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Service and Sacrifice: Three Navy Nurses

A Navy nurse in East Tennessee said the impact of caring for wounded veterans in Vietnam "stays with you for the rest of your life."

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Few people grasp the cost of war. But, military nurses do.

“It was a rude awakening to see what they suffered as far as what their injuries were — too many amputees, burns. Napalm does a very bad job on people,” said Helen Roth.

She served tours at home and overseas as a Navy nurse caring for wounded veterans during the war in Vietnam.

“I felt it was a privilege to take care of those young men because I had brothers that were of similar ages,” said Roth.

She is one of three friends who share a nursing background in the Navy. Carole Willard laid the groundwork for future modern military nurses during her service stateside starting in 1959.

Credit: John Becker
Carole Willard (1959-1961)

“You're thrown into situations that you've never been in before. And you're with different ages of military personnel. And you have to learn to get along with them. And then, also, you have a corpsman that you have to teach,” said Willard

She served two years in the Navy when she is 21 years old. She is now 86 years old.

“I grew up on the farm in Kentucky. We were smart, but we didn't have money,” said Judy Killman.

She entered military service at 21 years old and went on to serve 28 years, eventually rising to the rank of officer.

“I was one of those corpsmen that was always taking care of a 30-people ward,” said Killman.

She was discussing her service at an institution known as Great Lakes, overlooking Lake Michigan in Illinois.

Credit: John Becker
Judy Killman (USN 1969-1971 and 1977-2003)

All three nurses say their service has often been overlooked except by military veterans and families who see them as some of the unsung heroes of wartime.

“It was a privilege to be in the service and to serve your country,” said Ms. Willard, summing up the sentiment from all three nurses, all three patriots.

Roth had also written a poem about her experiences during wartime, treating wounded servicemembers. That poem is available below



An original poem by Helen DeCrane Roth

Eyes are the mirror of the soul, A bodily organ projecting emotions which can't be hidden.

My eyes are the only part of my face which speaks to you in the confusion of our surroundings.

You are watching my eyes for some sign to assure you that perhaps the blood you taste and swallow until it chokes you, is not your own.

You seek some assurance

that the burning pain of your seared flesh will cease when you awake from what you hope is some demented joke or diabolical dream.

There is an immediate bond between us.

The lower half of my face is concealed by a surgical mask.

The lower part of yours, torn away by an act of war.

Your attempt to speak is futile, terror strikes your eyes as you begin to strangle.

Your hands gesture frantically communicating your fear.

As you reach toward your face my hands catch yours.

Our eyes lock,

I must decide if the reassurance vou seek should be the truth or empty platitudes.

Certainly, it would be easier to say,

"Lay quiet, everything will be alright."

But my eyes would attest to the lie and I feel you would live to hate me for it.

The truth is,

I have never seen a man

with the lower half of his face torn brutally apart.

There is little remaining to identify you, vet here you lie, awake and staring at me.

Wanting an answer to the question:

"Please! How bad is it?"

My insides churn,

I'd like to turn and run, bury my head in someone's shoulder, scream, then cry.

Instead, I swallow hard, wipe the blood from your eyes and tell you the truth, pausing momentarily to say we will try our very best.

You reach up and take the mask from my face.

A smile of encouragement and tear-filled eyes greet you.

I am touched by the humanity we share.

In the 13 hours that follow, we try to reconstruct your face.

Are we playing God?

Later, your head a mass of bandages and drainage tubes, your eyes say it all.

"I made it!"

In the hours that follow as sleep eludes me, I wonder.

Will you live to curse us for vour life

or will your courage overcome the obstacles ahead?

Years have passed

and I am seeing your eyes again.

I see the hope and courage I saw then and silently pray that this is true rather than to think your life became so unbearable, your emotional pain so intense, you chose an abrupt and brutal end.

I will take my mask off if it will help again.

But when I start to cry, I am afraid

I won't be able to stop.

You see

I need to know that your wounds healed, that you can smile again and laugh.

Then I, too, will be at peace.

Helen DeCrane Roth


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