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Subject: Lynda Van Devanter, Nurse Who Became Chronicler of Her Wartime Pain

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Date Posted: November 23, 2002 11:53:55 EDT

Lynda Van Devanter, whose pained account of her life as an Army nurse in Vietnam focused attention on the burdens of American servicewomen in the war, died on Nov. 15 at her home in Herndon, Va. She was 55.

At the Vietnam Veterans of America, where Ms. Van Devanter founded and administered a project dealing with the concerns and complaints of the 7,465 women who had served in Vietnam, a spokesman said she had long been ill with a vascular disease that she attributed to wartime exposure to chemical agents.

"She had an Agent Orange claim that we will continue to pursue for her daughter, Molly," said the spokesman, Rick Weidman.

Ms. Van Devanter's memoir was "Home Before Morning" (Beaufort Books, 1983), which helped inspire the television series "China Beach." In it, she wrote of her transformation in 1969 from "an all-American girl" and idealistic supporter of the war into an overworked, confused nurse at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, where the gore and horrors of war were constantly before her.

She wrote of surgeons' sometimes working drunk on alcohol or high on drugs; of overburdened nurses and medics who sought release not only in liquor but also in marijuana and desperate if casual relationships; of the way her early pro-war enthusiasm waned amid the blood and casualties. Her experience was so alarming to her that the most pleasurable work she could later recall was her assignment to help a leper colony of Vietnamese.

And then, after a year, it was over.

Her tour of duty in Vietnam completed, Lieutenant Van Devanter returned to the United States to continue her service, only to discover another kind of pain.

"Somewhere between 1945 and 1970, words like bravery, sacrifice and valor had gone out of vogue," she wrote. "When I returned to my country I began to learn a very bitter lesson. In the eyes of most Americans, the military services had no more heroes, merely baby-killers, misfits and fools."

After her discharge she worked as a nurse in several civilian hospitals, but failed to free herself of the traumas inflicted by Vietnam. She later described her work record as spotty and her relationships as tormented and unfulfilling. She drank heavily, she said, and cried continually.

"I was on unemployment and food stamps and in therapy," Ms. Van Devanter said in an interview in 1981. "But I never told my therapist I was in Vietnam. That's how deeply I buried it."

Then one night in 1979, while visiting friends on eastern Long Island, she was awakened by a siren from a nearby volunteer firehouse. It made the same sound as the alert that had signaled rocket and mortar attacks on Pleiku, and Ms. Van Devanter found herself compulsively crawling out of the house.

That led her to enlist in a counseling program known as "walking through Vietnam," which in turn led her to write her memoir and to focus attention on the concerns of female veterans.

At the outset of the book, which she wrote with Christopher Morgan, she said she had initially tried "to exorcise the Vietnam War from my mind and heart." In the process, she said, she learned that she wanted not to obliterate her memories but rather to show "that the war doesn't have to own me, I can own it."

She dedicated her book in part to "all of the unknown women who served forgotten in their wars." When it appeared in 1983, it provoked a sharp dispute between Vietnam War nurses who claimed that the accounts of partying, drinking and drug use were exaggerated and those who insisted that the descriptions were accurate.

The critics, who called themselves Nurses Against Misrepresentation, or Nam, complained that Ms. Van Devanter's account could leave relatives of dead soldiers believing that their kin had not received the best possible treatment.

But others jumped to the author's defense. One, Winnie Smith, has written that she was close to suicide when she recognized the demons of her own traumatic stress after reading "Home Before Morning." That experience led her to write her own book in 1992, "American Daughter Gone to War."

Ms. Van Devanter established the Women's Project at the Vietnam Veterans of America, overseeing studies that underscored her view that though Vietnam veterans in general were "a forgotten minority," the women who had served as nurses were "the most forgotten."

She cited complaints she gathered that no women had been included in studies on the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange and that veterans' hospitals provided no gynecological or obstetrics clinics.

Ms. Van Devanter, a native of Arlington, Va., is survived by her husband, Tom Buckley, and their daughter, Molly; a stepdaughter, Brigid Buckley of Raleigh, N.C.; and Ms. Van Devanter's mother, Helen Van Devanter of Sterling, Va.

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