Vietnam Veterans of America
It seemed like a no-brainer to a 21-year-old working-class nursing student struggling to make ends meet in New York City on a dollar-an-hour job as a weekend nurse’s aide in 1968. And besides, Lily Adams thought, enlisting in the Army Nurse Corps might just scratch the itch to do something selfless for her country along the lines of President John F. Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address in 1961. The crisply uniformed female recruiter who stood before Adams and her classmates at the Mount Vernon School of Nursing spoke of subsidized education, state-of-the-art training in the most modern medical facilities, and a choice of attractive stateside duty stations.
It even came with a promise that she wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam—that was strictly voluntary.
You can guess what happened next: After a year spent training and nursing at Ft. Ord in California, Adams received orders for Vietnam. In October 1969 she found herself at the 12th Evac Hospital at Cu Chi outside of Saigon.
“People had explained to me all the ways I could have gotten out of going to Vietnam: playing a lot of games, getting pregnant—because in those days you couldn’t be pregnant and on active duty,” Adams said. “But I decided instead of protesting I would go. Because I did understand one thing from the patients coming back from Vietnam whom I’d treated [at Ft. Ord] and that was they desperately needed nurses. They needed care. And that’s what I was in the military for in the first place: to take care of our soldiers. So I went without any argument, despite the fact they’d lied to me.”
Twelve-Hour Shifts, Six Days a Week
Assigned first to the Intensive Care Unit, Adams worked twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, treating the wounded—often amputations paired with other complications, along with an especially high volume of phosphorous burns. “We treated an awful lot of victims of phosphorous grenades, which caused terrible burns. We would douse copper sulfate all over them—just soak them with it. The phosphorus didn’t stop burning until you neutralized it,” she explained.
“I ended up volunteering for the Triage Unit because the head nurse in the ICU was a very angry woman who did not make the situation easy for us. I felt I could do more good someplace else, so I moved to triage where we took care of people when they first arrived. We took care of not just our wounded. We took care of civilians. We took care of babies. We took care of children. We took care of enemy POWs.”
From this new vantage point, Adams often found herself simply comforting the dying. “I had one man tell me, ‘You know I’m dying for nothing, right?’” That is when she began to make promises to herself: “I vowed that when I returned to the States, I would let everybody know what was going on there.
“When I returned home, I really didn’t know what to expect,” Adams recalled. She accepted an offer to stay with friends in Monterey. While arranging a ride there from San Francisco, she got her first taste of the kind of reception Vietnam vets could expect in this new, sharply divided America. “My ride wanted to know what I looked like in order to find me [at our meeting point,] so I told him I was in my Army uniform—easy to spot,” she explained. “He said if I were you, I’d go to the nearest bathroom and take that uniform off because they’re assaulting people wearing military uniforms in San Francisco. It was only then that I realized why it had felt like everyone had been staring at me.”
Adams realized then how negatively many people felt about returning veterans. “But what I didn’t understand was what we could have possibly done wrong,” she said. “This country sent us off to fight a war, and when we come back we’re treated like we did something wrong. For years I couldn’t figure out why the American public could be so awful to us. I heard some really awful stuff. And I couldn’t understand why it was happening.”
INSULT TO INJURY
To add insult to injury, the old-line veterans organizations also turned away from Vietnam veterans; many refusing to let them join. By now, Adams had moved to Texas to begin work as an open-heart surgical nurse. But it just wasn’t the same. Whereas necessity alone dictates military nurses espouse a team mentality, she found civilian nurses to be adversarial. “They were competing against each other,” she said. “I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. At first I thought it was amusing, but then I thought, ‘This isn’t good for our patients.’ When you have to prove yourself, when you have to compete with other nurses, then what about the patient? You’re ignoring the patient.
“So after a while I left that job. I was coming to the realization I couldn’t work in medicine anymore. It wasn’t just open-heart surgery, it was other places too. I wasn’t happy in Vietnam either, but at least I had people around me who were supportive.” After five jobs in two years, Adams decided to use her G.I. Bill benefits and head back to school. This time she worked on a Masters degree in developmental psychology, first at College of Marin, and then San Diego State.
