Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1968, Rona Adams, a retired Army captain now living in Kailua, O‘ahu, was serving as the head emergency room nurse for the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.
Memories of that experience rushed back to her this past May during a Honolulu memorial service marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War.
“I get choked up and get chicken skin thinking about it because I did two tours over there as an Army nurse. And I see where I was and know what it was like,” Adams said in an interview.
Listening to the keynote speech by retired United States Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Henry Brady, who was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, triggered Adams’ thoughts about the war.
“He said something, asking if there were any nurses here, so I stood up,” Adams said.
Brady, a UH1H ambulance helicopter pilot, was awarded the Medal of Honor for flying a series of three aircraft in one day, rescuing 51 seriously wounded men.
“When he got off the podium, I went up to him and said, ‘Thank you so much, because if it wasn’t for you guys, we couldn’t have gotten them and we couldn’t have saved them,’ and both of us started crying. I was crying, and I don’t mean a few tears,” Adams said.
Hawai‘i knew the cost of the Vietnam War.
Terry Teruo Kawamura was just 19 years old, serving as a corporal in the Army in Vietnam when an enemy demolition team slipped into his camp. Kawamura shouted an alarm as he saw an explosive thrown into his tent.
Kawamura’s Medal of Honor citation reads: “He immediately realized that two stunned fellow soldiers were in great peril and shouted a warning. Although in a position to escape, Cpl. Kawamura unhesitatingly wheeled around and threw himself on the charge. In completely disregarding his safety, Cpl. Kawamura prevented serious injury or death to several members of his unit.”
Two others from Hawai‘i, Sgt. Emelindo Smith and Sgt. Rodney Yano, also earned Medals of Honor while serving in Vietnam.
The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., lists 285 Hawai‘i residents who died while serving in the Vietnam War. But those without physical wounds were also scarred from their Vietnam service.
As an emergency room nurse, Adams recalled, “You can not go through war, even if you are not toting a rifle; you are in a combat zone and you are running scared, whether or not you admit it.
“In a way, you think you are indestructible, but we have a lot of guys who don’t sleep at night.
“We didn’t have any words like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) back then. I didn’t realize how much it bothered me. I took about a year off, went to the beach; nobody knew I had been in Vietnam,” Adams said.
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Richard Borreca is a Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.