“I think once you’ve been to something like Vietnam, and you’re a little bit older, you understand that you are not mortal.”
The words capture the sometimes painful memories of south Tempe resident Patricia Little-Upah who, as an Army nurse, treated injured soldiers during Vietnam and Desert Storm, and saw the conflicts’ effects on those soldiers and their families.
Although her memories never fade completely, they seem to take special focus on holidays like Memorial Day, one of several that pay tribute to the sacrifices of this country’s fighting men and women.
Today, far from the battlefields of her early days, Little-Upah is chief executive officer of the Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale.
After graduating from nursing school in the 1960s, Little-Upah went into basic training at Ford Sam Hood in Houston.
“My mom was an Army nurse, so I kind of think it was in my genetics,” she said. “I knew that was the direction I was going to be heading.”
In addition to drafting men into the military during the Vietnam War, the U.S. government asked for volunteer nurses to go to Vietnam. After working with returning vets from Vietnam, Little-Upah decided to join the volunteer effort.
“It sounded like something I wanted to do,” she said. “It was a big decision, but at the time I was young.”
Little-Upah left for Vietnam in 1968, just days after the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Tet is now known for the beginning of the escalation of the Vietnam War.
“It was the year in the war when there were the most casualties,” Little-Upah said. “I saw a huge increase in the number of wounded men coming into the hospital; we went from working 8-hour days to working 16-hour days.”
A month later, the U.S. was looking for more volunteers to start a hospital farther north in Vietnam. Little-Upah jumped at the chance.
“We were in tents, and there was a lot of activity up there,” she said. “We built a tent hospital and took care of the wounded in tents for about three months, while others finished building additional hospitals.”
China Beach, a television series airing from 1988 to 1991, was loosely based on one of the hospitals Little-Upah set up, she said.
Throughout the year, Little-Upah would make friends with fellow nurses who would she would later meet at memorial services.
Just before the new year of 1969, Little-Upah was ordered back to the United States. Instead of taking her returning flight home, she ventured back into the Vietnam jungles in search of her younger brother, a private in the infantry just arriving in the country.
“I went AWOL for a while, looking for my brother,” Little-Upah said. “I knew he might not make it back and I wanted to see him.”
Returning home to relieved family members, Little-Upah dealt with the shock of acclimating herself back into a normal American life.
“I don’t think you realized until you got back that you kind of missed this little piece of your life when everyone else was sort of learning how to socialize and what-not,” she said. You were expected to transition into your life, and I think for a lot of men that didn’t happen.”
Little-Upah took a job working as a nurse in the emergency room at a county hospital in Ohio, and didn’t talk much about her experiences in the war.
“It was an incredibly unpopular war,” she said. “You didn’t come back to a parade with people patting you on the back.”
In 1985, Little-Upah became the first woman to join a group of Veterans organized by America West to go to Washington D.C. for a memorial service, and was reunited with her friend Chris, who worked as a nurse with her in Vietnam.
“Immediately, all the soldiers treated me like gold,” Little-Upah said. “I was that nurse symbol who took care of all of them.”
After being out of the military for nearly nine years, Little-Upah decided to join the Reserves again in 1980, serving in the 403rd combat hospital in Phoenix.
“I enjoyed being in the military – having that family again,” she said. “But, I also needed the money.”
Eventually, Phoenix’s 403rd combat hospital was activated for Desert Storm at the end of 1990. Little-Upah boarded a plane to San Jose, Calif., where she would train for five weeks before being deployed to the Persian Gulf.
“It was much more difficult leaving, because I had a 14-year-old daughter with Down syndrome,” Little-Upah said. “She didn’t understand why her mom was going to be gone.”
The training quickly became rigorous and exhausting, she said.
“Most of the training was preparing for the use of chemical and biological warfare – training on how to get in and out of your MOP suits and how to treat chemical casualties,” Little-Upah said. “That was scary stuff.”
On Jan. 4, Little-Upah and the nurses with whom she had been training left for Saudi Arabia. Leaving family and children behind, the fellow nurses vowed to be there for each other during the fearful nights to come. Little-Upah began to strongly feel the bond that occurs between soldiers at wartime.
“Those individuals who were really able to transition and be successful when they got over there were those that were just able to say, ‘I have no control over my children or what happens to them at this point,’” she said. “You must leave that behind.”
Upon arriving in the Saudi Arabian desert, Little-Upah worked collectively with other nurses to build DepMeds, tent hospitals they were trained to construct.
“They were like huge Erector Sets,” she said. “You’re in the middle of blinding dust storms, trying to put up this framework with duct systems for air conditioning and electrical generators.”
In four days, units of the DepMed constructed a 150-bed hospital, including a pharmacy, intensive care unit, a blood bank and more, Little-Upah said.
Although Desert Storm would only last 100 hours, Little-Upah spent long nights in full gear fearing a chemical warfare attack.
On Jan. 17, her biggest fear would become a reality.
“We were awakened and told to get into our chemical protective suits, keeping our masks to our sides,” she said. “A short time later we were told to take our Pyridiostigmine tablets, a medication only to be taken when they believe nerve gas will be used.”
SCUD and Patriot missiles boomed in the background, as Little-Upah sat with her friends and joined in with others repeating the rosary of the Catholic faith. Chris, her friend she worked with in Vietnam, sat by her side with others. For nights afterwards, Little-Upah would remain in her heavy suit, making it difficult to breath, she said. Fortunately, her unit took no direct hits.
“People in those suits end up panicking,” Little-Upah said. “It’s claustrophobic and incredibly hard to breath.”
Compared with the Vietnam War, Little-Upah said she treated a far smaller number of injured soldiers, most of whom were prisoners of war.
“I saw to types of prisoners of war,” she said. “Some were just people who got caught up in this situation; others were the Republican Guard, which was Saddam Hussein’s army.”
Without MPs to guard the hospitals, Little-Upah said it was scary giving medical support to Hussein’s soldiers.
“You separated those individuals and watched them closely,” she said.
After six months as an Army nurse in Desert Storm, Little-Upah returned home. Now, she still treats soldiers returning from war in her career with the Banner Behavioral Health Hospital.
Reminiscing on both wars, Little-Upah said each was drastically different from the other.
“I think the hardest thing in Vietnam was not being able to save all of the men – just being overwhelmed by the number of casualties,” she said. “In Operation Desert Storm, the hardest thing was being away from your children.”
Through her experience with the other cultures during both wars, Little-Upah said she realized the amount of freedom we have in the U.S. and the respect that all military personnel deserve.
“It made you glad to be an American citizen,” she said.
“No matter what the conflict or whether or not you agree with the war, we need to support the people in the military.”