View from Cam Ranh Bay Airbase: One Nurse’s Story

Joan Cragiwell graduated from Hampton University in Virginia. She was working at George Washington University in Washington, DC as a Registered Nurse when she volunteered for the Air Force.

“Like many people, I wanted to travel … my life had been very limited coming from the south,” Craigwell said. “I had spent four years training to become a nurse and my world was very small, so I wanted to go—and the thing that really excited me the most was that they had a flight nurses program in the military and I wanted to go to the School of Aerospace Medicine to learn how to become a flight nurse.”

So at 24 years old, Craigwell joined the military. When she got to Vietnam she was 30—older than most of the nurses. She served as a head nurse supervisor of a triage during a 12-month-tour. She was stationed at the 12th US Air Force Hospital at Cam Ranh Bay Airbase.

Port of Cam Ranh Bay, photo by Steven Newman

By the time Craigwell got to Vietnam she was familiar with, and used to, the culture, people, weather and climate of Southeast Asia—she had served for two years in the Philippines. She was also used to taking care of people from other cultures, which was important because her hospital included a unit comprised entirely of Vietnamese people.

“We weren’t too sure, and too trusting, that some of those people that were on that unit—that we were taking care of—could have possibly been the enemy. We weren’t too sure about that.”

This was part of the Med Cap—or Medical Civic Action Program, a service wherein members of the U.S. Military who served in medical roles provided outpatient care to the South Vietnamese, and in some cases made available inpatient treatments. Of course, this could make things difficult due to the language barrier.

Craigwell said that there were no interpreters there. Sometimes someone could speak both languages, but it was rare, so nurses had a hard time getting a medical history on the patients.

This was only part of Craigwell’s job. She also managed a 26-casualty staging unit, and that unit saw some volume, which meant Craigwell and her colleagues found themselves doing things that they may not be allowed to do stateside.

Craigwell was in Vietnam at the height of the Tet Offensive in January of ’68. She didn’t necessarily get to provide treatment the way she’d been trained—or the way she’d like to.

She said that typically a nurse would work with a doctor to get medical history of the patient, the patient would have a procedure and then be sent to recover, and the patient’s family would come in for discharge planning—leaving the medical team with a sense of where the patient’s going. This, of course, was not the case in Vietnam.

“During the Tet Offensive you were taking care of the patients so rapidly, you really had to numb over your feelings,” Craigwell said.

She said the thing she still feels guilty about is that the treatment she provided was procedural, and she was unable to implement some of the holistic elements she was taught. Instead she was constantly doing critical care nursing, often for upwards of 18 hours per day, providing life saving measures to people with Napalm burns, infected punji stick wounds, and AK-47 gunshot wounds, among many other physical traumas.

“Before I came back—just leaving Vietnam—there was a lot of cognitive dissonance that was going … trying to hold two ideas in my head at the same time and trying to satisfy each one and walk away feeling like ‘Okay, you did a wonderful job.’ I felt like I was leaving people behind that I needed still to take care of because I was highly skilled at what I did. And by the same token, I knew I needed to get out of there, because I couldn’t survive at that pace, day in and day out, for the rest of my life.”

Craigwell remembers that upon her return, she kept feeling depressed and didn’t understand why. She had vivid dreams about war causalities, and when she married a pilot she met in Vietnam, he couldn’t understand why some days she couldn’t get going and chose to sleep instead. She tried medication, but the side effects were too severe. Instead, she opted to keep busy. She returned to work within six weeks of returning from the war.

“When I came back, of course I started working, I was assigned ironically as a head nurse of a severe mental health unit—psychiatric nursing at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto, near Stanford.”

Craigwell remembers her time at the VA as being “heavy duty” and she retrospectively acknowledges that she was always looking for fast-paced environments, where something was constantly going on.

Still, she said felt weary from her year dealing with the causalities. Despite the weariness and the depression, if women had been able to extend their tours, Craigwell said she would have.

“I probably would have extended for about six months to bring some closure I think, unconsciously speaking, because what I was looking for was closure.”

What kind of closure? Knowledge.

“To know where the soldiers were going. What happened to them. If they survived. I didn’t know anybody’s name because everybody had a nickname.”

Not knowing names means not being able to search the granite Vietnam wall in Washington, DC, nor scour the internet.

But those soldiers are never far from Craigwell’s mind. She has, in her home, mementos from many of the soldiers she treated. She said that a lot of soldiers had never seen female nurses in a war zone and felt immense appreciation for the care they received. They showed their appreciation by giving her totems: medals or small trinkets from their pockets.

Craigwell has those items on her desk, though she doesn’t know what happened to most of the soldiers who gave them to her.

When Craigwell married in 1971, she joined her husband at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. She later went to graduate school in San Diego and began work at a VA Hospital as a head nurse supervisor at a Vascular Open Heart surgery unit. She teaches psychiatric nursing around San Diego where she works with homeless vets.

Craigwell is 80 years old and in good health, though she said she worries because most of her friends are older and not as healthy. She earned a bronze star for her service. She was awarded a Veteran’s National Commander’s Award and was inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame.

She still keeps in touch with many of those alongside whom she served. She’s an active, and outspoken advocate for veterans.

“Having been able to serve my country in such a tangible way, rather than sitting around in the reserve for 20 or 30 years and coming off with the rank of colonel, and not having put one day’s work into the kind of work we did. I feel very proud of what I did.”