I want to introduce you to my longtime friend, Diana Dwan, who was a nurse in the US Army, serving two tours in-country. I don't know how I found out she was assigned to a hospital in Qui Nhon. I was with the 702nd MI Detachment and worked out of a small (7-man field office) in DaNang). I had a case to investigate in Qui Nhon and stopped by hoping to surprise her. It was a Sunday afternoon. Later I found out she often spent her "day-off" treating kids in the area or caring for patients at the local leper colony. I never saw her that day. About four years ago we reconnected via email and share memories when we were growing up. I think her story merits being shared, especially after attending Michigan’s first Women's Veteran Conference last week, where all the experiences of these strong, brave women need to be made known.
This memorial includes material found in a number of articles covering Diana Dwan Poole’s service as a nurse in the Vietnam War. Some of the material came from the book Women in Vietnam written by Ron Steinman as well as Newspaper articles in the News Palladium. In addition, some of the recollections are from conversations with Diana in 2018. This is her story.
Diana Dwan was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan and raised in the St. Joseph/Stevensville area. She grew up in a family with strong farming roots, attended school in the Lakeshore School District and graduated High School from St. Joseph Catholic in 1964. Diana was an outgoing, 5’-2’ ball of energy,
always busy with activities, and dreamed of being a doctor. Family finances prevented her from pursuing that goal, and she chose to become a nurse. She scrimped and saved her berry picking money (back when local kids actually did that work), and also studied hard to earn scholarships. She earned a
nursing scholarship from the DAV for her academics. She was the Western Michigan Military Ball Queen, and won the local, and State Apple Queen competition resulting in her touring the entire country promoting Michigan Apples.
She attended the Bronson School of Nursing in Kalamazoo, Michigan for her college training. The berry picking and scholarship money lasted until her final year of nursing school. While she was figuring how to pay for her final year’s tuition an Army Nursing recruiter showed up on campus. With a monthly check, a two-year active duty service commitment, and a promise she would not have to go to Vietnam, Diana took an oath to serve and enlisted in the Army.
Upon graduation from Nursing school in 1967 Diana’s next stop was Fort Sam Houston in Texas for her basic training in the Army Nurse Corps. From there she was assigned to Letterman Hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco. The orthopedic ward would be her work home for the next two years. Almost daily a new batch of Vietnam war wounded showed up on her floor. Broken bodies, with arms, legs or both missing from the carnage of war. 18 and 19 year olds, mere boys, whose lives had been changed dramatically. She called them “her little brothers” as they were not that much younger than she was, and they reminded her of her little brother. She nursed them back to health, made sure they did their physical therapy, and helped them begin their transition to their new reality. It was tough duty for a newly minted Second Lieutenant nurse. No classes were taught in school on how to deal with the sheer numbers of seriously injured people who kept coming in the doors of her ward.
Meanwhile, every 8 months Diana would get a new set of orders. Each time it was an order to go to Vietnam. Each time she went to her commanding officer and was told to ignore it. The Army was keeping their promise to her. As she worked with the soldiers who had returned from war and its human devastation, she began to think “I am missing something here, a piece of history.” She had already seen the devastating results of war, and thought it could not be any worse. So, at the beginning of her third year, even though she had fulfilled her initial commitment to the Army Nurse Corps, she volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Thirty days after volunteering for duty in Vietnam, she found herself on a plane full of “little brothers” dressed in fatigues, leaving Travis Air Force Base bound for Vietnam. She was now a Captain and was required to be in a Class A green uniform, complete with high heels and nylons for a 24- hour journey. Not exactly comfortable travel clothes. She had no idea what she was getting into. Here is how she described her arrival:
“From the air, Vietnam was beautiful. I got off at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. When they opened that door, the stench and the heat hit me smack in the face, and almost knocked me down. I couldn’t believe it, it smelled so awful. It was really horrible and hot...Three days later they sent me by helicopter to the 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon, which is about 250 miles north. It was horrible. I was going I hate this, I really hate this and I was dead tired from the trip. I was scared, but there was no turning back. When the helicopter landed on the hospital tarmac, they set my things on the ground. I climbed out, straightening my skirt. The soldiers in the helicopter yelled “Good Luck, Captain” as they took off.” “There were miles of barbed wire topped by concertina wire encompassing the hospital compound and the large adjoining airfield, with acres of hot concrete. I marched inside the grim cinder block building in from of me. I gratefully fell into an old iron bunk for some sleep before going to work the next morning. My hospital uniform the next day was...fatigues and Army boots just like the soldiers.”
The Army must have forgotten that there were women in Vietnam. The PX did not stock any personal hygiene items or toiletries for the women. Diana wore a women’s size 5 1⁄2 shoe, and the smallest boot available was a men’s size 7 1⁄2. The women stationed in Nam were dependent on what could be brought back from Japan on returning flights from medical airlifts. Other than that, they just had to be creative.
