Researching veterans’ stories is always rewarding, but sometimes you’ll come across information that will knock your socks off.
Consider this: The Army nurse who tended to my cousin Nicky as he lay dying in an evacuation hospital in Vietnam four decades ago lives in my neighborhood. I found out about her one day when my project to write a book about Nicky and my work on veterans stories for The Morning Call collided.
It happened in 1998, after I had begun researching Nicky’s life and death as an Army helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. That year, the success of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan spurred aging veterans to talk about their experiences, many for the first time. We at The Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, planned a special section for Veterans Day 1998 called War Stories, and I was the editor.
One reporter was to write 10 short articles based on interviews with veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. I told the reporter, Ron Devlin, to include a woman who had been a front-line nurse.
“I got a great nurse,” Ron got back to me. “Here in town.”
She had served in Vietnam, he said. Immediately I asked him where and when.
“Chu Lai,” Ron said, “1969.”
The time and place were a match for Nicky, who died July 15, 1969, five days after an Army instructor unwittingly detonated a grenade in a class for new arrivals.
In the three years I had been following Nicky’s path, I had never spoken with any nurses who worked in the evac hospital where he died. Had this one been there?
Her name was Lynn Bedics, and she was the nurse manager at the Allentown Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic. Within minutes, I called her and she said yes, she was in the intensive care unit at the 312th/91st Evac Hospital in July 1969, but she didn’t remember Nicky’s name, Venditti. Still, the ICU only had about 15 patients at any given time, so she had probably seen him.
Lynn agreed to meet with me.
I didn’t know at the time that I already had files linking Lynn to Nicky. I had asked the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to send me copies of any paperwork pertaining to Nicky’s care at the 27th Surgical Hospital, where his left leg was amputated below the knee, and the 312th/91st Evac, where he hung on to life for a few days. In response, I got nearly 50 pages of clinical records from both Chu Lai hospitals and studied them.
Now I scoured the records again for nurses’ names and saw two blood transfusion forms with the signature ”L. O’Malley, 2LT ANC.” That was 2nd Lt. Lynn O’Malley of the Army Nurse Corps. O’Malley was Lynn’s maiden name, something I knew because Ron included it in his story about her, which noted she was 22 and single in 1969. The records show Lynn gave Nicky 500 milliliters of whole blood at 4 a.m. on July 14. She “hung” an additional 500 milliliters for him at 6:15 a.m.
Nicky died the next day.
When I met with Lynn in April 1999, I showed her the forms proving she had ministered to Nicky. It was a bonding moment for both of us, even though she still didn’t remember Nicky and didn’t recognize him from pictures.
Today Lynn is retired from the government. She still lives a five-minute walk from my home in west Allentown. We’ve had lunch together, we see each other at the Farmers Market and exchange e-mail and phone calls. She knows many of the vets I’ve interviewed for my Morning Call series War Stories: In Their Own Words, and even steered me to one. And she looks forward to publication of my book about Nicky, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam.
Lynn’s connection to both Nicky in Vietnam and me in Allentown was improbable but didn’t happen on its own. The pieces had to be put together. In the end, it was a lesson in the importance of listening closely, examining the right documents and paying attention to detail.