Saying thanks to a Vietnam nurse, women who served

By Cliff Buchan

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve become fully aware of the need and personal responsibility to say thanks to Vietnam veterans.

It’s the war of my generation and in the years that it raged to its most brutal levels, I was safely removed, a college student watching from afar.

In the early years of the war, years when I was still in high school, I was hawkish and firmly believed in the effort. That changed in my college years, perhaps largely becuse I was of military service age. How opinions can change.

Thanks to the luck of the draw in the Vietnam lottery, I never served in the military. My high draft number was never reached.

Not so for one of my college dorm buddies. His birthday was one day different than mine. His number was low and he was gone in a matter of weeks with the draft calling his name.

From a history standpoint, I’ve always found the war fascinating, intriguing.

My interest grew even deeper through my friendship with Chris Sauro, a Wyoming insurance agent who served in Vietnam as a Marine and later wrote a book, “The Twins Platoon,” which followed many of his platoon mates who took their military oath on the diamond of old Metropolitan Stadium in June of 1967. By the end of the year, most of the Marines were in Vietnam, including Sauro. He spent all of 1968 there and rode out the Tet Offensive.

His book and service in Southeast Asia has been the subject of several stories in this newspaper. It was Sauro, too, who helped start the fire in local resident Diane Finnemann, the woman who single-handedly pushed the Forest Lake City Council to become the first city in the state to proclaim Vietnam Veterans Day.

Her efforts continue and this Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of the day as the community will gather at American Legion Post 225 to once again say thanks and welcome home the Vietnam vets who were often neglected, often abused by the public on their return to the United States.

As I thought more about this year’s program and its special tribute to women who served in Vietnam, most as nurses, it hit me like a ton of bricks. There was a personal family thank you due and one sadly lost in the shuffle of time.

Maybe it was through the contacts with Sauro and Finnemann. Perhaps it had something to do with another Vietnam book that came my way this winter.

After so many years of studying the war, trying to capture its impacts on the Forest Lake area through the service of its young men and seeing the need to correct a mistake from the past, I realized I had a family tie to the war that somehow had been forgotten.

It came home hard as I read Kim Heikkila’s “Sisterhood of War, Minnesota Women in Vietnam,” Minnesota Historical Society Press. There in Chapter One, the first woman introduced to readers is Valerie Buchan, my first cousin.

She is one of 15 nurses with Minnesota connections who fill the chapters of this 208-page book that for the first time sheds light on what it was like for female nurses who landed in the middle of a war and what it was like for them when they returned home. In most circles, the center of attention in the aftermath of the war has been on the male soldiers.

What hit me the hardest was the realization that for more than 40 years I had never paid much attention to this aspect of the war. Never paid attention to the fact that my uncle’s oldest daughter had gone off to war.

We are separated in age by more than a decade and the age difference could be why I lost track of Valerie. The few times when we were together during the immediate months after her service, there was little talk of Vietnam. Only in recent years did I come to understand why.

In reading Heikkila’s well-researched book that probed the motivation of these women, detailed their war experiences, and explored their return to the world, I couldn’t help but think of Valerie and what she must have gone through.

How tough was it over there? What was it like coming home? Did anyone at home ever bother to say thanks? Did anyone in our family ever both to thank her?

Her father, a World War I veteran, rarely spoke about his service in Europe, as I recall. He most certainly carried a deep pride for the fact Valerie stepped up to help her country. He may not have said it to others, but I know he thought it.

I stayed silent, I’m sure.

And that was wrong. At a time when when I was tucked safely in my college dorm room, Valerie was half a world away trying to save the lives of young men my age who were not so lucky.

After years of writing about the war and trying to do my part to show appreciation to those who served, my goal on Sunday is to carry the effort to a family level.

There’s a good chance that Valerie will be among Heikkila’s guests at the Legion Post here. Several of the nurses featured in the book will join the author for the program and be available to autograph copies of the book.

Join me in saying thanks to her and the other women who went off to Southeast Asia to do a job that had to be done. They were soldiers in every aspect of all those who went into the jungles not knowing if they would come back. Now it’s their turn to receive some last past credit. It’s as simple as saying welcome home and thank you.

We can only hope these nurses know that their service did not go unnoticed and they are equally deserving of the welcome home celebration most never received. Sunday is your chance. Sunday is my chance, to make amends and make sure it has not gone unnoticed.

About Valerie Buchan

Valerie Buchan is from Henning, a small town in west central Minnesota.  She knew as a young girl that she wanted to be a nurse, and in 1954 began her nurses’ training in Hamline University’s diploma program.

After graduating in 1957, she spent nine years nursing in the civilian field and absorbing the anti-communist messages of Cold War America. When the military nurse corps started recruiting nurses to serve in Vietnam, Valerie signed up.

She believed in the fight against communism and had been raised in a family with a long tradition of military service. Most importantly, she wanted to use her nursing skills to help care for soldiers wounded in Vietnam.

From 1966 to 1968, Valerie took care of wounded GIs who had been evacuated from Vietnam to Japan; then, in September, 1968, she arrived in Vietnam. She was assigned to the 12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi, where she worked as head nurse in the Emergency Room.

Valerie describes her patients as “wonderful people to take care of…our finest, finest young men.”

By the time she came home in the fall of 1969, she had begun to have doubts about the war, but was offended by the antiwar movement’s apparent focus on blaming the soldiers for the war. Valerie finished her active duty service at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts, where she had a chance to process her in-country experiences with others who had served in Vietnam.

After leaving active duty in 1971, Valerie spent the next 16 and a half years in the Army Reserves before retiring as a full colonel. She helped with the efforts to build the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and attended its 1993 dedication and five-, 10-, and 15-year anniversary celebrations.

Valerie Buchan retired in 2000 after working in the nursing profession for 43 years. She lives in Arden Hills.

(Editor’s Note: The above biography on Valerie Buchan was largely taken from author Kim Heikkila’s website for the book at which contains bios on each of the 15 nurses featured.)