doesn’t care about history, or about what their parents and grandparents did in the past. My 39-year-old son is an officer in the military, but he has never asked about my story or shown any interest in it. I worry that when my friends, my comrades and I are all dead, our history and our stories will die with us.

Tong Thi Xuyen is a writer in Lebanon, N.H., who grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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