Home Before Morning, by Lynda Van Devanter, is the true story of an Army nurse in Vietnam. This brutally honest autobiographical memoir chronicles Van Devanter’s journey from idealistic, middle-class America, through living the horrors of the Vietnam war, through her post-war struggles to make sense of it, to the steps she was able to take to lay the memories to rest.
I pick up free books whenever I can, and this one came to me from a discard pile at the library. It’s hard to understand why it wasn’t kept. I think this may be one of the important books of its kind of the 20th century. Perhaps I am extraordinarily attracted to it because I am only a year different in age from Van Devanter. Perhaps I struggle with some leftover nagging guilt that I was fairly apathetic about the war when my peers were either dying in jungles or protesting U.S. government policy. I was certainly curious to see if the book had any relevance for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. I was not disappointed in the narrative, and probably all of those attractions proved true.
Lynda Van Devanter joined the Army because she was promised that it would be an easy way to receive her desired “surgical nurse” degree in one year. Motivated by that desire, and an optimistic patriotism, coupled with the promise that nurses in Vietnam were never killed, she signed up and headed west. If you are a child of the 1960s, you will surely identify with her trip across the U.S. with nursing-school buddy, Barbara. They loaded their gear into an old car and followed their dreams from town to town with the naive abandon of youth.
Shortly after reaching California, she found herself separated from Barbara and plunged into a hell on earth at Pleiku, in the mountains of western Vietnam. Hour after hour the medical unit tried to piece together the broken and shredded bodies of GIs, with hardly a break for rest. When they came up for air most of them were able to cope only by drinking heavily, smoking pot, and seeking comfort wherever they could. She recounts some of the individual horrors- the mutilated soldiers that she had known personally, the many who were sent to the “expectant” room (to die), the heroic efforts to save as many as possible despite lost limbs or worse. She recoiled from the brutality of the Viet Cong, and then at the retaliated in-kind actions of U.S. troops. Politically, she found herself changing from a girl who supported whatever the government said was right to a person who hated the horrors of war, and was willing to share that position with anyone.
While the narrative holds little back, the descriptions are not gory for the sake of gore, but will give you a shockingly realistic view of what medical units had to deal with on a daily basis. There are occasional bright spots of love, new life, and personal victories.
By the time you reach the end of her tour in Home Before Morning, you really understand the saying, common among soldiers, “Vietnam sucks so bad it sucks Freedom Birds [the helicopters one rode out of the country at the end of a tour] right out of the sky. And even if you make it back to the world, you find out the war’s already sucked out your brains and your heart.”
When she returned to the U.S. after her year, she learned, as did so many other Vietnam vets, that she was to be greeted with curses rather than kisses. Her family didn’t want to hear of her experiences; they wanted more of a travelogue. No one understood. She stopped telling anyone that she had been in Vietnam, and began having horrible nightmares. After performing surgeries in Nam, she found that she was treated as a rank beginner in U.S. hospitals, only being allowed to hand the doctors instruments. She quit nursing and slid into deep and serious depression.
Finally, Lynda began to find some places to belong. The field of kidney dialysis was brand new, and she became an expert in using this treatment. She first heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and realized this was the cause of her nightmares. She met some Vietnam veterans who were forming an organization to help other vets.
The book was written in 1983, at the turning point in her life. Van Devanter went on to be active in the Vietnam Veterans of America organization- being one of the first to point out that there were women vets as well as men.
Sadly, she died in 2002, of systemic collagen vascular disease, probably as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. She died with an outstanding law suit against the government, relative to that claim.
For anyone who remembers the Vietnam war, for anyone who has been to Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan, this book will strike a chord. The respect given to troops in the two eras is 180 degrees different, but I suspect that the feelings of those who served is very similar.
I definitely recommend Home Before Morning as a poignant look at a difficult period in our country’s history.
Paperback, 382 pages, Warner Books
Lynda Van Devanter Remembered (with photo)
Lynda Van Devanter Obituary (with early photo)