Penny Rock grew up in Minneapolis and planned from a very young age to be an opera singer. She served in Vietnam from 1967-68. She currently lives in San Francisco and is president of POWER OF A CLEAR MIND: EXECUTIVE CONSULTING AND COACHING. Penny was featured in the Academy Award nominated documentary film A HEALING and was the inspiration for Normi Noel’s play “NO BACKGROUND MUSIC”. Penny visits the Berkshires annually and this interview was conducted during one of her visits at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA.
There is a theme and it is music. There’s no question about that. My first performance stage was the driveway of a fire station when I was 2 years old. By the time I was 13 I had decided that I wanted to be an opera singer. I made another decision at that time. The idea of the starving artist life didn’t appeal to me. I realized that I needed to have what I called a portable career and be able to make money – to support myself, to live and to pay for my education. My family didn’t have any money. I knew that was up to me. I looked at what was available to women as far as careers that wouldn’t confine me were concerned and the one that made sense was nursing, because I would be able to work anywhere – as many shifts as I needed – and if I did well enough on my state boards, I would have reciprocity so I could work anywhere in the world. I thought that was a pretty good strategic plan for a 13 year old. That’s what I set out to do and that’s what I did.
For a long time my home was a war zone. It was very abusive. I knew from the time I was a very young child that it didn’t have anything to do with me; that my experience of life was something I had inside me. I didn’t express it that way then, as I do now, but that was an understanding I had. I enjoyed myself – except at home. I found ways to be away. Music was one of my releases. I had the theater, piano, clarinet and school. I loved school. I was engaged in a lot of activities that allowed for creative expression and intellectual stimulation. When I was at my house I created a room for myself. It was my office, which was a closet in my bedroom and that’s where I wrote and composed. That was my haven.
I graduated from high school in ’63 and from nursing school in Minneapolis where I grew up – what was then Swedish Hospital and Augsburg College – in ’66. During that time I knew there was a war on. I had opinions about it and my opinions were that we had no business being there. It didn’t make sense to me. The whole idea of war didn’t make sense to me. In my family I was the youngest by far. I didn’t really know my siblings so I grew up essentially as an only child. My father was too young for World War I and too old for World War II, so that wasn’t something that was a factor. In high school I looked around my classes and I saw my classmates and I wondered – what’s happening with these young men that I know?
Nursing school was professionally very rewarding. I loved surgery. I loved working in emergency situations. I am good at that. I don’t need to create a crisis in order to feel complete, but I’m good in one because I can keep my head. In my junior year in 1965, there was a parade of military recruiters for nurses. They needed nurses. Not one of them talked about Vietnam. We sat in these classrooms as these women came in front of us and talked about the benefits of joining the military and I, like many, paid attention to the economic benefits
I decided on the Army because it was a two-year obligation, while others were 3 or 4 years. I found out that they would pay me a salary during my senior year. That took care of my financial pay-off and I could do extra shifts and learn what I needed to learn. You go into the service as an enlisted person with no rank the first year and then when you graduate and pass your boards, you are given your rank and you start your two year hitch. My recruiter never mentioned anything about Vietnam either. I had said that I wanted to sign up for Germany. I thought that would be great, because I’d be over there in the hotbed of opera land. Since I had reciprocity with my state board I could work and study over there, learn and travel and listen to glorious voices. It was something that appealed greatly to the artistic part of me.
In the meantime there was this war that was intensifying. I heard nothing about it from the military people. I went off to work at a psychiatric hospital while I was waiting for the results of my boards and then went to basic training in Texas at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio at the Army medical hospital. Fortuitously it was and is a location that has marvelous facilities for burn patients – a different kind of burns than what we had to deal with over in Vietnam, but still it was a fascinating experience. Basic training didn’t necessarily prepare us all that well for what we were going to face and it was when I got there that I found out it was not if I was going to Vietnam, it was when. It was like the earth opened and swallowed me up. I had no idea that I would be serving over there. I had no understanding about that kind of carnage. I had worked extra shifts as well as my own rotation in emergency, but it does not compare to what weapons of war will do to a human body, spirit and psyche. It was not something I could imagine.
In basic training I didn’t find that learning how to march made much sense for us nurses. I could see the importance for any enlisted man of learning how to move in a jungle. We did go out and live in the fields. We would be dropped off places with a compass and a map and we were supposed to find another location. I didn’t know at the time that that would be useful later. We had to learn how to deal with weapons and use them. Once when I was doing target practice, I thought I had shot myself. I had never held a gun in my hands before, but the casing came out and hit me in the helmet and I thought, did I shoot myself? Am I dead? Am I dying? I looked around and saw the casings and one of the instructors came around and I asked, “Did I shoot myself?” It was a bizarre experience…
A lot of us lived in motels off campus in Texas. You weren’t living in nursing quarters. When we went out in the field we were together. We would build hospitals and then have simulated mass casualties, where enlisted men would be our patients. You would have a field of young men lying on the ground with a 3 X 5 card pinned to their chests. That card gave their symptoms and we would do the triage based on that. We would make decisions about what would happen with them, take them into the hospital, do whatever dispositions we needed to do and then take the hospital down, move someplace else and do the whole thing over again. Nobody in Vietnam was building hospitals. They were fixed facilities or huts, so they didn’t have that MASH kind of situation there. You don’t have tropical diseases that you have over there. And you didn’t have real wounds and there’s nothing about a 3 X 5 card that does anything for you other than testing your intellectual, medical capabilities to know what to do. That’s useful.
We also had to learn how to record our nursing notes in military form. We had classes on military procedure. At the end of that time I went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. I thought, that’s pretty good. It’s not Germany, but it’s on the east coast and there’s music there and I’ll be able to do some of what I wanted to do.
