Mary Ann Swenson
Legionnaire of the Month
As I am not aware of other members of Post 23 who served in the Vietnam War this may be the last story (however, I may be wrong, so I never say never). If this is the last it is perhaps fitting that we feature Mary Ann Swenson, a long time Post 23 member. Because of Mary Ann’s humble nature she may not agree that we “saved the best for last”. The reason her story is a fitting end to this series is, Vietnam, like all wars, had destruction and casualties. It resulted in emotional as well as physical wounds. Sometimes the physical wounds heal easier than the emotional ones. Mary Ann volunteered to serve her country in a way that would allow her to help with this important “healing process”. But like other stories we want to back up and start her story from the beginning.
Mary Ann grew up on the family farm where her great grandparents homesteaded. She is the daughter of Genevieve and John Swenson and grew up with her 5 siblings. She attended a one room schoolhouse close to Highland Lutheran Church and graduated Valedictorian from Jasper HS in 1951. At a very early age Mary Ann knew she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse (her mother graduated in 1923, in a time where not many women received this kind of extensive medical education). Mary Ann’s goal to become a nurse became even stronger when her youngest brother died from polio. After one year at St. Olaf College she transferred to Sioux Valley School of Nursing. After graduating she went to work at the State Hospital in Yankton. Dr. Sucko needed help at the clinic in Garretson and recruited her to come back to her roots. She continued working there with Dr. Watson and Dr. Wingert. She then took a job at the Orthopedic Clinic until Dr. Vandemark encouraged her to come to Sioux Valley Hospital and become a “scrub nurse”. Although she enjoyed working at Sioux Valley she felt like she had a calling to serve her country. But let’s allow Mary Ann tell you her military story.
“Although my parents were proud of their Scandinavian ancestry, they were also very patriotic and proud to be Americans. We were taught to do what we could for God and Country. During the Korean War, I was still in school, but during the Vietnam War I read a lot of ads in the nursing journals and they affected me. In the mid 60’s Vietnam was going strong and almost every nursing magazine had ads that said ‘WE NEED YOU’.
My first training was an orientation course at Ft. Sam Houston TX. I was commissioned a first lieutenant in Oct. of 1966. My prior nursing experience stood me in good stead and put me on the fast track for a first lieutenant spot. After that I was sent to Ft. Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Denver CO. I thought I would be staying there my entire time but the Army had other plans. I had 6 months left when I received orders for Vietnam. In 1968 I was promoted to Captain and sent by plane to the South China Sea and served in the “91st Evacuation Hospital” in Tuy Hoa.
Most of the nurses I went over with were younger and just out of nursing school. When their 6 months were up most went back home. I later learned that many did not have a good return to civilian life and experienced the same PTSD that others on the battlefield experienced. Perhaps because I was older (and had 10+ years nursing experience) I had a different attitude. I thought to myself, I’m a tough SD farm girl and not going to quit until it’s over. That attitude, along with 10+ year of nursing experience helped me a lot.
When we arrived I found that we were located right on the South China Beach. Our hospital had a roof, concrete floor and an operating room and 400 bed capacities. I was a Captain and Army Nurse in charge of 120 beds. Since I was made Captain as an Army Nurse I was put in charge of three buildings that hosted a total of 120 beds. We worked 12 hours shifts taking care of our wounded—many who were in very serious medical condition.
To add to our stress, we didn’t have all the medical supplies and equipment that we could have used. Our job was to “patch up” the wounded while fighting was going on around our perimeter. To add to the problems of the wounded we had to deal with malaria and pneumonia. Conditions were less than ideal and I even ended up with a case of pneumonia. Fortunately, we didn’t ever have to evacuate and were fortunate to have aviation and transportation support around us. I can still remember the battleship New Jersey firing over the facility into the enemy beyond our make -shift hospital.
It would have been easy to ‘get down’ as it was often raining and cloudy. If it was not cloudy or raining, it was hot. But I’m a pretty upbeat person and try to make the best of things. Although fighting was going on all around us I was not really scared. It was my faith in God that helped me from being scared. I try to remember all the good things and focused on the camaraderie and good friends I made. In time the bad has faded away and been replaced by the good memories.
We never knew what to expect and each day was different. One day a soldier came in with a snake bite to his neck. Fortunately, when it bit his neck he had the composure to grab it and put it in an ammo pouch. I remember thinking what a calm and collected guy he was to have the foresight to grab and contain a potentially poisons snake after it ha d bitten him so we could identify it. We were not having much luck until finally we thought of giving it a dose of ether. To everyone’s relief, it turned out to be a non-poisonous snake. We also treated local people. There were times we were not 100% sure we were caring for North or South Vietnamese but we never had a serious problem while I was there. Some cases were more fun than others. I still remember a woman who came in and gave birth. That new baby was never lacking for attention.
Helping the physically wounded by treating and patching them up was easier than not being able to help others who had no physical wounds. Watching someone die from malaria and not being able to help them was difficult. Seeing and trying to help some of those with severe burns was not easy. Napalm burns are horrible (although I saw more of that later in Fitzsimmons-it never became any easier). I volunteered to serve my country, not because I had planned on going to Vietnam, though I volunteered knowing that I could very well go there if I was needed. If I had to do it all over again I would probably do the same as it was an important big part of my life. “
For her service Mary Ann received numerous awards, ribbons and medals including the “Expert Field Medical Badge (similar to the Expert Infantryman’s Badge for men). One that was extra special to her was the ‘Order of Aaron and Hur’. This is the highest award that can be given by the Chief Chaplain of the Army. It is presented to an individual who helps the Chaplain and is not in the Chaplain Corps.
After Vietnam Mary Ann advanced to a variety of Administrative positions and served in other areas around the world including Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, Walter Reed Medical Center and Fort McClellan. Mary Ann acquired the rank of Col. and was Chief in the Army Department of Nursing at Ft. McClellan before retiring on January 1, 1993.
Since retiring, Mary Ann returned to Sioux Falls and has been a volunteer at the VA Hospital and Sanford in Sioux Falls. She still attends her home church Highland Lutheran and plays in the New Horizons Band. She has sung in the SD Symphony Choir for 20 years. Mary Ann has been active in about every military organization that she could join. As a life member of The American Legion she has belonged to Post 23 for 20 years. She has held a variety of leadership positions including that of Chaplin for many years. When the book titled “Vietnam Vets-Still Coming Home” you will be able to read more about Mary Ann’s service to her country. Steve Feimer, USD has been working on publishing stories from SD Vietnam Vets. It should be published within a year and Mary Ann is included (the only female).
MaryAnn, on behalf of Post 23, the Garretson Community and our Country, we thank you for your dedicated service to our community, state and Nation.
Marty Luebke-Post 23