Creating Community and Finding Connection: A Black Nurse’s Experience in Vietnam, 1966–67

Nobody wanted Elizabeth Allen in Vietnam. From her master’s advisor who questioned why on earth she would want to enlist in the first place, to the Air Force that dragged its feet on her application, to the Army, which initially wanted to assign her to teach at a military-sponsored nursing program at the University of Maryland. But Elizabeth Allen is a Sagittarius and, as anyone who knows someone born under “The Archer” is aware, Sagittarians follow their own arrow.

Elizabeth Allen in 2007. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“I knew that there were very few African-American health professionals in Vietnam,” Allen, now a retired Army major, later told Vincent Menta of the Veteran’s History Project. “They just weren’t there, period. I also knew that there were a lot of frontline African-American troops, and they needed somebody too.” 1 The Army Nurse Corps did not keep statistics on the racial make-up of their organization, but a National League of Nursing survey from 1962 would imply the Army Nurse Corps was as much as 96% white during Allen’s tenure.2 Allen enlisted in 1966 at the age of 25, that same year both Muhammed Ali and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) came out explicitly against the War with a variation of the sentiment “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me n******!” Allen too was no blind patriot, enlisting in an imperialist war out of some misplaced jingoistic fervor. Her motivation for joining the war effort came from the same deep well of solidarity within the Black community that produced the anti-War activism of Angela Davis and Malcolm X. Allen expanded on her ideological justification for volunteering: “It’s not for me to decide as to the rightness or the wrongness of the war, my decision was what was the best possible care I could give.”

Allen was indeed very cognizant of who she wanted the beneficiaries of her care to be. After training at Fort Sam in Houston, Allen, a newly commissioned Captain, was given a veto option on where in Vietnam she was going to be deployed. This was a boon extended to her due to her postgraduate education and subsequent seniority. Initially offered two positions at military hospitals around Saigon, Allen turned them both down due to the demographic make-up of the patients. “I didn’t come to Vietnam to take care of officers,” she told the assigning nurse. At the time of Allen’s deployment, only ~5% of officers were Black compared to ~10% of enlisted men.

After the logistical back and forth, Allen agreed to be assigned to the US Army Base in Cu Chi province, just south of the Vietcong stronghold known as the Iron Triangle. On her second day, the base was mortared. Allen and her bunkmate Frankie had yet to receive initiation and were at a loss as to what to do. Eventually someone came to their room and collected Frankie, who was white, and took her to safety—but not Allen. The experience was formative for Allen’s conduct in Vietnam: “I’m the only African-American woman there so I better figure out what I’ve got to do quick, nobody’s going [to] come and get me”. 3 Allen’s Blackness had excluded her from the chivalric protections afforded to white womanhood.

There were contemporary reports of Black troops attempting to create similarly exclusionary mechanisms of patriarchal protection for Black women in-country. One white nurse remembered a group of Black GIs refusing to help her after she was mugged because she was “not a sister.”4 However, the disparity between the number of Black and white officers, vis a vis enlisted men, meant that the power Black soldiers could leverage to protect exclusively Black women was severely curtailed. The lack of Black officers was something Allen felt keenly: “there [were] very few African-American [commissioned] officers,” she recalled. In addition, the Army’s non-fraternization regulations limited contact between officers and enlisted personnel. As a result, Allen said that her time in-country “was absolutely the loneliest time of my life, because there [was] nobody to go to.”

Black and white soldiers in Dak To, South Vietnam, November 1967. (Courtesy manhhai)

Allen was, however, able to create some networks of support, information, and resource transfer between herself and the Black enlisted men. Allen’s brother was on maneuvers with the U.S. Navy when she first arrived in Vietnam so, for example, she used her relationships with Black servicemen to hear the military scuttlebutt about naval strategy. “There were a lot of black sergeants,” recalled Allen over 30 years later, “and they’d never seen anybody like me in the warzone, so they were really willing to talk to me…when I needed things for the troops [such as water], it always worked for me, because many of your senior sergeants were black.”

One of the reasons Allen was so determined in her desire to treat the most underprivileged serving the Army was her own experience of racist medical malpractice domestically. “These were the ‘60s and I am African-American…I was in healthcare and African-Americans were given care after whites, they were given old blood.” In Vietnam, American nurses were known to refer to the Vietnamese, both allies and not, as “gooks,” a racial epithet weaponized against southeast Asians. Allen even heard tales of other nurses choking their Vietnamese patients, presumably in retribution for the American injured and dead. When asked whether she had ever been instructed to give priority in triage, for example, to Americans over Vietnamese, Allen replied; “I already been there, I lived that [in the United States]…I’d be damned if I’m gonna go there and do the same thing to somebody else. That ain’t gonna happen.” By drawing on her own experience of prejudice, Allen elucidated why she would not allow such behaviour to occur within her realm of influence.

Allen’s passion and skill for connection and community creation continued after demobilisation. She turned her activist mentality to working for justice for victims of Agent Orange. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1970, and agitated against retrograde ideas she encountered of who “counts” as a veteran. When interviewed in the early 2000s, Allen felt there was still more work to be done to create a more cohesive and inclusive veteran community: “I don’t feel welcome at the [Department of Veterans Affairs],” she told the interviewer, because “a part of the U.S. mystique [remains] that only men can be veterans.” 5

Further Reading

Freedman, Dan & Rhoads, Jaqueline (eds.). Nurses in Vietnam: The Forgotten Veterans. (Texas Monthly Press, 1987.

Gruzit-Hoyt, Olga. A Time Remembered: American Women in the Vietnam War. Presidio Press, 1999.

Latty, Yvonne. We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq. HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.

Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam. Little Brown & Co.,1987.

Steinman, Ron. Women in Vietnam: The Oral History. TV Books, 2005.

Walker, Keith. A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of 26 American Women Who Served in Vietnam. Ballantine Books, 1985.

Notes

  1. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (AFC/2001/001/55266), Elizabeth A. Allen Collection. Return to text.
  2. Janet D. Tanner, “Nurses in Fatigues: The Army Nurse Corps and the Vietnam War,” PhD Dissertation, California State University, Fullerton, 2011, 32. Return to text.
  3. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (AFC/2001/001/55266), Elizabeth A. Allen Collection. Return to text.
  4. Elizabeth M. Norman, Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 97–98. Return to text.
  5. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (AFC/2001/001/55266), Elizabeth A. Allen Collection. Return to text.

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