My entry to the War in Vietnam was really through the backdoor. When I went to Walter Reed, they knew what my background was and they said, “We’ve got a place where we really need you.” It was in cardio-vascular and thoracic surgery. At that time that was, no pun intended, the cutting edge of open-heart surgery. It was again professionally very stimulating. I don’t regret that for a minute. I just learned so much. I wasn’t treating anybody from Vietnam, but what I walked through everyday were the wards where I saw young men in varying stages of rehab. That’s what I mean by the backdoor. These were not fresh wounds. That’s not what you were getting there. There were too many young men in wheelchairs; too many young men who were missing various parts of their bodies. I remember getting a phone call from one of my sisters at the time and she said, “Oh, Penny, I saw something today. It was just grotesque. I had no idea what it was, but I thought you might know.” So she explained that she had been at the grocery store and she saw a young man whose nose was attached to his arm like a long tube. So she explained this and asked, “What could that be?” I knew by that time and said, “He’s just growing a new nose.” She said, “What do you mean ‘he’s growing a new nose’?” I said, “Well, they’ve taken skin from elsewhere that is healthy and has a vascular component to it and there has to be enough of it so the tissue can be generated and then you cut it off and create a nose.”
I was seeing a lot of those kinds of injuries and that’s what I mean – it was the backdoor. I could only imagine what it looked like when it happened. I didn’t work with these men, but I spent time with them. I just wanted to know how they were doing. I wanted to see if I could get any sense of what it was like for them over there because I knew I would be going at some point. Was there advice they had for me in terms of how they were over there and how they were treated? I wanted to know something from them before I went over and in some way it felt important to me that they weren’t feeling abandoned. They weren’t abandoned in terms of the nurses who were working with them, but I just wanted them to know that somebody who was going into that environment wanted to know something about what they had been through – that there was some kind of 360 degree connection for them.
There was one nurse on my ward who came back from Vietnam some time during my tour and I wanted to know what things were like and she wouldn’t talk about it. The only thing she told me was to shake out your boots in the morning – all kinds of things crawl in there – and duck, move fast and that was it. I would ask her over and over, “What kinds of wounds?” She just wouldn’t talk about it and at that time I didn’t understand why. I certainly understood that she had just come back from a horrendous experience that I could only at that point imagine.
There was a nurse who lived with me for a couple of weeks. I had an apartment in D.C. with another nurse who went to Vietnam, so this woman came to stay with me for a while. I was very concerned about her because she was drinking and taking Darvan heavily. We talked and she would express her concerns and the next thing I knew I got word that she had jumped out of a window in an apartment building across the street from the hospital. I went over to see her and she was just hanging on and later she managed to finish it off. I don’t think her name shows on the wall, but you tell me what that casualty was all about.
Those was the kind of experiences we were having while waiting for our orders. You didn’t get your orders in the mail. They were military orders and they were delivered to the ward. They were posted on a board for the world to see, like a casting call. You’d come into work, make your rounds and see what was going on with people’s fragile hearts and then you’d look at the board and hope not to see your name. I called my girlfriend Lois and I told her I wanted to go to Europe. I wanted to see as much as I could and because I was in the military I had certain travel benefits. I called her and told her, “I am going to have to go to Vietnam and I don’t know if I’m coming back. So if we’re going to go on this trip we’ve been planning we better do it now.” I wanted to do this trip before I died and I knew I might not make it back. It sounds strange for a 20 year old to say I want to do this before I die, because you don’t think about it in those terms normally. Lois got busy and we made our plans. I was the visionary and she was the tactician. Those were the roles we always had with each other.
She came out to D.C. and spent a few days with me and then we took off. We covered as many countries and cities as we could and it was great. My first day back on the ward, I went to the board and there they were. You look at those orders, but you can’t make it out. The lights not right and you misunderstand something. That was the mindset I had in looking at that board. There’s a knot in the pit of the stomach about that. So I knew and then it was just a matter of closing down my apartment and finding folks to sell things to. I went home and saw some relatives. Some knew where I was going and some did not. My mother was not an easy person, so she spent a lot of her life either being violent or not speaking. My dad was the one who would not speak for long periods. He would shun. I remember going for 3 or 4 months with him never saying a word to me and so that was a part of his modus operandi, but she was a full-service abuser – silence, vicious talk and physical abuse. The poor woman was just caught in her own fears and didn’t know how to get out of that and my heart went out to her, but I had to be quick of foot around her as well. By the end of my high school time I laid down the law with her so at least that part of the abuse ended. I was bigger than she was.
My mother and I went to California to my sister’s home. I don’t think either my sister or mother understood what I was about to face. I am not sure how you get it. They were wrapped up in their own worlds and if you put the blinders on you don’t have to look at it or deal with it. I can’t say that anybody expressed any concern about my leaving. I was used to being very independent. It was just the norm, so it didn’t feel odd to me except in juxtaposition with what I saw with other families, particularly at Travis Air Force Base in California, which is where we left from. I saw warmth and caring being expressed by the families of others heading off to war, so there was definitely a contrast.
Arriving in Vietnam was an incredible experience. Consider first of all how we were dressed – in summer dress greens with pumps, nylons, the whole bit, hat, purse – it was just bizarre. It was a very long trip. There was quite a hush on the plane. It was going along and all of a sudden there was almost a stopping. When you are on a plane and it as about to go into a descent there is a push you feel. It was something like that and then what they did was what they call a “corkscrew landing”. You go in high and drop as far as you can. The point is to avoid gunfire. It’s almost like a nosedive and it felt like the plane was crashing and I looked at my fellow nurse and friend, Sonni, and said, “Wouldn’t that be the pits. If we can’t even land properly in this place.” Nobody knew what it was and you could hear people gasping.
We landed and they tried to get us off the plane in a hurry. When those doors opened and you got to the door the thing that struck me was the heat and the smell – the stench of that country was amazing. I didn’t know at the time all of what those smells were comprised of. I know now and when I went back to Vietnam the first time in 1995 there was the heat and a stench, but it was missing something and I realized what was missing was the smell of rotting flesh, the dead bodies, and some of the charcoal fires. It was garbage stacked high and all of the smells that go with military warfare.
We were rushed onto these buses and the buses had wire mesh screens over the windows. We were running along in our pumps and next we were told to get down on the floor. We asked about the screens since it wouldn’t have been bad to have some air coming in, but those were to keep the grenades out. We got on the floor and the bus took off. It was like an amusement park ride and you’re under the seats. There was a male nurse who got on with a rifle and we knew who he was from basic training – he was just bizarre. We said, “Get rid of that. You’re going to kill us.” He didn’t know what he was doing, but he thought he was G.I. Joe.