She was now a Captain and made Head Nurse on the Orthopedic Ward, which primarily held soldiers with traumatic amputations. She recalls: “Every day was the same! Get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, getup, go to work. We worked a minimum of 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.” She was managing a ward of about 30 patients. Very day would entail new arrivals and new discharges or “air evacuations”. On the off day they went off base to help treat people in the local orphanage or the Leprosarium..
During her first few months in Vietnam Diana was frustrated by the lack of adequate supplies to treat her patients. Brown paper towels were all that was available to wipe down bleeding wounds. Simple items like washcloths, soap, safety pins and other commonplace items that we all take for granted were sorely needed. She wrote the local newspapers back home in Southwest Michigan explaining the needs in Vietnam and asked for help. The area responded generously, and was so great that she was able to help stock other wards at the hospital. She even had enough to help supply local orphanages and a leprosy hospital.
Some of Diana’s patients during that time were especially memorable:
“I had one little guy on my ward that just came out of surgery. He had only one arm left...He woke up from anesthesia and said “I want a wheelchair now”! He kept insisting, so we got him a wheelchair and he went wild in that wheelchair, doing wheelies and all kinds of stuff up and down the ward. To this day I wonder what he is doing. What he has done with his life, or if he is even still alive. I wonder that about a lot of my “little brother” patients.”
She took her role as Head Nurse very seriously and developed a reputation for strictness. Many years after her Vietnam experience Diana received a phone call from a veteran orthopedic patient who had been assigned to her care. He had worked hard to find her. He said to her after his introduction, “My leg was badly injured, but you scared me to death. I was only 18 and you forced me to get up and walk. I was crying in pain every time I tried. I hated you! You told me if I did not walk that I would never be able to walk again. Not one day since I left Vietnam have I not thought about you. Today I am a grandfather and I walk without a limp...thanks to you”
The Hospital at Qui Nhon also treated wounded Viet Cong POWs. On one occasion, a POW was placed in Diana’s ward, right next to a US Army soldier who had his legs blown off...by that very same POW! Diana recalled: “The US soldier was screaming. “Why is he there? He’s the one who did this to me”. The POW kept spitting at me, yanking out his IVs, as fast as I kept putting them back in. I lost it, and was soon all over that POW at his throat, trying to choke him. Corpsmen had to pull me off. From then on I would not allow another POW on my ward. They would be tended to, just not on the same ward as her “little brothers”.”
For those people who think that the nurses were in a safe environment away from the field of battle think again. All of Vietnam was a battle zone. Hopping a deuce and a half to head to a leprosarium was fraught with danger. Viet Cong snipers were along the way, and diving down on to the bottom of the truck bed was commonplace, hoping the bullets impacting the deck near your head did not find you. It was terrifying. Hospitals were also targets. On more than one occasion Diana had to don her helmet and flak jacket because of a red alert and head to the hospital. On or off duty they had patients to protect. The mortar rounds could be heard walking in... Boom, boom, boom. Closer and closer. On one occasion Diana thought, “My god, I’m going to hide under my desk and save myself.” I went, “You can’t do that, you’re a nurse, all these guys. Well, I can’t save them all, so I will save the closest one.” And I threw myself over the top of this guy. Know what he said? “Wow, I could get used to this!” I started cracking up! We were going to die any minute and this guy is making jokes!”
A year passed, and it was time for Diana to leave Vietnam. She saw all the new nurses coming in and did not feel comfortable leaving her boys in the hands of these inexperienced newbies. So, she volunteered to remain for another tour, and was named Head Nurse of the Casualty Receiving and Triage. Things got a lot tougher!
She was now meeting the helicopters as they came in with the wounded. The ones with dirt all over them, and their uniforms on, with their leg across their chest, begging you to sew it back on. The weight on her shoulders became enormous. That 23- year old Apple Queen from Southwest Michigan
was making life and death decisions every day as she sorted out the incoming casualties. It was like playing God! She identified which boys needed to go to surgery right away, which ones had more time for treatment, and which ones would go to the dreaded corner. The corner of the room that was saved
for those who could not be saved... those who were beyond repair. They died in a corner by themselves. These are the memories that turn into nightmares for an entire life. The “little brothers” she felt that she failed, even though it was out of her hands.
The “corner” was full of bad memories. Once time there was a helicopter pilot who barely survived a fiery crash. He was very badly burned and his helmet had actually melted onto his head. He said to Diana, “I know I am going to die, take care of the other guys.” All he wanted her to do was take a picture of his wife and kids out of his pocket so he could see it. He had 2 beautiful little girls. That was hard. There was absolutely nothing she could do for him, nothing!
