Nancy Sanchez was born in 1931 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. As a child, Nancy watched her parents use their wealth to help support their neighbors. They made weekly donations to charities and neighbors in need, including the homeless. Nancy’s childhood was full of love. Her family taught her to love and care for others, even when others did not do the same for her.
When Nancy was 15, she won an essay contest. The prize was a scholarship to attend St. Mary of the Woods, a small Catholic college in Indiana. Nancy graduated in 1952 with a degree in biology and chemistry. At the recommendation of a teacher, she applied to the U.S. Army’s physical therapy program. Nancy was only 18, but her grades were so impressive that the Army waived their minimum age requirement of 21. Nancy moved to Fort Sam Houston in Texas and graduated one year later as a physical therapist.
The Army controlled many aspects of Nancy’s life. She relocated every few years. And there were rules she had to follow, including ones about behavior and even dating. But Nancy found the work fulfilling, and she enjoyed helping people.
As the Vietnam War began, Nancy was transferred to Arlington, Virginia. There, she established a physical therapy clinic as a part of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Creating this center was challenging. At the time, physical therapy was a new treatment in the Army. Physical therapy required patients to move their bodies and push themselves. Nancy faced a lot of resistance from officers who did not see the benefit of this treatment. But Nancy remained persistent. However, one high-ranking general was so appreciative of Nancy’s work that he helped her get into graduate school at the University of North Carolina.
In 1970, Nancy received a letter stating she was needed in Vietnam. She arrived shortly after Christmas. She was one of roughly 10,000 women who served in Vietnam over the course of the war. Nancy was assigned to the 95th Evacuation Hospital near Danang Air Base, one of the war zone’s major medical facilities. She helped injured patients regain strength and recover as much bodily function as possible. There was a high demand for her services, so she worked 10-hour days and weekends. In 1971, Nancy wrote to a friend explaining that some mornings she would oversee the evacuation of 40 patients only to receive 60 new patients by the afternoon. When the nurses were overwhelmed with new arrivals, Nancy helped them. They taught her to give morphine to dying men in terrible pain.
In the worst possible situation the human spirit comes alive . . . The experience I had with all of these soldiers will never be forgotten.
The hospital treated soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war. Nancy was even sent in secret to Cambodia, where she cared for Prime Minister Lon Nol after he suffered a stroke. On one of her stays in Cambodia, she bought a small portable radio. When she was back at the 95th Evacuation Hospital, she turned on a news program funded by the U.S. government. She heard President Richard Nixon say Americans could rest assured there were no marines in Laos, a country next to Vietnam.
Nancy had just traveled through Laos and seen wounded U.S. marines being air-lifted to her hospital. “Here was the Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, denying their existence, and mine too,” she said in a 2004 interview. Nancy was so angry that she threw the radio on the floor. It smashed into pieces. Like many Americans, Nancy was increasingly disillusioned with American leaders.
One day, Nancy agreed to pick up medical equipment from a small clinic not far from the hospital. She traveled with two officers. All three of them wore body armor and helmets for protection. On the road, they ran into another Army unit and got out to talk. One handsome and excited young soldier told Nancy he had only three more days in Vietnam. She took his picture. Nancy and the officers started driving again when, suddenly, they heard a tremendous explosion. The unit they had just visited had been hit by a land mine. Sixty-five soldiers were killed instantly. Nancy went back to look for the handsome soldier and returned to the jeep sobbing.
The mines were set by a pregnant Vietnamese woman who broke her leg as she was running away. She was captured and brought to the hospital ward where prisoners of war were kept. Nancy was assigned to evaluate and treat her. The woman grabbed Nancy’s neck and tried to choke her. Nancy fought back, but the woman didn’t release her grip until a guard in the room slapped her. He wanted to hit her again, but Nancy stopped him. Nancy told the guard he would regret seeking revenge. They cried together. An interpreter arrived and explained to the pregnant woman that Nancy was trying to help. She eventually calmed down and even smiled at Nancy.
Nancy’s tour in Vietnam ended in December 1971. A little more than a year later, in January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords ended U.S. involvement in the war. In March 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam, and the 95th Evacuation Hospital closed.
Nancy spent her year in Vietnam tending to casualties. But she soon realized she was a casualty herself. One day, about a year after leaving Vietnam, she was driving her car when she heard a helicopter overhead and became rigid with fear. She could not move her feet to operate the car. After the incident, a psychiatrist reassured Nancy that she would be fine soon and just needed time to heal. But the trauma continued. When she was 73 years old, Nancy gave an interview. “But some of the things that happened in Vietnam while I was there, I just won’t be able to forget for the rest of my life,” she said. Those incredibly vivid “horrid experiences” still came back to her, even then.
Many people who returned from the Vietnam War developed anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, moments of intense panic, and other symptoms. During World War I, this kind of trauma, called “shell shock,” was well known. Doctors generally believed it was temporary and advised patients to “give it time.” But in the 1970s, veterans’ groups and mental health professionals campaigned for better understanding of the severe psychological distress that can follow being in a warzone, as well as other trauma. In 1980, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was officially recognized by the psychiatric profession.
When Nancy returned from Vietnam, she was assigned to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. She served as the Chief of Physical Therapy at the base. She spent the next seven years creating a new physical therapy clinic on the base. Once that project was complete, she retired and lives in Augusta.