We went to our location where we were processed in. We were dog-tired and we hadn’t eaten. We were ushered into these rooms that had bunk beds in them. We were told not to bring much money – maybe a couple hundred dollars – and to keep it locked in something. I had $300 with me – $20 on me and the remaining $280 locked in my suitcase. We were taken over to a mess hall area and there was music and a space where people were dancing. There were steaks and baked potatoes and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. We had something to eat and some man asked me to dance and I said, “Are you crazy? My feet are on fire and I just want to go to sleep.” I said, “No, I don’t want to dance and Sonni said, “You have to. He’s a high ranking person.” I said, “I don’t care what his rank is, I am not dancing. This is not what I am here for. I just want some sleep. I want to find out where I am going.” We still had miles to go before we slept and some of us were sick already.
I went back to my room and my suitcase was open and my money was gone. So were the suitcases of others. I thought, that’s a fine how do you do. You come here and everything’s gone and, almost at the same moment, I realized, wait a minute, that money has to be a year’s living or more for an entire Vietnamese family and so, of course, they’re going to do that. It didn’t mean liking it, but it was certainly understandable. But I didn’t know anything about that culture – just the poverty. And there was no warning. Shake out your boots could have also included keep your money on you.
The next day I was dropped off near a building with a screen door, like a hut, but it had nothing else around it. I waited there for 8 hours for somebody to come get me in the dead of day. It was just burning. I would go inside and it was hard to breathe so I would go outside, but I was by myself, which was scary. Sonni was gone to another assignment. I was in fatigues by this point – not pumps – but after being there for quite a while I thought, what if this is it? What if nobody comes to get me? I’m here and there’s nothing around me…But somebody’s around. There had to be VC (Vietcong – a communist army based in South Vietnam that fought the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War fro 1959-1975. It had both guerrilla and regular army units, as well as a network of cadres who organized peasants in the territory it controlled), and I didn’t know much about VC at that point. What if I just burn up? You didn’t have a bottle of water that you took with you back then.
After 8 hours I finally saw this tail of dust coming. The driver took me around to a lot of places on the way into Saigon. There were funeral processions and I was able to see what that looked like from their culture. It was fascinating. Everything was fascinating and I really appreciated what he did, because he gave me some sense of the country. He’s the one that told me when you’re walking down the street, don’t walk in groups to avoid giving too good a target, so he gave me some good practical advice.
After I got settled in I had to go over for medical clearance. We had to take primaquine for malaria while we were there. I was already sick with something. I had a really high fever and I started to faint, sliding down this wall, and this young corpsman (an enlisted person in the Medical Corps who accompanies combat troops into battle to give first aid, carry off the wounded, etc.) grabbed me because I was losing consciousness, but he was sick, too. I realized here were all of these medical people, and each of us was sick in some fashion and we weren’t there because we were sick. We were there to be cleared so we could help others. Turns out a couple of days later that the guy who helped me was one of the corpsmen I would be working with. We’d arrived at the same time.
I was introduced to my ward. Because of my experience with trauma, emergency situations and intensive care, I was assigned to those wards. That was where the journey really began. It was a large hospital and it was good in one sense because we had more capability than a lot of places. Some of the first aid stations had little more than aspirin to give people and that was a tragedy, because they would get people covered in shrapnel and to give someone an aspirin for that… We had something to work with and that was good because we certainly needed it. From a professional point of view the work was intellectually rewarding – not something I would have asked for or recommend for anybody, but if you are in that situation you make do. Not only that, but there was necessity being the mother of invention. You’ve got these terrible things going on, so there’s a good deal of experimentation to help you cope and that’s how a lot of new procedures and new medicines are developed. There are procedures that become part of the norm for society that are advanced procedures that come out of the need for invention in the middle of war. Is it good or is it bad? It’s both things at the same time.
I saw some of what I saw at Walter Reed, but in the earlier stages, before they had been evaced (removed usually by helicopter from combat due to injury) out. It was almost like if you were the camera operator in a film and you were panning and you panned from the area where you would have young men in their blue pajamas walking around or pushing other patients in wheelchairs and you kept panning and the condition of the bodies you’d see deteriorates. That was my ward. When I went through those doors in the beginning, I remember walking in and looking around and the stench – the country smelled terribly, but the stench in this room…I am looking around and I can’t take in what I am seeing. I remember saying to this one guy, “What in the hell is this?” And he said, “Welcome to the hell-hole.” I asked him, “What do I do? Where do I go?” They were busy and that part of me kicked in, but my eyes were just drinking in carnage and all that goes with that.
I wrote a poem once called “Naked in My Care” and what it’s about is that the patients on my ward were all covered with a sheet. We just dealt with what we could see on the body. It is a very exposed kind of living for these young men and for us. Every time you’d pull back a piece of sheet you’ve got something, maybe covered in a dressing, but you know what’s under the dressing. First uncovering some of those dressings – you’d see where they were and how much. You’d see young men who looked mummified, because of all the stuff that was wrapped around them and you’d undo that and you’d unveil the atrocity that was underneath. They were just young kids. That was one of the things that was so terribly difficult in the beginning.
I asked that corpsman those questions and he responded, “You can start out with patients over here and I’ll be over there.” So I asked, “Which patients?” And he said, “Well, all of them.” It’s not that there weren’t other nurses there. There were. You had certain patients you were assigned to, but you were responsible as a medical person across the board so there was a lot of crossover. We had a little board and a grease pen and we would write down the number of the bed and the nurse and corpsman who would be operating that side of the room. It was straightforward in that regard and you just started working your way down the beds and found out where things were. It’s like any kind of orientation, but it’s not like you have orientation week to learn your way around. It’s on the job and you had an orientation of about five minutes. You had to know where things were and you kept asking questions, but it happened very quickly.