Sometimes boys she expected to survive did not. Unseen, tiny wounds outside could hide devastating shrapnel injuries internally. She had one of those situations when a boy was told he was going to be OK. No entrance wounds could be found anywhere. But there was a tiny entrance wound in a very private place that was missed, and he had no chance of survival. As he was dying later he yelled “You told me you weren’t going to let me die!” Caution in answering the question, “Am I going to be all right” was even more in her mind than ever.
She recalled, “One of my rules was that nurses were not allowed to cry. The wounded and dying men in our care need our strength, I told them. We couldn't indulge in the luxury of our own feelings. On the other hand, I was always straight with the soldiers. I would never say, "Oh, you're going to be just fine,"if I knew they were on their way out. I didn't lie.”
In the 2001 publication of “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul” Diana wrote:
“But I remember one kid that I didn’t want to tell. The badly wounded soldier couldn't have been more than 18 years old. She said, “I could see immediately that there was nothing we could do to save him. He never screamed or complained, even though he must have been in a lot of pain.”
When he asked me, "Am I going to die?" I said, "Do you feel like you are?" He said, "Yeah, I do." Do you pray?" I asked him. "I know 'Now I lay me down to sleep.” “Good," I said, "that'll work."
“When he asked me if I would hold his hand, something in me snapped. This kid deserved more than just having his hand held. "I'll do better than that," I told him. I knew I would catch flak from the other nurses and corpsmen as well as possible jeers from the patients, but I didn't care. Without a single look around me, I got onto the bed with him. I put my arms around him, stroking his face and his hair as he snuggled close to me. I kissed him on the cheek, and together we recited, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep...” Then he looked at me and said just one more sentence, "I love you, Momma, I love you," before he died in my arms - quietly and peacefully - as if he really were just going to sleep.”
After a minute, I slipped off his bed and looked around. I'm sure my face was set in a fierce scowl, daring anyone to give me a hard time. But I needn't have bothered. All the nurses and corpsmen were breaking my rule and crying silently, tears filling their eyes or rolling down their cheeks.
“I thought of the dead soldier's mother. She would receive a telegram informing her that her son had died of "war injuries." But that was all it would say. I thought she might always wonder how it had happened. Had he died out in the field? Had he been with anyone? Did he suffer? If I were his mother, I
would need to know.”
“So later I sat down and wrote her a letter. I thought she'd want to hear that in her son's final moments he had been thinking of her. But mostly I wanted her to know that her boy hadn't died alone.”
Diana cannot recall how many patients she treated at receiving. Seventy-five on a bad day, none on a good one. If one ward was overloaded, other wards pitched in to help. Everyone tried to help one another take care of the injured. However, the hospital was always full. They were the first line of
treatment for casualties. Patients were kept no more than three days. The treatment areas were kept as clean as possible, but it was not a sterile situation. “Mama Sans” were hired to sprinkle water on the floors to keep the dust down. As a result, after surgery was performed, wounds would not be closed, but wrapped with gauze and remained open. This was called a DPC or Delayed Primary Closure. The surgery would be finished and closed in a military hospital in Japan that had a more sterile environment. This process significantly reduced the chances of infection.
Many years later, Diana was telephoned by a Veteran, one of her former patients, who asked her why he was not good enough to have his wounds closed before he was shipped off to Japan. He always thought he was shipped out that way because he was unworthy. Diana was shocked, and
compassionately told him that he was worthy, and explained that the DPC was done to all patients because of the lack of sterile conditions. This was done to keep him safer. He broke down and cried... a long carried burden lifted from his shoulders. He sobbed, “All this time I thought I was not worth the effort!” Diana cried too, horrified at what this guy had been thinking all those years.
Diana did not get a chance to finish her full second year of duty in Vietnam. While off duty she sustained a severe head injury. The next thing she knew it was three days later. She had amnesia, or had blacked out. She was now a patient in her own hospital! She was diagnosed with a brain contusion
and was there for a month. They were afraid she was going to have a blood clot or stroke. In the end, “they decided to send me home as I could not stand up without blacking out.”
While on C-130 heading for Japan, she was strapped down, like all the other patients, and the kid next to her was dying. She kept begging to be let loose, so she could help. At least so the kid did not die alone. Nobody heard her and the kid died right next to her. That made her furious, because she was
tied down and could not help. She was on the next flight to the States, heading for the familiar hospital in San Francisco. But her husband was adamant and demanded she quit the Army. She agreed and never went through those hospital doors. She resigned her commission.
