ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – A Maryland native who was a nurse anesthetist in Vietnam said she never felt more alive than while serving the nation.
Retired Lt. Col. Betty Kruger served through a tumultuous period in American history; in the 1960s, women were still adjusting to their role in the U.S. military while serving in combat zones and “hot spots” around the world.
Born in Baltimore in 1931, Kruger said she didn’t plan to go into nursing.
“It just kind of happened. I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
That changed, however, after she accompanied a friend to a nursing school interview. Before she knew it, she had filled out an application. She said she weighed three years of nursing school against going for a four-year teaching degree.
“I thought about it and figured three years [of nursing school] was better than four, so I took it,” she said, noting that her friend dropped out after the second year.
Kruger loved every aspect of nursing, especially the scientific part, which drew her to anesthesiology. She was certified a nurse anesthetist upon graduation and was soon drawn to the military when a friend, who worked at the former Kirk Army Hospital at APG, informed her that the Army had a shortage of nurses.
Despite her reluctance to leave her parents, Kruger joined up for two years, which she pulled at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before accepting another two-year assignment to Belgium. From there, she went to ‘Nam.
She said there was no undue stress among nurses about serving in ‘Nam.
“You go where you’re needed,” she said. “There were nurses in Belgium who had served there and they told us what to expect, what to bring with us, things like that, but they couldn’t really prepare you. It all depended on where you were sent.”
It was January 1970 and Kruger was assigned to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai.
“It was up north, above Da Nang, near the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone],” she said.
For the majority of her year-long tour the 85th supported the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Eagle near Hue. They also cared for South Vietnamese soldiers and local nationals – even children.
“Our hours were more or less around the clock,” Kruger said. “We worked when we had patients and when there were no patients we didn’t work.”
Keeping the hospital empty
They were seldom without patients, and the staff strived to keep the hospital nearly empty.
“We would treat patients and discharge them or transport them to the larger hospital in Da Nang or to hospital ships out on the South China Sea,” she said.
The strategy was essential, Kruger said, because there was no way of knowing when an operation would result in a large number of casualties. Several major battles occurred that year, most notably, the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord, which pitted the 101st against the North Vietnamese in a 23-day battle in July.
But there was down time and humorous times as well. She said they slept in “hooches” that were constructed by engineers next to an airfield along Highway 1. Her hooch was jokingly named “The Sugar Shack.”
She laughingly recalled when a Vietnamese woman from a nearby village was brought in with a snake bite.
“She came in with a dead chicken on her foot,” Kruger said. “That was their treatment. She pointed out the kind of snake from a photo. But they had killed the chicken. It was still warm and they were using it as a hot water bottle. Of course we treated her.”
During her first R&R to Hawaii, Kruger said she was the only female on a plane full of GIs going to meet their wives or sweethearts.
“It’s all they talked about, and I listened but all I really wanted was to get to my hotel and sleep in a real bed,” she said.
We never really talked about the war,” she said of she and her fellow nurses. “We were too busy and half of us didn’t really understand why we were there anyway.”
She said whenever they flew escort transporting patients to other medical facilities on medevac helicopters, they had to call ahead to let the gaining hospital know what equipment they were using.
“If we had a patient with a tracheotomy tube, for example, the gaining hospital would have the same equipment for us to take back with us. We had to do that to keep from running out of equipment.”
She added that there were no trauma centers and several doctors said they planned to urge the Army to set up triage centers for the wounded.
“I think that’s one good thing that came out of the war,” she said.
When she returned to Seattle in December at the end of her tour in ‘Nam, right away, Kruger witnessed the anti-war climate. She said she’ll never forget when on the plane back to Baltimore, the woman seated next to her inquired where she was traveling from.
“I told her I was in the Army and I’d just returned from Vietnam. She got up and moved to another seat,” Kruger said.
She added that coming home was strange.
“It was like getting used to a different world. Last night I was listening to rockets and mortars, and tonight the streets are quiet except for singing from carolers. A different world.”
Kruger remained in the Army and subsequently served at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco, California; Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Her most memorable assignment was in Tehran, Iran. She served there during the Iranian Revolution and was caught up in the evacuation of hundreds of military service and family members that took place in February 1979 when Iran returned to Islamic Rule upon the overthrow of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Kruger said the hospital was abandoned by the Shah’s guards who joined the revolt. Hundreds of evacuees spent a frightening night sleeping on the floors at the American embassy where the U.S. flag had been replaced by a white flag of surrender and armed revolutionaries kept watch over them. They were herded onto buses the next morning and taken to the airfield where they boarded commercial planes manned by volunteer pilots and crew members.
Kruger managed to take two suitcases she had packed ahead of time in the event of an evacuation, but lost all her other possessions that were left behind in her apartment. Except for the souvenirs she had mailed back ahead of time she had nothing but clothes and not even a full uniform. Still, the mood on the plane was euphoric and cheers rang out once the plane was airborne and again after it was announced they had entered Turkish airspace. They were flown to Germany and a few days later back to the U.S.
Leaving the Army
She served at Fort Campbell, Kentucky before being assigned to Letterman and then to Colorado where she retired in 1986. She remained in Colorado two years before returning to Maryland.
Undaunted, Kruger continued to travel. To this day she’s visited more than 30 countries and she’s remained active in veteran activities. She’s spoken to civic organizations and schools about her career and was present for the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Kruger never married or had children and she lives quietly in Bel Air. She is a former member of the Harford County Commission on Veterans Affairs and a current member of the Maryland Freestate Chapter 70 Women’s Army Corps Veterans Association located in Aberdeen; the Catholic War Veterans Post 1841 in Havre de Grace; and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8672 in Jarrettsville. She was the first female to be named Maryland’s Catholic War Veteran of the Year.
Kruger penned her memoirs in a book released earlier this year. “First In My Life” is the result of memoir classes she took, and it features photos of her career and artwork by her niece, who she said encouraged her to document her life.
At age 85, Kruger continues to travel with friends as often as possible. Though she spent many years angered at the treatment of Vietnam veterans, she acknowledged that “things are better these days.”
“I’m happy that now they’re appreciating what Vietnam veterans went through,” Kruger said. “The war wasn’t our fault. We were serving our country like in every other war.”
Story by Yvonne Johnson, APG News
Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.
On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.
Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.
This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”
For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at email@example.com.