Kate O’Hare-Palmer planned to come to the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento on Sunday for what she and other Vietnam veterans has seen grow into an annual day of respect.
Instead, the former Army nurse, who chairs the Vietnam Veterans Association of America’s Women Veterans Committee, will stay home in Petaluma like other Californians trying to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus, officially referred to as COVID-19.
President Barack Obama proclaimed March 29, 2012, as Vietnam Veterans Day. The proclamation invited “all Americans to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Vietnam War.”
In 2017, President Trump signed the law designating March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The annual commemoration was long overdue. Many Vietnam veterans came home to a nation embroiled in anti-war and anti-government protests. Some, like O’Hare-Palmer, found themselves to be targets after returning stateside in 1969.
“Flying home to Travis Air Force Base, we were bussed to the Oakland depot with protestors throwing rotten vegetables at us. It was shocking … we were not prepared for this. How could this be? We had left one war zone to arrive in another,” she wrote in a chapter of a book by Thomas Sanders titled “Vietnam War Portraits: The Faces and Voices.”
Time has a way of healing the wounds or at least numbing the hurt. National Vietnam War Veterans Day is intended to be the “welcome home” most never received. It is a time each year for Vietnam veterans to share their stories so others might understand what they endured, the sacrifices they made, the friends they lost, and what they’ve experienced in the years since.
Her own story of serving in Vietnam is a prime example. Instead of telling it at the memorial, she’ll be at home sheltering in place – a concept O-Hare-Palmer and other veterans understand perhaps better than anyone. That is what she did at Army evacuation hospitals in Lai Khe and Chu Lai, where she was a surgical nurse in 1968 and 1969.
“We were overrun once as a hospital unit,” she said. “We were hiding patients, and putting them into containers; hoping to keep them safe. It’s kind of similar to what’s happening right now. We lived in lockdown there. We stayed inside the fence.”
Tending to the wounded and the dying became etched in her mind, haunting her for decades after the war. She looked for ways to stay grounded while in-country, and the things that helped her cope there helped her cope back home, too.
“I started trading my (medical) instruments for chickens so that I could get fresh eggs,” she said. “Some (other military personnel) had dogs. Pets were helpful. I had 10 chickens before I left. The engineers built me a little chicken coop. The dogs got after one of them, and I took it into the ER and got an IV into it to save it.”
Years later, when some of her nursing comrades visited her back home in Sonoma County, the first thing they noticed about her place was the chicken coop not unlike the one she had in Vietnam.
“It didn’t even dawn on me,” O’Hare-Palmer said.
She returned from the war to work at VA hospitals, including Fort Miley in San Francisco, but her experiences as a surgical nurse never left her.
“I had trouble even seeing blood,” she said. She had nightmares about it, which convinced her to move out of surgical nursing. She used her GI Bill education benefits to get her degree in nutrition from UC Berkeley. She spent more than 30 years in nursing; became an advocate for women veterans, speaking out about everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to military sexual trauma.
O’Hare-Palmer was among the speakers at the Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., in November 2017, sharing the stage with the current and former U.S. Defense Secretaries.
And Sunday, she planned to be at the National Vietnam War Veterans Day ceremony in Sacramento which, under any other circumstances, would have drawn a good-sized crowd. Videos from the ceremony might even have gone viral.
Instead, it’s being preempted for the time being by COVID-19.