I felt immediately old. I was young. I was 21, but I felt ancient. I had only been there for about three weeks at that point, but I already felt part of the ancient earth. I was not a young girl any longer. To understand that feeling of being transfigured into something different and knowing that you’d never be the same person again and not knowing what that person was going to become or if that person was going to stay alive… It was just a step into the unknown. I knew that and understood that, but it was kind of girding your loins with some kind of steel structure that you could bounce within, but not fall apart from. It is a coping mechanism and an understanding that your purpose in being there is to be clear, so you can do what’s needed for them. It’s not about you. You don’t take chances that are going to place you in a position where you’re going to be a jeopardizing force for them.
A way for me to be able to find some peace for myself was being with my colleagues. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what it’s like in war because we already knew that. We would talk about the war, but we didn’t always have good intelligence. We didn’t always know what was coming at us. We would get blindsided at times with a bunch of people we had no idea were coming in. For me it was also about being able to be alone. Writing was something that I always did so I wrote a good deal while I was there. Nobody really knew that. My correspondence with Lois was significant.
And, as always there was music. I would sing in my room. I brought sheet music with me. I brought various things with me that helped me with artistic nurturing. I had Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. There was a chapel in the hospital building that had an organ and, at certain points, I would go there and play music. Something unusual happened there. Sonni was going to get married and her husband whom she met over there broke his leg. It was almost like an episode of MASH. She wanted to get married where I was so I could be her bridesmaid. He was going to be evaced out with his injury. So the chief nurse had approved this and I don’t know why, but it was one of those crazy things. We had the wedding in the chapel and I sang and played the organ. It was one of those Lucille Ball types of things where you put a different hat on and now you’re the mayor. He was evaced out and she went back to where she was working and we never saw each other again. It was sweet and I was glad I got to do that for them…and I got to sing.
In my room when I was writing I had a tape recorder. I have talked about writing letters to Lois, but there were tapes actually. The tape recorder was probably twice the size of the normal ones now. It was reel to reel. Taping things was a big deal back then. I didn’t get mail much at all. There was one person I had met when Lois and I went to Europe. There was a family who were friends of a friend of Lois’s. They were from the Netherlands and they were delightful and I struck up a friendship with these people. The daughter was a translator and she spoke very good English, French, Dutch and German. She wrote me every week. I didn’t get all of the letters. It wasn’t a page or two and it was tiny handwriting in perfect English – 12 and 15 page letters and we had only met that one time. I wound up with half a dozen letters, but I knew there were many more because she would reference letters I hadn’t received. She said something in one of those letters. “I think a weekly note from your Netherlands home is the least anybody can do given what you’re facing.” She absolutely understood. She was close to 30 – about a 10 year difference. I did send her a few letters, though I didn’t have much time to write.
When Lois and I went on another trip to Europe soon after I returned to the States, we went to their home and this young woman was so excited and wanted to know if I had gotten all the letters and whether it was helpful. It was an incredible gesture on her part and I was very moved by that. We got there and they brought us in and the father, mother, brother and sister were there to welcome us. I was standing there looking outside and I felt somebody take my hand and I looked down and she had my hand and I looked over at her and there were tears streaming down her face. Then she looked at me and she said, “I’m so glad you’re alive.” That meant more to me than anything at that point. Nobody had said that and here was this woman who was a stranger to me in so many ways, and yet they had been so worried. I was a part of their conversations around the dinner table. How does that happen?
Back at the farm…in Vietnam, it must have looked stupid because I was lugging my tape recorder around with me, but I would tape in my room and I would often go up on the roof. It was kind of a joke that I had my own radio program so…”Reporting to you live from the roof of the Claymore, Penny Tralstad…” We weren’t supposed to be up there, but I would sit up there and I would watch the war, especially at night, firefights and the various images of war. I would record letters to Lois and in some of those letters I would have the mic on and I would just say, “Here’s what it sounds like.” She could hear what was going on in the background and I would describe what I was seeing. Sometimes I would take it with me over to the ward and from time to time when we had a break I would say something more. The initial part of those letters was to plan our trip back to Europe because after I had gotten my orders to Vietnam I called her and told her I was going over to Vietnam and I still don’t know if I’m coming back, so we made a pact that if I survived we would go on a trip around the world and if I didn’t survive Lois would go on the trip for us. That was not the easiest thing for her to agree to, but she did. That was initially a part of her thinking of what would help me – planning for this trip while I was there. And I wanted to because my intention was the minute I am out of this country we’re on a plane going somewhere else to experience more and different life. That was the plan and we did that. We sent those tapes back and forth. I would tell her I want to go here. I want to do something in Shakespeare’s place. I want to see this architecture that we really need to look at. I want to go to the Vienna Statsopera. She had a travel agent who she worked with at Pan Am and this woman apparently thought we were crazy young girls, but she was very invested in this trip and she was very helpful to Lois.
As time elapsed for me over there, the tenor, tone and content of those tapes changed. We still talked about the trip, but less so and she started asking me questions about what it was like, what I was going through, how I was doing. This was not the kind of thing Lois would normally want to know. In fact, my nickname for her was Lily-livered Lois, because she was scared of everything. If she would see a cut on somebody, she wouldn’t want to be around that. If I were sick she would pull the covers up. I am allergic to seafood and I had something to eat someplace that had a fish stock and you couldn’t taste it and I was sick as a dog, but Lois would have those covers pulled up and say, “There’s nothing I can do to help you, is there?” I’d say, “No, because you’d be useless anyway.” It was a joke. She just couldn’t stand any of this stuff. For me that was one of the greatest acts of generosity for her to be asking those questions when nobody else was and I thought, I guess I’ll answer them. There were times at first when I said, she doesn’t want to know this. She’ll throw up listening to what I have to say. And yet I did. I just answered. It became part of my way of reflecting on and incorporating what war was like from the inside out. I could talk about the things that were surreal, the things that were grotesque, the things that were beautiful.
