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Photograph by Michael Amsler

The healer: Ex-Army nurse Lily Adams has spent the past 25 years helping mend the social and emotional scars of the Vietnam War.

Lily Adams

Honoring the Dead and the Living

By Greg Cahill

LILY ADAMS remembers her recruiter--an impressive U.S. Army Corps veteran clad in Class A greens, bedecked with medals, and armed with promises of subsidized education, excellent working conditions in modern medical facilities, and a cushy stateside tour of duty.

It was enticing to the young blue-collar nursing student, who was working weekends as a nurse's aide for a dollar an hour. In the patriotic fervor that gripped the anti-communist contingent of mid-'60s middle America, Adams thought the military just might fulfill her desire to do something constructive for her country. After all, like so many others, she had been moved as a young girl by President John F. Kennedy's stirring 1961 inaugural plea to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

And the recruiter did promise that Adams wouldn't be sent to Vietnam--that was voluntary service.

But the orders came.

"I went because I was told I was needed more over there than stateside," she says. "And knowing the shortage of nurses in the states led me to believe that it must be godawful in Vietnam in order for them to lie to us."

In October of 1969, Adams found herself in the Vietnamese hamlet of Cu Chi in the midst of a war zone 17 miles from the Cambodian border. Assigned to the intensive care ward of the 12th Evac Hospital, Adams worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, treating wounded soldiers for severe phosphorous burns and amputations.

The hospital compound was shelled frequently by enemy mortars.

Later transferred to a battlefield triage unit, Adams spent a lot of time talking to the dying. "I had one man tell me, 'Do you know I'm dying for nothing?'

"I began to make promises," she says, "that when I returned to the States, I would let everybody know what it was like for them."

Adams is a survivor. Throughout her hitch in the army, she overcame enemy fire, rampant sexism, and bureaucratic manipulation to tell her story. Over the past 30 years, she has fought to win recognition for the women who served in Nam and to educate youths about deceptive recruiting and the horrors of war.

As one of 10,000 military and civilian women to serve in Vietnam, she has worked as the editor of Proudly We Hail, a national newsletter devoted to women veterans, and she has been a forceful advocate for the Vietnam Women's Memorial project, an endeavor to honor contributions and sacrifices of women veterans with a statue near the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The war remains a big part of her life. "Every April 30, I think about the fall of Saigon and the effect that it had on so many lives," she says. "I went back to Nam in 1995 with a group of women vets and found a very peaceful country. We all gathered there on Veterans Day and hung up a flag to celebrate all those years of what for some turned out to be suffering, but also of life.

"For Vietnam, the last 25 years have produced a healthier country in spite of it all."

As an Asian-American woman who served in the Southeast Asian conflict, Adams has proved something of a surprise for the thousands of high school and college students to whom she has spoken over the years as a member of the Berkeley-based Vietnam Speakers Alliance. Bright, assertive, and outspoken, this 52-year-old Mill Valley resident and former Veterans Administration counselor breaks the stereotype that many youths hold of Viet vets.

During the '80s, the former first lieutenant spent several years educating youths about her war experience, a commitment that brought her to classrooms in Marin and Sonoma counties. While she has taken a hiatus from those duties, Adams plans to resume her lecturing soon with the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Her willingness to discuss military life in frank terms is a revelation for many curious youths who are presented a glorified version of war by the media and military recruiters, or whose unsettling questions at home are sometimes met with stony silence.

"One kid in Georgia said, 'You know, my father and uncle never talk about Vietnam. I guess that's because they did a lot of awful things over there,' " Adams recalls.

"I told him, 'No, not necessarily. They could have post-traumatic stress syndrome, where it's painful [to remember their experience under fire]. Some really horrible things may have happened to them in wartime, and they don't want to talk about it because it hurts so much.'

"It's really important that these kids understand that vets weren't a bunch of baby killers and dope addicts, because some of them still believe that."

Although she is hesitant to describe life in a war zone as positive, Adams says the constructive assistance many GIs lent the Vietnamese people tends to be overlooked in the media.

"We did a lot for the Vietnamese you never hear about," she says, "everything from plastic surgery to cataract operations.

"Medical people went out in the villages and found various kinds of people who could use a simple operation to make their lives better. We'd take them into the hospitals when it was quiet, when we weren't having a lot of casualties coming in. We went to orphanages and helped out there. We wrote home to our parents and got them to collect clothes for kids.

"We did a lot of wonderful things. And we became friends with lots of Vietnamese.

"We ran into some of them on that 1995 trip," she adds. "They came out of the shadows to thank us for the work we did there during the war. It was a very emotional experience. They were so happy that we had come back for a visit."

While political repression and Third World poverty were evident, Adams was taken aback by the relative peacefulness she witnessed.

"I know it's a Communist country," she says, "and there were soldiers running around. But it's also a vibrant agricultural society, and it was great to see people growing food and raising animals.

"The literacy rate is 80 percent--everywhere you look people are reading books--and the push for education is very strong. It's a very progressive country."

In Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam--and still referred to by many residents as Saigon, its old colonial name--signs of American, Japanese, and European businesses abound, she says. "Some of the gorgeous white-sand beaches are now being occupied by French and German youths who just see this as a beautiful country for a vacation--a lot like Hawaii--and seem unaware of its past," she says.

"Vietnam is still a poor country, but a peaceful country. It affected me greatly to go back."

That's a far different reality than the bleak picture painted by the U.S. administration during the war, which said that Communist leaders would order the wholesale slaughter of our former allies in the south and usher in decades of horror.

"It's still a repressive country--it's not a free country like we are used to in a democratic country--but things are going along very well," Adams says. "As the younger generation becomes educated, especially those that have access to the Internet, and the more they learn about he world, the more they are going to want to modernize Vietnam. So I see that the change is going to come from within.

"These are resilient, intelligent people."

Even in remote Cu Chi, where Adams completed her tour of duty, signs of change are everywhere. New government buildings--painted pale yellow--line broad boulevards. Commerce is thriving, public health advisories are prevalent, and Communist party officials are in complete control.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Adams says. "After all, they were in charge when I was there. It's just that now they're more visible because they don't have to hide."

Did it sadden Adams to recall the high price America paid for its failed policies in Vietnam? "Oh yeah, it was a waste," she says wistfully. "I feel very strongly about that."

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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