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View from the bench: A Vietnam nurse turned judge

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Eileen Moore is currently an Associate Justice in California’s 4th District Court of Appeal, Division Three in Santa Ana. This is quite different from where she started her professional life: as a nurse in Vietnam.

“I happened to come along at a time when women who did not come from families with money really had very few opportunities in life,” Justice Moore said. “That is, they could get married and have children and be a wife. And if they worked, they could be a teacher, a nurse, or a clerk typist—secretary. But really very few other options.”

While Justice Moore was in nursing school, the Army came to her campus to talk about enlisting. She said it “lit a fire” under her to serve her country, so she did it.

Justice Moore working as a nurse in an army hospital in Germany
Justice Moore working as a nurse in an army hospital in Germany.

Just a couple months after graduating nursing school, Justice Moore deployed for Vietnam as a registered nurse and received a direct commission as a Second Lieutenant.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Justice Moore described her parents as “very patriotic people” who were proud of her decision to join the service. She doesn’t think they questioned the war, and said they were very supportive of her decision to go.

“I had a strong feeling within my heart and soul that I was doing the right thing and I was serving my country and what I was doing was moral and ethical,” she said. “When I got over there almost immediately I realized that something was askew and that I wasn’t so sure about what was happening. It didn’t seem right to me that these young boys should be coming in beaten and battered and wounded and dead. I didn’t understand why that was happening and what we were—what America was protecting itself from.”

Justice Moore talked to a Catholic Chaplain whom she hoped would help her learn how to analyze and think about the situation. She said the priest let her down.

He told her “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. Justice Moore said she was terribly confused and wishes he had given her more guidance than he did.

“Every single time a soldier came in with some sort of wound or malady that could be fixed, so-to-speak, healed, and he was sent back into the jungle—I had taken an oath to heal and I kept feeling that I was responsible for healing him, if he died when he was sent back it would be my fault. I was just confused. Guilt ridden and confused.”

Justice Moore said the guilt manifested itself constantly and she often cried herself to sleep. She lived in a Vietnamese villa that had been taken over as a place for nurses to live. They had cots and mosquito nets, and could hear something crawling through the walls, and mortars going off. She still remembers the constant smell of decay and tar, and that at one time she had 183 mosquito bites.

“It was just an incredibly uncomfortable situation all the time.”

She was aware, though, of how superior her living conditions were to those of the soldiers and she knew they did not have the luxury of crying.

When asked to describe what it was like serving as a nurse in Vietnam, Justice Moore opened by saying “the guilt was omnipresent” before sharing the story of one memorable soldier she treated.

“I do not dwell on this at all. I put it behind me and just went forward with my life. I could conjure it up, but I don’t want to conjure it up.”

When Justice Moore returned from Vietnam she read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

“When I read Friedan’s book, I was so naïve that I thought she was talking to me. I re-read it about five years ago and I realized she wasn’t talking to the likes of me, she was talking to women who had college degrees and were wasting them by driving their kids around in station wagons … I thought she was telling me that I could go to college and the idea of studying at a university was so exciting to me.”

When she decided to go to college she remembers her mom saying “Oh, you’re just a little anxious. Why do you want to do something like that? Why don’t you take a ceramics class? That’ll probably calm you down.”

She thinks her parents were afraid of failure on her behalf, but she said Vietnam gave her the backbone to go for it.

When she started school at UC Irvine, Vietnam Veterans Against the War were frequently on campus, protesting and making speeches. She remembers attending and looking around, wondering how many of the attendees were FBI informants.

Justice Moore doesn’t recall disagreeing with anything, but also considered herself a patriotic young woman. Even back home, she still experienced similar confusion to that which plagued her in Vietnam. She continued to think about it as little as possible. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late-nineties when she began thinking about her Vietnam experiences again. She was a superior court judge at the time and the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America asked her to speak at an event at the Nixon Library.

Justice Moore speaks at burial
Justice Moore speaking at burial of Vietnam Veteran who met her at Nixon Library.

In retrospect Justice Moore said she is able to view her time in Vietnam as an educational experience, one that has informed her work in the California courts.

She started a veterans’ working group for all California Courts. Through the group she hopes to ensure that the courts are ready to implement changes the legislature makes to laws concerning veterans—that people involved in the court system understand rules and procedures, and have the information they need to implement changes that are made.

Justice Moore said she views everything that happened after Vietnam as a checklist for how we should do the opposite for today’s returning veterans.

She said she worries about how a soldier can now transition from combat to civilian life in a matter of hours, absence the processing time soldiers of the World War II era had during their longer trips home. She hopes people remember that soldiers can’t “shake it off” sometimes.

“If they find themselves sideways with the law they shouldn’t be treated as a typical criminal,” Justice Moore said. She believes they should get a chance to pay their debt to society in a way that’s not quite as punitive as they would ordinarily receive if they weren’t suffering from PTSD, mental health issues or using drugs and alcohol as a result of their service.

While Justice Moore is open about the fact that she spent much of her post-war life trying to think as little as possible about her time in the Vietnam War, she also acknowledges that her experiences there motivated her to pursue an education.

“Once you’ve been to Vietnam you can probably do anything, so even though I came from a family where there was no education and there was no college experience, and there was no grabbing for a brass ring, I think probably Vietnam helped me to just grab for that brass ring.”

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