By: Sam Zeff & Kaite Stover
Archiver: Kansas Voices of the Vietnam War ends the way it begins, with remembrances of faces and places from retired First Lieutenant Lou Eisenbrandt.
Eisenbrandt has never been afraid to talk about her experiences in Vietnam. In fact, she wrote an unflinching compelling memoir of her time as a nurse during the war, Vietnam Nurse: Mending and Remembering. What resonates is Eisenbrandt’s ability to connect with people.
She comes by that naturally as the oldest of five children. Eisenbrandt was born and raised in Belleville, Illinois. She joined the Army right out of nursing school. Eisenbrandt served with the 91st Evac hospital in Chu Lai, South Vietnam.
It’s the heat Eisenbrandt remembers most on her first day in Vietnam, but on her last, she thought of the people she was leaving behind.
“That first day? Hot, hot, hot,” Eisenbrandt recalls. “I can remember the overwhelming heat on the last day, but the thing that stands out in my mind is a picture of me taken that day. I did not discover this picture until three or four years ago. I’m standing by a jeep and in the background is my hospital. I was surprised when I looked at it again because in most of the other pictures of me in Vietnam I'm smiling. In this one, I'm just looking very sober and I know what was going through my head. I was thinking ‘I survived in one piece and I did some good’. But it was hard to leave these people I'd gotten so close to during the course of the year.”
“When you look at the pictures, you can certainly tell by the way I look, which is the beginning, and which is the end.”
Eisenbrandt talks about her coworkers with whom she spent long hours in the emergency room.
“It was mainly the doctors and nurses, but there were also patients that have stuck with me. I think about the soldiers, often not knowing whether they actually survived once they were evacuated out to Japan or Germany.”
“We worked shifts that were twelve hours on then twelve hours off. But if you heard more than two helicopters come in, bringing wounded, you dropped whatever you were doing to help. We became close because the only way to ‘forget the war’ was to hang out everybody else. There were no videos, there was no Skype there were no movie theaters. You just spent time with each other.”
Like most Vietnam War nurses, Eisenbrandt has clear cut memories of her patients that stay with her. She wonders if their names are on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington DC. Eisenbrandt recalls one in particular who was badly wounded with shrapnel.
“We didn't realize the extent of his wounds. He was carried in on a litter and we cut off all his clothes so we could properly assess the wounds. When we rolled him over onto his stomach, his back stayed on the litter. It was severely damaged. We put him back down and he did survive to go to surgery. I think about him almost every day because I don't know if he made it. If his name is one of the 58,000 on the wall. I just don't know what the final story was for him.”
As with the other Vietnam War veterans in this series, Lou has visited Vietnam and the locations where she was stationed. She was one of the first American tourists to visit and has returned four times.
“It's a beautiful country. I love Vietnam. The people are very warm and loving, very friendly. The real reason that I went back the first time was that I was just curious. Our hospital was in a very pretty setting, on a cliff overlooking the sea. I wanted to see what had happened to the hospital.”
“I was working as a travel agent at the time and the United States had lifted our embargo on Vietnam. They were encouraging tourism, so I was able to go with a group to Vietnam. Everybody in the group knew that one amongst us was a nurse. When we gathered in Chicago to get on the plane, everybody's wondering who’s the nurse?”
After Eisenbrandt’s tour of duty in Vietnam, she returned to the United States where she met and married her husband, Jim and started a family. She did not go back to nursing. Instead, Eisenbrandt lead childbirth classes, taught cooking and worked as a travel agent. She's chair of the board for Turning Point and serves on the board of the Veterans' Voices Writing Project, but most people in Kansas City know Lou Eisenbrandt for her memoir, Vietnam Nurse: Mending and Remembering.
Kaite Stover is the Director of Readers’ Services for the Kansas City Public Library. She is a regular guest on KCUR 89.3’s Central Standard “Bibliofiles” segment and hosts the Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club. Follow her on Twitter @MarianLiberryan and Instagram @KaiteStover.