By: Sam Zeff & Kaite Stover
‘No’, ‘can't’ and ‘won't’ are not words in the vocabulary of retired army Lieutenant Colonel Susan Backs.
From the very beginning of her military career, Backs had a clear picture of who she was, where she was going, and how she was going to get there.
Only once did Backs hear the word ‘no’ regarding her career choices and in retrospect it's the Air Force's loss and everyone else's gain.
Backs was born in Geneseo, Illinois and the French Horn player planned to be a music teacher. College didn’t work out as planned. She left school and got a job in a hospital as an aide and from there decided to go into nursing.
For the next three years Backs attended nursing school while working in a hospital before deciding to go into the Army. But first, she tried to enter the Air Force.
“I didn't pass their beauty board,” Backs said. “They liked tall, willowy nurses that looked the model of the flight nurse. I’m a short little lady.”
Immediately after completing training, Backs was ready to deploy to Vietnam, but the army had other ideas.
“They promised that I would go to Vietnam on my first assignment. So when the orders came for Fairbank, Alaska’s Fort Bassett Army hospital, I said, oh no, no, no. I sat down with the personnel officer and explained why I hate being cold. That's why I'm leaving Illinois. I don't like the cold and they're sending me right up there to the coldest place I can think of? Somehow he got my orders changed to Vietnam.”
When asked what she recalls first about Vietnam, Backs mentions the helicopters like the ones she saw in the movie, M*A*S*H, and the reactions of those characters to approaching helicopters. “Even today I’ll often be watching for the choppers coming in. We’d watch M*A*S*H over and over and it was like that. You hear the choppers coming in and it’s a just a moment, the pucker factor. You wonder, ‘what is it this time? Is it anybody I know?’ “
Despite the opinions of others, Backs is adamant that she does not suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
“My husband keeps telling me I have it. I don’t. I've been through three complete psych evaluations and they say I don’t,” states Backs. She admits that there were things that happened in Vietnam that would not have happened anywhere else.
“I can talk about it and there are things that I did that you certainly wouldn't do. I worked the POW hospital when I was first assigned. They'd never had a woman nurse before. There were two male nurses and four or five medics and we had all the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). We had one fellow that came in, he was a hardened soldier.
“He was on crutches and I was encouraging him to get up and walk and the next thing I knew he had spit right in my face. Out of nowhere came my hand and it went boom, right across his chin. I'm sure I told him something about the nurse will not tolerate that. But I've never hit a patient in my life. It was probably 25 or 30 years before I ever told that story to anybody.”
Like most Vietnam War veterans, Backs returned to the country many years later.
“I was lucky enough to go back in 2010 with a group called Vietnam Battlefield Tours,” she said. “We took the bus out to where my unit, the 24th Evac was. The water tower is left and I saw where my hooch was.”
Backs continued to work as a nurse for the military. Her career spanned 23 years, two continents, and a variety of specialties ranging from female surgery to the newborn nursery to the operating room. She finally landed in Kansas where she worked as a prison nurse at Lansing Correctional Facility and closed out her career as an RN at St John Hospital in Leavenworth. The retired lieutenant colonel has a new army to command now, one made up of nine grandchildren.
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.