Battlefield Bonds: Northern Westchester Nurse Shares Her Vietnam Experience

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. -- For Mary “Edie” Meeks, an operating room nurse at Northern Westchester Hospital and a Beacon, N.Y. resident, the battlefields of Vietnam held unimaginable pain.

Mary “Edie” Meeks with Northern Westchester Hospital staff.
Mary “Edie” Meeks with Northern Westchester Hospital staff. Photo Credit: Northern Westchester Hospital

Serving as a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps in Saigon and Pleiku, Vietnam from July 1968 to July 1969, Meeks experienced a side of the conflict few saw.

Meeks, who grew up in Minnesota during the 1960s, began her career as an emergency room nurse in Minneapolis. As the Vietnam conflict intensified and she saw her brother drafted into the Marine Corps, Meeks was left with the feeling that she had to help.

"If someone was going to take care of my brother, I wanted them to do the best job possible," she said. "I really didn’t know whether the war was right or wrong, but I knew if a nurse wanted to be there she would do a good job." In spring 1968, Meeks enlisted in the Army Nursing Corps and began her tour at an Army hospital in Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam.

"Having been in an emergency room in Minneapolis, going to Vietnam was a shock," she said. While many domestic ER patients she'd treated were admitted due to accidents, age or disease, Meeks was stunned at horrors inflicted on otherwise fit young men. And to stem the nearly constant flow of wounded American servicemen, Meeks and her fellow nurses were entrusted with more medical responsibility than they'd ever experienced stateside.

"Everyone was between the ages of 18-23; they were perfectly healthy young men that had been blown up," she said. "It didn’t make sense to me. You'd have guys coming with a leg missing, some who hadn’t even seen the enemy and were blown up for nothing." Reminded of her own brother in uniform, she felt a sense of anguish. "It was really traumatic in that these were somebody’s kids."

After returning to the United States in the summer of 1969, Meeks did her best to put the horrors of war behind her. "As soon as I got off the plane, I went to the bathroom and took off my boots and uniform and threw them in the trash," she said. 

However, a return to a normalcy wasn't easy. After marrying her husband, who she met in the Army, and moving to Garrison, N.Y., Meeks' career in healthcare took off. She served as an operating and emergency room nurse at Butterfield Hospital and Hudson Valley Hospital. Still, she kept her experiences in Vietnam a closely guarded secret.

It wasn't until Meeks visited the commemoration of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. that she finally began to come to grips with her service. "When I went and met other like-minded women at the memorial, there were people I didn’t need to say anything to about my service," she said. "They just got it."

Inspired by this network of sisters-in-arms, Meeks began working with various veterans groups. One group was Northern Westchester Hospital's Veterans Committee, an organization that works to help those in the Westchester community who have served, and to raise awareness about the issues soldiers face when returning home.

"[NWH's Veterans Committee] is doing wonderful local things," she said. "They’ve helped the American Legion, they've made connections in the community and are becoming more and more active, despite being just a few years old. They've hit the ground running."

In addition to their veterans' services, Meeks also finds the hospital's mission of care similar to the compassion she delivered to the wounded servicemen nearly half a century ago. "One of the reasons why I like Northern Westchester is because you go into a patient's room and hold their hand," she said. "I can connect with the patient and actually am taking care of a person."

To learn more about Northern Westchester Hospital's veteran services, click here.