There was a man who was VC (Vietcong) working on our ward. These people were trying to survive so they would take money from whomever they could get it. What that meant was they would work on the ward or in our quarters during the daytime and at night they would go out and do their thing. Some were arrested, but it was a known quantity. They were mama-sans and papa-sans, some of whom did the washing, ironing and cleaning. There were others on the wards, too. They would clean bedpans and sweep the floor. Early on, this one papa san came up to me and said, “I go now lady. I want you know, I no kill you tonight.” I looked at him and I was trying to make sense of his words and I said, “Thank you.” He said, “You good lady. You good people. You do good things my people. I want you know, I no kill you. I don’t know my friends, but I no kill you.” I thought that was one of the most lovely, generous acts. It sounds strange maybe to say that, but here is a man who is according to our country my enemy, according to his country their hero. That’s all we are. When we are in other people’s lands we’re guests and how well do we treat the country and how well do our hosts treat us. In the daytime he did what he could to help us do what we needed to do and that was in aid of our people and his to the extent that we treated locals. His view was that what we did was good, but at night he belonged to the people of his land. That was another story.
I’ve written a play where I have used four patients for the major story telling points. There’s one who comes to mind – a young man named James who, when I would come into the ward, would always be out in a wheelchair. He had a big blanket over him. He always had a radio and every time I would come in he would greet me and he would joke with me. He would say, “Lieutenant, would you dance with me?” I said, “Sure, as soon as you’re ready I’ll dance with you,” and I would be on my way. One day he said, “I’m going to be leaving soon. Will you dance with me.” I said, “Well, I don’t know. Are you going to be able to stand up and dance with me?” He said, “No, I won’t be able to do that really.” I said, “How do you want to dance and what do you want to dance to?” He said, “It doesn’t really matter. I just want to dance with you before I go.” I said, “Great,” and I started to take off his blanket and I said, “Well, maybe I can hold you up.” He stopped me from removing the blanket and he said, “I’d be too heavy for you.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He pulled back the blanket and he had no legs. I saw that he had just stumps and I said, “If you’re still up for dancing we’ll figure out a way.” He said, “I really want to do that.” I knew those stumps had to hurt, because they were fresh enough. I said, “I’m too heavy for you, so I can’t sit on your lap. We’ll figure something out.” Some guy came over and he had some kind of a board and he put it across the arms of the wheelchair and I sat down and somebody twirled us around and that’s how we danced. It was a beautiful moment, because here was this young man who had such spirit and courage, to even bring that up and it was such a small request for him. I was struck as I was by so many of these patients, by the innate courage to just go on living no matter what you’ve got wrong with you and to just make do and do the things you love to do regardless of the impediments. That’s a strong message and when I look at the things that a lot of people find befuddling in life, my own feeling is that’s not the half of it. There really isn’t anything that can stop us from living a fulfilling life if our minds are clear.
Davy is certainly another patient I will never forget. He was a wise young man and he wanted to know if he was dying. He understood how to live every moment of his life until he was gone. He was a dancer. He also wanted to dance with me but couldn’t. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways – our love of the arts, of music and being able to give a message of hope and uplift in a world that seemed sadly lacking in both. I gave my heart to Davy and I knew before he did, that he was going to die. What is the option, but to give your heart? To withhold it? That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you look at giving something with the idea of what you might get back that negates everything. I don’t think there can be too much hope. I don’t think there can be too much love, too much opening of your heart. The more you give the more you receive and quite apart from the fact that that was a very tough thing, I learned so much from him and others like James. I learned something different from each of these people, but always it was clear that whatever I had to give was not going to be wasted or lost. It really didn’t matter whether it lasted for another few days in his life because his spirit would go on. People have different views about what that’s all about. In my view what difference does it make? People ask, “Do you believe in an after life?” My thought is, who cares? It doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of how we live now that’s important. If there is something later, then great. If there’s not, then why wouldn’t you want to give it your best? Nobody knows what’s in store. Davy and I both had that feeling and that was something that was incredible – the coming together of our two spirits. He gave me as much as I gave him – more, actually, through all these years. Has he contributed to this world? For every act of compassion that I have been able to render to anybody he’s there. I would say he’s done a lot for this world in his short 18 year span.
The other young man didn’t have eyes. Somebody asked me once, “Was he blind?” And I said, “No, he wasn’t blind. He didn’t have eyes, but he could make the world better.” I don’t know if they were ever able to reconstruct an orbit for the eye or bone structure. I don’t know if he made it. I know he made it out of our ward. His message was, “Love is what we’re here for. It doesn’t matter what we’ve got on us. We’ve got love and we can give out a loving spirit.” He was a seminal moment for me as well.
Another one was a guy named Max who, 25 years later, found me at the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. He was an amazing young man. He asked me for something of me, because he believed that I had saved his life four times. He knew that I was upset with him because he kept being on the brink of dying. I said, “You are a real pain in the neck because you keep taking up my time.” You’re in a constant state of needing to set priorities. You cannot have a muddled mind. Something is happening around you all the time. You also have to be a chameleon. You are what that person needs you to be. For Davy I was one thing. For James I was another thing and for the young blind man…He wanted to feel my body. He wanted to feel my hair. He knew what I looked like. He had heard. What do you do about that? He wanted to be able to see me the way he could see me. Do you let somebody do that? Yes.
Max was a banterer. A part of how he made do was joking, bantering back and forth. He was about to die four times in a row and he kept eviscerating, but he also kept coming back. So I would joke with him. You become what you need to be to feel more comfortable. He was a wise young man as well. He and his wife had two kids and he asked me for something to remember me by. The thing that I thought of that was simple was that from the time I was a little girl, my name is Penelope, but people called me Penny. I would sign cards by taping a penny to them when I was a little girl. So I thought, that’s what I’ll do. I gave him six pennies, because he had told me that he and his wife wanted to have 4 children. You’d think I had given him an Oscar. He was so excited with these 6 pennies. I said, “That’s one for you, one for your wife, one for each kid now and one for each of the two kids you’re going to have.”
