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Lynda Van Devanter, 55; Vietnam Nurse Told Harrowing War Story

November 25, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Lynda Van Devanter, an Army surgical nurse in Vietnam whose autobiography focused attention on women's struggles with post traumatic stress syndrome and chemicals including Agent Orange, has died. She was 55.

Van Devanter, whose 1983 book "Home Before Morning" inspired the 1988-91 television series "China Beach," died Nov. 15 at her home in Herndon, Va. The cause was systemic collagen vascular disease, which she had attributed to her exposure in Vietnam to chemicals including the defoliant Agent Orange.

A spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans of America said the organization will pursue an Agent Orange claim against the government on behalf of Van Devanter's daughter, Molly.

Van Devanter was the founding executive director of the Women's Project of the Vietnam Veterans of America from 1979 to 1984, testifying before Congress and other government agencies on behalf of the 7,465 women Vietnam veterans.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 19 inches; 693 words Type of Material: Correction
Van Devanter obituary -- An obituary for Army nurse Lynda Van Devanter in the Nov. 25 California section incorrectly stated the television network on which the series "China Beach" appeared. The show was on ABC, not CBS.

She joined the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, South Vietnam, after telling herself: "If our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me."

But the idealism spiraled downward quickly amid the constant gore, noise, fear and fatigue of war, and would lead after her return home to recurring nightmares of one of her patients, a teenage soldier whose face had been blown away.

The nurse's highly successful book, which described doctors and nurses indulging in drugs, alcohol and sex to ease the horror of what they saw on their operating tables, opened new dialogues about women's problems in war. But it also sparked criticism from a group called Nurses Against Misrepresentation that spread from the Pentagon to Hollywood.

The opponents were led by Patricia L. Walsh, a civilian nurse in Vietnam, who had published a fictional account of her experience, "Forever Sad the Hearts," in 1981. That book was being considered as a motion picture for Cher at the same time actress Sally Field optioned Van Devanter's book for a film. (Neither movie materialized, but CBS developed "China Beach," starring Dana Delany, based partly on Van Devanter's book.)

Walsh and other nurses opposed any "Home Before Morning" film, Walsh told The Times in 1987, because "we know the power of Hollywood [and] we didn't want what was in Van Devanter's book to be put on the screen. She portrayed medical teams in an utterly disgusting fashion.

"She wrote about a neurosurgeon who abused drugs and alcohol and about euthanasia and about GI bodies decomposing in a morgue. And about a nurse and surgeon who fell into bed together -- covered with blood from the operating room. Well, those things didn't happen."

Van Devanter responded to The Times then: "In Vietnam, some of us did things that we were not so proud of at the time. But we were under enormous stress -- physically, emotionally and spiritually.... The fact is, my book is not about sleazy people -- it's about people who have been through an insanity. It's about attempts to find a moment of sanity in the midst of that."

Her book, written with Christopher Morgan, earned generally good reviews, including one in Business Week stating:

"As one of thousands of forgotten women Vietnam veterans, she has had special burdens to bear in her long effort to 'come home' emotionally. With intelligence and grim humor, her book describes her stint, at 22, as an Army nurse in 1969 and 1970 -- for her a year of transition from middle-class idealist to battle-scarred cynic. Her gruesome ordeal did not end with a return to civilian life. Van Devanter's ongoing struggle to overcome grotesque 'flashback' hallucinations, a drinking problem, an unstable personal life, and the unique stigma of being a female veteran evokes sympathy and admiration. Her story demands respect and provides a view into an American netherworld still too often ignored."

Born one of five daughters in a Catholic family in suburban Washington, D.C., Van Devanter earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at Antioch University and her nursing degree at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore. After her wartime service, she had a few jobs as a civilian nurse, including at Torrance Memorial Hospital in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, she descended into uncontrolled drinking and crying, and was on unemployment, food stamps, then welfare, and in therapy but still unable to discuss Vietnam.

"You learn pretty early on that if you drink enough, you don't dream and if you don't dream, you don't have nightmares," she said on CNN in 2000, the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. "That's why you have all these people coming back drinking."

Van Devanter was visiting friends on Long Island in New York in 1979 when, during the night, she heard a fire siren -- the same sound as the alert signaling rocket and mortar attacks on Pleiku. She compulsively crawled into the living room.

That was the painful breakthrough that sent her into a post-traumatic stress therapy program called "walking through Vietnam." She began writing her book as part of the healing.

Van Devanter, in addition to becoming a spokeswoman for women veterans, contributed to other books including the 1985 "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam."

One of her quoted letters stated, "This war disgusts me.... I'm sick of facing, every day, a new bunch of children ripped to pieces."

She also wrote and edited books of poetry, including the 1991 "Visions of War, Dreams of Peace," and spoke widely at seminars.

Van Devanter is survived by her husband of 16 years, Tom Buckley; daughter, Molly; stepdaughter, Brigid Buckley, of Raleigh, N.C.; her mother, Helen Van Devanter of Sterling, Va.; and four sisters.

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