Vietnam Veterans of America
The VVA Veteran® Online
homepipeAboutpipeArchivepipeSubscribepipeContactpipevva.orgVVA gifFacebookContact
January/February 2019

Lynda Van Devanter

On Veterans Day weekend 2018, as I joined hundreds of other women Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, one thought was foremost in my mind: I wish Lynda was here. At the reception that VVA’s Women Veterans Committee hosted on Friday night, I was honored to be asked to read a poem from Visions of War: Dreams of Peace, the anthology of poetry by women who served in Vietnam. Lynda and I co-edited the book, which was published in 1992. I preceded my remarks by saying: “I’m here today because of one person: Lynda Van Devanter.” In fact, many of us in the room that night would probably have said the same thing.

A Few Good WomenMany were there because of the personal courage Lynda demonstrated by writing and publishing Home Before Morning, her critically acclaimed memoir about her life before, during, and after her service as an Army nurse in Vietnam. The first book written by a woman who had served in Vietnam, she told her story warts and all. She wrote about her experiences, both personal and professional, as a nurse caring for combat casualties in a war zone, about her struggles with PTSD and substance abuse after she returned home, and about how she overcame those difficulties through therapy and the support of her fellow veterans in VVA and through her efforts to reach out to her sister veterans to help them do the same.

Over that entire weekend I couldn’t help but think, “We must never forget Lynda and what she did for us, the women who served in Vietnam.” Like so many other Vietnam veterans, Lynda died before her time, on November 15, 2002, from a systemic idiopathic collagen vascular disease at the age of 55. Was it Agent Orange related? We’ll never know, but like Lynda, we’ll always wonder.

Lynda and I served together at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. She worked in the OR; I worked in Post-Op/ICU. While not the best of friends, we knew each other well. The proximity of our units and the overlap of our duties facilitated our relationship. Our deep dismay at the overwhelming nature of the injuries sustained by the many causalities we cared for and the rationale for their occurrence cemented it.

We lost contact after leaving Vietnam, my tour ending six months before hers. It would be twelve years before we saw each other again in the fall of 1982.

Bernie Boston/Getty Imges

I remember it well. I was working as a nursing supervisor at the VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida. Lynda was coming to speak at a PTSD training seminar for the staff from VA’s newly established Vet Center program and the hospital’s inpatient PTSD treatment program. Dr. Art Arnold, the Chief of Psychiatry at Bay Pines, was a friend, and he mentioned to me that a nurse who served in Vietnam, Lynda Van Devanter, would be attending the training. I couldn’t believe it.

I told him I had served with her in Vietnam. He told me that she was the National Director of VVA’s Women Veterans Project and had a book coming out about her time in Vietnam. I—who had spent the last twelve years trying to distance myself from the war and my emotional struggles about it—was familiar with neither VVA nor the initiative. A dinner meeting was arranged—a dinner that would change my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined at the time.

Over the years, I discovered that many of us, the women who served in Vietnam, had similar experiences with Lynda. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say: “Then I heard Lynda speak and it changed my life.”

Between her work with the Vet Center, the publication of her book in 1983, and her leadership of VVA’s Vietnam women’s initiative, Lynda became the face of women Vietnam veterans. Her story and her message were not without controversy. The experiences she shared of her time in Vietnam were both heartbreaking and shocking. She shattered the myth that military nurses serving in war zones were angelic figures with ethereal qualities who rose above the pain and suffering and horror of war while caring for its victims.

Her portrayal was criticized by some who served, but for others her descriptions hit home. She discussed the emotional toll the continuous exposure to wounded soldiers, civilian casualties, and the dead and dying took on those who cared for them. She talked about the emotional pain and difficulty associated with caring for patients suffering from amputations, head injuries, burned bodies—and the blown-up bodies of young children. She talked about it all. What followed was amazing.

By breaking the silence surrounding women Vietnam veterans’ experiences, by humanizing the responses, she reassured all of us that the flashbacks and nightmares, the depression and the drinking, were all part of a syndrome that we, as women and as nurses, were not immune to. She taught us that owning our own pain did not diminish the pain of those we cared for, that it was okay to not be okay now. And that there was help, but we needed to fight for it. We needed to make our voices heard. We needed to support one another.

She encouraged us to come out of the shadows and we did—some more quickly than others. We got involved in VVA, in VA, in our local communities, with other VSOs. We found our voices, demanded access and change both within the VA and the traditional VSOs. We took on leadership positions in organizations we were affiliated with. We testified before Congress demanding recognition, access to services, and comprehensive care. We advocated for change for ourselves, as well as for those who came before us and those who would come after us.

We chipped away at the prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination that had oppressed women veterans for so long. We watched institutions and organizations change, slowly but surely. It was exhilarating. 

Lynda Van Devanter was outspoken, confrontational, and controversial. She was tireless, an advocate’s advocate. She lived her life on her own terms, coloring outside the lines. She spent most of it reaching out to others through her work, her writing, and her service with VVA and AA. Her courage in sharing her personal story changed the lives of countless women veterans who suffered in silence for years, afraid of how they might be judged by the world outside.

Lynda Van Devanter’s contributions to the veteran community were historic. Both in life and in death Lynda remained true to what she believed in.

Perhaps the greatest example of that truth occurred at Lynda’s funeral. Outside the church, surrounded by her husband Tom, daughter Molly, stepdaughter Brigid, and hundreds of family and friends, a flock of twenty-one white doves were released above her casket. They soared into the air, returning three times to swoop over Lynda’s remains. It was breathtaking. But most importantly it fulfilled one of Lynda’s long-held desires: To be buried with full military honors, but to let the guns remain silent. 

R.I.P. Lynda. You did good.





- Departments
University of Florida Smathers Libraries
- - -
- -
© Michael KeatingNational Park Service
Volunteers for 2018 Award
  Photo ©Michael KeatingTwo VVA chapters deliver VA holiday cheer.
- -
VVA logoThe VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring. MD 20910 | www.vva.org | contact us