Fast forward to the Vietnam Memorial dedication in ’93. I ended up staying an extra day after I dropped my husband off at the airport. I thought it would be quiet on Capital Mall – not as many people would be there. I went to the Wall a second time. I then went back to the statue of the nurse with the young man and I was kneeling. That’s when Max came up and he said, “You used to wear your hair that way,” pointing to the nurse in the statue. And I did. I looked up and I saw this man standing there smiling at me. I stood up and he said, “I don’t know, but I think you might be the woman I’ve been looking for for 25 years.” I asked him, “Who do you think I am?” He said, “You were a nurse in Vietnam,” and he gave the years, ’67 to ’68. He said, “If you’re the one I think you are, your name is Penny. And your last name began with a “T”,” and Trustad is my Norwegian name. He used to joke with me about my name. I was just dumbfounded. He started lifting his shirt and pulling down his pants and showing me the various scars. I didn’t remember him at that moment. There were so many like that and for somebody to come up and say, “I have a big abdominal wound,” it was like, well, who didn’t. But it was exciting to me. I enjoy people doing that because they’re so excited about being alive. Scars are wonderful in that regard. So we talked about that. Then he said, “I came here to find you and here you are. I’ve got something for you.” I asked, “What do you have for me?” He told me the story about the pennies. He reached into his pocket and pulled one out and said, “We have three children. The family talked it over and we all said that you needed to have the sixth penny.” He gave me the penny. It was amazing. It’s a beautiful story. He was fit as a fiddle. He said, “I wanted you to know I am O.K. You saved my life four times and you’re part of what lets me stand here now. Thank-you. I want you to have our family penny.” He is somebody who I would say is a testament to resilience and to his love for his family.
Everybody had crushes on all of us. We could have all looked like a bunch of mudhens and it wouldn’t have mattered, because we were what looked like a civilized world. And we could help them. I learned a lot about how humor helps from Max. Humor is evidence of perspective. When we take ourselves too seriously we have no humor and the minute we have humor we can see irony and we can laugh about the things that were psychological guillotines at some point in our lives. In that moment it looks like the blade is very near, but in retrospect there is that perspective and humor comes in.
There is another thing I remember about these young men. You don’t think of young men in the prime of their lives being weak as kittens. Here’s a guy who’s beefy, muscular, a bit stocky, but there is the weakness in these young men when they’re wounded and I don’t think anybody realizes that. In the movies, you see people get hurt and you see people die, but it’s hard to show them in this profound sense of weakness. Max used this sense of perspective and humor as a necessary ingredient in his resilience. We cannot be resilient unless we have perspective on what we’ve been through and about how we fit into the total picture – our culpability, our innocence, which is part of a simultaneous experience of life. I don’t think we have compartments in our life. When I talk about being in war, part of what I see and talk and write about is the experience of humanity in the most inhumane circumstances – the beauty coexists with the grotesque, so the resilience has a sense of humor or it wouldn’t allow us to do anything but go insane. Max was a real testament to that – to not giving up.
Knowing I was leaving Vietnam was hard for me. Getting towards the end for me there was that same kind of thing that a lot of us shared – who’s counting the cards for us? What are the odds that we’re going to make it through here? I didn’t cross off days on a calendar as many did. As much as I wanted to leave I didn’t want to leave. It was a very difficult time. On the one hand, I just wanted to get out of there. I wanted to meet Lois and go on our trip. On the other hand I didn’t want to leave because I was needed and I was worthwhile. I had something to offer that not many people had. We were a special few in many ways – we had experience. You’d see people leaving and there were no good-bye parties. You worked until somebody said, “The truck is here,” and you’d have your stuff packed up waiting by the door and you’d say, “O.K. Bye,” and off you’d go. There’s no leave-taking. You’d toast each other with a can of coke as you’re handing your dressing to somebody else. How do you say good-bye to a country that has consumed more of your life than you knew you had? How do you say good-bye to people upon whom you have relied for sanity, for camaraderie, for professional skills. We were able to work together in a seamless fashion. How do you say good-bye to the people lying in the beds? My very first patient that I ever had asked me to go home with him and I had just gotten there. Here’s a young man who’s scared stiff, but not when he’s got his nurse and he wants her to go with him. I couldn’t, of course, go anywhere with him, but…how do you do that? You have to leave everybody and you have to leave the way in which you are able to contribute something in a way that you will never do again – one would hope – so it is a gut-wrenching experience.
I was the only woman on the plane home and a lot of the men were sick so I spent a good deal of the flight going around being a nurse. I knew that something had happened to my vocal chords while I was “in country”. I had a couple of doctors examine me and they said it didn’t look good. I knew that something was going on. I didn’t know if it would get better and that had been my dream. That’s why I became a nurse. When I came back from my trip with Lois soon after my return from Vietnam I found out the dream was finished. Then I had to find a different way to use my voice. You know the song, “What I Did for Love”? It was that kind of a feeling. You gave it all and then, oops, something happened and what you thought you’d be able to give is removed and then you move on from that.
Coming back was very challenging. Nobody was saying a thing. The hush in the plane was overwhelming. There was no cheering when we landed. People kissed the ground – the ground that didn’t welcome them back. That’s hard to take. For me that was the end of the military so I was processing out completely. There was nobody who asked a question. Nobody said, “Welcome home.” These were military people for heaven’s sake. You filled out forms, you changed your clothes, you turned in this and that. I stayed overnight. I put on civilian clothes and nobody waved good-bye. Nobody said anything about not only what you’d been through, but whether there was anybody to talk to about it. I don’t know how much that happens right now. I hope more. But there was no reaching out. What you were left to do was find your way home.
I called my sister and my brother-in-law came to get me. They were glad to have me back, but nobody asked me anything about what I’d been through. My mother was there and she was mad at me as she usually was – not one question about what I had experienced. My nephew – they had four children – was 5 and he was in kindergarten. He came up to me and asked, “Would you come to school with me tomorrow?” I thought he wanted to show me where he went to school, so I said, “Sure, I’ll go to school with you. Is there something special going on?” He said, “I want to take you for show and tell. I think I am the only one that has a soldier.” And that’s what I was. I was the show and tell. I was a soldier. So I went off to kindergarten with my nephew and the teacher was definitely puzzled. He said, “For show and tell today this is my Aunt Penny and she’s a soldier.” That’s about as close as anybody got to what life was like from me – from the mouth of a five year old. The kids wanted to know what it was like. Kids are amazing. They ask very direct questions. While we were in Vietnam, one of the nurse’s sisters was a third grade teacher so she had her class write us letters. They were hilarious, but to the point. “Does it hurt to get shot?” “Does it hurt to die?” “Do they bury you there or do you come home to be buried?” Some of the letters we didn’t give out to the patients and some we did, but we read them. There’s no artifice there whatsoever, so for my five year old nephew to call me a soldier was…he didn’t realize how wise that was, of course, but it was.