Married and two children later, Adams moved to Hawaii, where she met people who were active in organizing a fledgling startup group for Vietnam veterans who’d been shunned by the other VSOs. That organization was VVA. “The American Legion didn’t want to have anything to do with us. The VFW didn’t want to have anything to do with us. AMVETS didn’t want to have anything to do with us. The American public already treated us like lepers,” Adams said. “Now even the veterans organizations didn’t want us.”
In the meantime, Adams was plagued by one health crisis after another; suffering from a skin disease, enduring a life-threatening pregnancy and subsequent loss of twin babies, and giving birth to a son with serious medical problems.
“I left a message for Lynda Van Devanter. When we talked, I began to realize I really didn’t know much about Agent Orange—or about PTSD,” she recalled. “But because this was a new organization, and not the American Legion or the VFW, I was more apt to keep my mind open.”
Van Devanter asked Adams to visit some Vet Centers up and down the West Coast to see what they were doing to support women veterans. She found out they were doing nothing at all. More often than not, Adams encountered surprise from staff members that she was a Vietnam veteran.
“Lynda and I spoke regularly. At first I assumed Agent Orange did not apply to me, since I’d not been in areas that had been sprayed.” But as she learned about the effects of dioxin, she also realized the possibility of exposure through her patients. “I also learned all there is to know about PTSD. Most importantly, that I had it.”
A NEW ORGANIZATION
Once the flame was lit, it burned hot in Adams. It was personal now. “We’re talking about my child,” she said, “About my health.”
Adams attended VVA’s Founding Convention in Washington, D.C., in 1983, where she was elected to the Board of Directors. “[VVA founder] Bobby [Muller] thought it was important that the Board represented a cross-section: men, women, blacks, whites, officers, enlisted”—a desire Adams agreed with. “That’s what the draft was all about. That was the makeup of who served over there, so it made sense for an organization of Vietnam veterans to be made up of the same.”
That first Board identified three principal goals at that Convention: the recognition of PTSD as a legitimate condition and assurance veterans would get the direct services they needed to deal with its effects; the commission of a study on the health effects of Agent Orange; and a commitment to learning about the fate of American POWs and MIAs.
Adams moved on to a position at the San Francisco Vet Center, working eight years there helping veterans with PTSD. Meanwhile, she continued her fight to publicize the stories of the women who served and to educate young people about deceptive recruiting and the horrors of war. She served as editor of Proudly We Hail, a national newsletter devoted to women veterans, and was a tireless voice in support of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial project.
As a rare Asian-American woman who served in-country (Adams is half Chinese), she has shared a very unique perspective with thousands of Marin and Sonoma County high school students to whom she has spoken over the years as a member of the Berkeley-based Vietnam Speakers Alliance and with both VVA Chapters 547 and 223.
Return to Vietnam
“In 1995 I went back to Vietnam with a group of women vets and found a very peaceful country,” Adams said. “I needed to see that the country had healed. I needed to see it without craters or crying babies or bleeding people.
“We did a lot for the Vietnamese you never hear about,” she explained. “Everything from plastic surgery to cataract operations. Medical personnel went out in the rural villages and identified people who could use simple medical procedures to make their lives better. We’d take them into the hospitals when it was quiet and we weren’t having a lot of casualties coming in.
“We went to orphanages and helped out there. We wrote home to our parents and got them to collect clothes for kids. We did a lot of wonderful, unheralded things.” And in 1995 when the word spread among the Vietnamese that women veterans were visiting, Adams and her travel companions were met everywhere they went with an unexpected sentiment: gratitude. “They came out of the shadows to thank us for the work we did there during the war. It was a very emotional experience. They were so happy that we had come back as visitors.”
Now a grandmother of four and living in Santa Rosa, California, Lily Adams claims to be “retired from everything,” but those who know her well know there’s no such thing. Activism runs deep in her bloodstream and she’s devoted fifty years to fulfilling those promises she made to herself in that triage unit in Cu Chi.
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