Diana briefly resumed her nursing career as a civilian. The first job was in an elderly care facility. She was the only RN on her shift supervising untrained high school grads. Two wings of 25 patients each were her responsibility for $3.10 an hour. She got tired of picking up the patients who were dropped on the floor, and the routine. In Nam she was doing things that only doctors can do in the States and making a difference in life and death situations. She decided that it was time to stay home and raise a family.
After 17 years she briefly returned to her nursing career. She was employed in an orthopedic practice as an RN. However, one day a patient came into the office with fingers amputated in an accident. When Diana saw this all the Vietnam memories started pour in. and she was transported back to the
horrors of Qui Nhon. That was it, she could not do the job or be an RN anymore. Nursing was now a thing of the past. She thought about being a veterinarian, but let that go by. She was one of the wounded Vietnam vets suffering from PTSD. Her injuries were on the inside, and they were painful.
Diana raised two children, divorced, and remarried, this time to a Marine veteran of Vietnam, Carl Poole. She began to attend Vietnam veterans’ events with her husband, and on several occasions would meet some of her patients from Qui Nhon. In 2000, she went to Washington D.C. on Veterans Day. She was wearing her Vietnam fatigue jacket and walking with her husband Carl. Out of nowhere this guy comes running up the sidewalk, picked Diana up, threw her around and said, “You were my nurse on my 19th birthday, and you brought me a cake." Diana said, “With a match in it? “That’s you?”
He said, “Yes, I’ll always be nineteen in my head, always, and I’ll never forget you.” “I recognized you because you look the same as when you gave me my birthday cake at age 19”, he exclaimed. Diana told him, “It came out of a C-ration can!” The veteran said, “I don’t care, it was my birthday cake and you
sang to me.”
Returning Vietnam vets were not greeted warmly upon return. It was an unpopular war and nobody wanted to hear about it when they came home. Many did not believe that women were even there including some of the vets themselves. Some vets even stopped Diana saying she did not earn the
fatigues she proudly wore at veteran’s events. The only service branch that had women nurses in Evacuation hospitals was the Army...other branches had corpsmen exclusively. Diana told the doubting vets that they should be glad that they did not see her or any other nurse in Vietnam. They were truly
fortunate. Returning vets may not have been treated well upon their return, but the Vietnam nurses were invisible when they returned. Nobody seemed to know that about 7,000-10,000 nurses served in Vietnam. Nobody knows for sure. The military never kept track of that statistic during that war!
In 1983, a Vietnam Army Nurse Corps veteran by the name of Diane Carlson Evans, founded a movement to create the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., Ms. Evans was fellow trainee with Diana at boot camp at Fort Sam Houston in 1967. In 1993, on the National Mall, right near the emotional Vietnam Memorial, the Women’s Vietnam Memorial was unveiled, funded completely by private donations. The 6’-8” statue depicts four figures: a nurse holding a wounded male soldier, a woman looking skyward as if in anticipation of a rescue helicopter, and another on her knees holding a helmet and looking at the ground in despair. While all the figures are wearing fatigues, sculptor Glenna Goodacre deliberately included no identifying insignia, to symbolically include all women-military, medical and even civilian volunteers-who served in Vietnam. Diana herself was every one of those 3 women in the statue, at one time or another, during her service. The invisible women who returned from Vietnam were now visible.
In 2000, Diana Dwan Poole was named Grand Marshall of the Berrien County Blossom Parade. She was chosen for the honor after appearing on a TLC (The Learning Channel) documentary about the role of women in the war. It was her seventh or eighth appearance in the event. She participated as a saxophone playing band member from Lakeshore Schools, a runner-up from the Miss Stevensville contest, and again as the Michigan Apple Queen. But the invitation in 2000 was by far the most meaningful. She said, “It’s not for me, it’s for all of us who served in Vietnam. To me that is a very great honor.”
Diana did not know it at the time, but she was not the first Dwan family member honored with an “Honorary Grand Marshall’ title. She learned later that her grandfather, Martin Dwan, who was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and a staunch supporter of disabled veterans in Michigan, had a similar experience. Martin was named Honorary Grand Marshall for the St, Joseph Memorial Day Parade in 1950. The “fighting Dwans” now spanned 3 generations counting Diana’s father and grandfather. They all fought for their country in different places, and in different ways. They all served with honor and deserve our gratitude.
When asked about her experiences in Vietnam, and knowing what she knows now, would she do it all over again, Diana responds with an emphatic “YES”. “It was the worst time of my life, but it was the best time of my life as well, because I felt useful. I know I saved lives!”.
Diana now lives in North Carolina with her husband Carl. She is the mother of two and has 2 grandchildren. It is unknown how many lives she saved during her time as an Army nurse. But, it is safe to say there are a lot of guys walking around with grandchildren who would not be alive today were it not for her and other military nurses. The ones that were saved know who they are, and are forever grateful for the sacrifices and service of these women.
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