My sister had good friends who lived across the street and they came over for dinner and it was like I had been on vacation for a year in an exotic land. There were a few questions about what the land is like, what is the food like. To this day, if somebody has a French bread, a baguette, I’m looking for bugs to pick out because that’s what you did. My experience of living back in this country was so foreign that a part of me just wanted to get on the next plane and go back because I knew that land by then. I knew what to do and I knew how to help and I didn’t know what in the world was going on in my own land. Then, of course, I got a much better earful about how the country viewed anybody who was over there. There were some other neighbors and they asked me what I was doing over there and I told them. They were as cold as could be. “How could you?” I responded, “I was sent there.” Military experience for women has always been voluntary. I never made any moves not to go there. I didn’t want to go there, but I accepted it.
I went up to Minneapolis to meet Lois on our way to New York. She was so excited to see me. She was all packed and ready to go, but I walked in and her parents kept me in the living room. Her dad was extremely reticent. He didn’t talk to anybody. He wasn’t angry, he just didn’t talk. But he could never stop talking to me. I was in the living room with him and he was asking me questions. I was talking with him and then Lois and her mother came in from the kitchen. They were beaming and they said, “O.K., it’s time to come in and have a cup of coffee. So we go in and sitting on the kitchen table is a big chocolate cake with an American flag stuck in it. That was my welcome home – Lois’ parents were the ones who welcomed me. And Lois was so proud of me. She’d gone shopping and found the flag to put in the cake. It was lovely. They asked questions and they talked and all of her relatives were over at some point and they wanted to know what I did.
When we went on our trip to Europe, I didn’t realize what good sense that was at the time. I just knew I wanted to get over there and see more. We were able to get into Cambodia before it shut down. This was a dream and we were living that dream and I was alive. We went to the places and we did the things that we wanted to do. While we were gone some of Lois’s character and strength were present. Here was the woman who didn’t want to know anything, but she asked and while we were traveling she had this ability to sense where I was. There were times when she would know or ask if there was something I wanted to talk about. Or she would say I want to know about such and such, but only when you’re ready. We did that dance throughout that six months.
There was some decompression that was taking place during that time. Poor Lois. I don’t know how many fingers it would take to count the number of times I threw her to the ground and covered her with my body. You would do that if you were under fire. Our job was to protect the patient. On the trip we would be places and there would be loud noises or maybe there would be a helicopter. When we were in Nurnberg the neo-Nazis were having some big riots so there was a lot of gunfire. I would just grab her and slam her to the ground and lay on her and then I’d realize what was happening. She would be still. She knew. She didn’t know the first time I did it, but she became used to it over time. And that happened for years – gradually not so much me throwing somebody to the ground or me going to the ground, but I did and still do have that instinct. What I was able to talk about is what we would talk about. Then she would delve a little bit more.
Coming back from Europe, Lois and I lived together in an apartment in California and it became clear the depth of vitriol that was present for Vietnam veterans. I was treated even worse because I didn’t have to be there because I wasn’t drafted. Nurses were considered not very nice people. As people asked questions – where have you been, what have you done? What could I say. “I was overseas.” Where overseas? “In southeast Asia.” Well, where in southeast Asia? “In Vietnam.” “What were you doing there?” Either it was, “Get away from me,” or they would harangue me. There was also the entertainment piece – let me vicariously get a little bit of excitement out of this. That was not what I was going to deal with. I still get that, but I don’t go there. I’ve got a much better sensor over the years of when people really want to know what it was like. I will tell you anything you want to know if you want to know, but I have to go some place to bring that out. If you’re not going to be respectful of that and want to know because you want to learn and be part of a different message, then I won’t go there. My message is not one of hate. If you want to experience the fullness of what I have to offer, then I’ll go anywhere, but not as a party trick. Within the first few months I realized there was no safe place for that so I just stopped talking about it. Lois continued over the years to ask questions so I would talk to her, but I didn’t talk to anybody else.
Gradually there were a few people who would ask enough questions where they would realize there was something there and I would say a little, but not much. And even with my second husband, Bob, until one night… He and I went to a concert at the Presidio in San Francisco. We were both looking forward to hearing the Big Band music from the 40’s that was on the program. There were pictures of the stars of the 40’s who sang the songs and over the loudspeakers were the songs being sung – Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra. The stage was set up to look like a radio station from the time period of the music. There were signs that said, “On Air” and “Applause”. There was a program that had a listing of all the songs. so at some point we thought the program was over, but it wasn’t. The orchestra was still there and the next thing I realized was I had stepped away. I was no longer there. I was sobbing – gut-wrenching sobs and I had no idea what was going on. People were there. “Is she O.K.?” “What’s going on?” Bob got people to leave, but we were then alone there and he didn’t know what to do to help me. He didn’t know what was wrong with me.
Finally I realized that the song was “I’ll be Seeing You,” and it wasn’t on the program. There was no reason that song should have been played. They had already done the planned encores. I felt betrayed by that. They should’ve told me if they were going to play that song, which is, of course, irrational because how was anybody supposed to know what that song meant to me. It was a very personal moment of hell in a way, because here was this song, but I didn’t know what was going on for me. It was like parts of me were breaking loose. We got out of there and started going to the car and I saw this vision of Davy, the patient of mine I spoke of who died. That was his favorite song and the song I sang to him as he was dying. It’s not that I hadn’t heard that song before, but for whatever reason it stayed in a safe place, but that night it just ripped the doors off the hinges, broke the windows and at that point I had no sanctuary.
That began a very unnerving period for me . It went on for some days as the images started to build out and I heard his voice telling me what I needed to do to live our dream. That’s when the full memory emerged. I never completely forgot him, but the strength of that memory and the ferocity of it said, “You’ve got to stop being silent. There are things you need to say and a message that you have that can be as helpful as being in the midst of war and doing hands on help.” He was chastising me in some way for maintaining a silence that was only for protection, but at some point started to seem more selfish for me to maintain. I don’t mean in terms of judging myself harshly, but if I had a message… Who knows how much time we have? That was when that message started to get stronger for me and then I started talking more about it and testing the waters with people; talking with Bob more about it, telling him more of what happened.
Soon after that fateful night, I started thinking seriously about going back to Vietnam. For so many years I had nightmares. I still do, but they don’t mess my day anymore and I am not afraid of them. I am familiar with them. One of my frequent nighttime visitors was a dream about having to go back to Vietnam. I had a lot of nightmares that I called “oldies but goodies” that would keep coming back and then others that were variations on a theme. They were pretty brutal. Over some time and as memories started to come back more I shifted. I didn’t hate Vietamese people, but for a period of time I was afraid around them. In San Jose there was a huge immigrant population from Vietnam and a part of the downtown of that area where I worked for a period of time was full of Vietnamese people and the stores looked like little Saigon. I would hyperventilate. I couldn’t be around them. The memories of what that meant frightened me so much. That coupled with the nightmares was very difficult.
I finally decided I wanted to see if I could find my young self in Vietnam, because a part of me felt that I had abandoned her there. I left her there and I needed to know how she was getting along. I thought it was time to do that. There was a returning veterans group that was going back and I asked Bob if he wanted to go – I was going to go regardless. He wanted to go and thought it would be helpful if he would be there. I had been talking about it extensively with Normi with whom I had begun to collaborate on what was to become the play, “No Background Music”. I thought it would be good for her to go and to be in that land she’d been writing about. She wanted to go as well, and then there was another friend of mine from Philadelphia and she, too, is one of those people who asked me anything and wanted to know and was so very respectful of my soul. So she came along and it was the four of us. It was enormously beneficial for me to have good spirits with me.
I found where I lived and where I worked. Where I lived didn’t look much different, just older. I met the people who lived in the two rooms that I had lived in. I got to know them and was adopted by them and I adopted them. They wanted to get in my suitcase and come back with me. A 21 year old girl living was living in one of the rooms and I had been a 21 year old girl living in that room. The hospital had been chopped up and transformed into a lot of sweatshops. My ward was a sweatshop that was owned and operated by the South Korean government so I couldn’t get in. I got into the operating area and they made cardboard boxes there. They invited me in for tea and there were certain things left over from the war there – sign-offs, dispositions of people – various detritus of our time.
I had a dream two nights before we were going to leave. For our last night in country we had dinner at the Majestic Hotel in Saigon on the river. I told the three of them about my dream. It was that I was in a cab – my current self and my young self – and I was going out to Tan Son Nhut Air Base to leave. My young self was sitting next to me in the car. She was turned and she was looking back at the hospital. She was tugging on my arm saying, “No, no, no. I’ve got to go back there. I’ve got people to take care of.” My current self was telling her, “No, it’s over. It’s O.K. now. We can go. There’s nobody left to take care of. I’m sorry for leaving you here all these years, but I am going to take you home now.” The young girl wanted to stop the cab. She tried to open the door and get out, which is exactly the kind of thing I was doing back then. Finally she asked, “Is it true? Is it real? Will you take me home?” And I said, “Yes, that’s what I’m here for – to find you and take you home. Everybody is O.K. And what you did was fine and it was enough and you don’t need to do it anymore.”
It was a beautiful dream. I told it to them and they were delighted, because in a way for us it was a lovely ending to this very disruptive period, all of it a healing. I would keep being asked, “Is there closure?” “Can you put it behind you?” I don’t want to put it behind me. How could I put it behind me? I can’t any more deny that then I can deny I was once a six year old. It is all a part of my life, so I wouldn’t deny that, but healing with it and having it incorporated into my life as a part of who I am as a human being is what it is about for me. That whole period of being there at that time was a part of that re-integration, which is a part of healing where you live with something instead of living something. It’s a whole different theme.
I came back and I wrote three poems about my time in Vietnam. I continued talking about my experience more and more. In my business with clients, it’s not the first thing I bring up. I don’t go up to somebody and say, “Hi, I’m Penny Rock, I’m a Vietnam vet. You want to know more?” It would be pretty stupid. But even in business where I work with CEO’s and senior teams it’s relevant. If you want to keep a clear head in something and you want to look at how tough business is take a look at what it’s really like. There are wars within communities and it’s relevant there, too. I have found a way to give voice to that when it is relevant and when it’s appropriate and to be able to expand that message, which is why I was willing to talk with Nomi about creating a play about my Vietnam experience. It is about the message of healing and hope and of integration. The notion of enemy is a far-fetched one – a very interesting thing that we carry around with us. It doesn’t mean that I’m stupid and not going to take care of myself in a dangerous position. Certainly I will, but I don’t live my life looking for enemies.
Going back to Vietnam another time in 2005 on my own was a whole different experience. It was absolutely lovely. I found my hospital and got into my ward. I went back during Tet because I wanted to experience that celebration instead of the offensive. I had cancer in 1999 and after going through the overt part of the treatment – surgery, chemo and radiation – there was an onslaught of poetry. I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t if I had tried. A lot of that was the unleashing of a good many memories and that has continued. On the second trip I felt even more embracing of the country. Talk about a resilient people. They have been occupied more than they haven’t and by different countries. I talked to an old man once when I was living there during the war and I asked him, “How is it for you. You’ve had people here all the time and here we are now. What is that like for you to live in a constant state of war?” He just looked at me and smiled and said, “The Chinese have been here. The French were here and now you’re here and you’ll leave and somebody else will be here.” As it turns out the Communist government took over and now they’re still communist, but they’re a very capitalist society. A lot has changed there, but my most recent trip there was one of greater joy and greater embracing of the culture and learning more. Being an integrated self and going back, of course other memories came back and I wrote while I was there on a lot of different levels. I had very interesting contacts and connections with people. It was surreal and other-worldly. I just belonged there. The place was my own. I can’t wait to go back.