December 11, 2019 5 min read

When the chance to help soldiers in Vietnam presented itself, Marj Graves didn’t hesitate to go, but she saw and experienced things that cut deep and nearly took her life. She has spent decades learning to care for herself as much as she cares for others.

“We may not have carried a gun, we may not have been on the front lines of combat, but some of the things that we saw and that we experienced were horrific. Horrific,” Marj said.

From the time Marj was old enough to play with dolls, she knew she wanted to be a nurse.

“I never wanted to be anything else but a nurse,” Marj said.

Helping people is like breathing to her. After nursing school, she joined the Army as a nurse specializing in orthopedics. Then, Vietnam called to her.

“I thought ‘I have got to go over there and try to stop this war and stop the hurting,'” Marj said. “And why I ever thought that I would ever be able to have any impact on the war that way was, that was way out, way out in left field. But, I knew I could make a difference nursing-wise, and so I volunteered to go.”

Did she have a clue what she was in for? She didn’t. She began to understand, though, on the flight to Vietnam.

“I was the only female soldier on that entire plane,” Marj said. “I remember that door opening. As most Vietnam veterans would tell you, when they open up the door to the airplane, you smell an odor unlike anything that you have ever experienced before. And I learned in time it’s a combination between jet fuel and the burning of fecal material.”

“Oh my gosh. Where am I?” Marj recalls wondering.

Marj ended up at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh, a military base home to hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, American and Vietnamese.

“About a third of the patients in our hospital were South Vietnamese. Now, every once in awhile we would get a North Vietnamese in there that they would do surgery on and only to interrogate them,” Marj explained. “And then we would turn them over to the South Vietnamese, which that kind of conflicted with my mind a little bit. But that was — you’re in a war situation, you do that.”

She remembers a lot about her year-long tour of duty, including a Vietnamese boy they called Charlie, who had crippling polio.

“Our doctors did a lot of surgery on him to get him to the point where he could walk, and he did walk out of our hospital,” Marj said. “And today, I still wear a gold ring — and I’ve never taken it off since I’ve left Vietnam — that his mother gave me to thank me.”

Marj was assigned to travel with the Bob Hope Show in December 1971. Then, with Sammy Davis Jr. in early 1972.

“He spent every night in Vietnam with his entire show troop, and he didn’t stay in an area where they had nice hotels. He stayed in, excuse the expression, crappy trailers,” Marj said. “And he ran us late every show, because he could not spend enough time with the soldiers.”

It was caring for her patients, though, that she loved most.

“The beds would be all along this wall, and they’re all along this wall and all along that wall,” Marj said, pointing to a picture of her at the nurse’s station on her hospital orthopedic floor in Vietnam. “There would be a door, like down here.”

Her time on that floor was hard, but rewarding work.

One crash made for a hard experience that still stays with her.

A Chinook helicopter carrying 34 soldiers to a beach for some fun exploded in May of 1972, not far from Marj’s hospital. A picture was taken of the men just before the helicopter crashed. They brought the bodies there.

“I had to be one of the body identifiers, and at that point we didn’t wear gloves. We spent two days, uh, the bodies were dismembered, black charcoal body parts,” Marj said. “Worse than any horror story that I have ever seen.”

Asked if she could even really think about what she was doing in that moment, Marj said: “I don’t think so. I think you were doing what needed to be done to try to get these boys’ bodies back to their families.”

The other thing on her mind was to get home. Marj was just two weeks from the end of her tour of duty. She buried what she experienced.

“I put that in a suitcase, locked the suitcase,” Marj said. “That was not going to come open again.”

It did though, decades later.

“1993, I went for the dedication of the Women’s Memorial up in Washington, and it was wonderful. I ran into five other people I was in Vietnam with, and that was the first time — from ’72 to ’93. It was the first time I shed a tear about anything,” Marj said.

“Toward the end of the ’90s, I retired from UPS, and they decided to start a program where they converted…cargo planes to passenger planes on the weekends, and they had to have a plan in place in case we crashed. So, they decided ,since I was a Vietnam veteran that they would put me in charge of the on sight morgue. Well, all my suitcases came open. Every time I got my hands close to my face, I’m smelling burned flesh,” she recalled.

She seemed outwardly to have it all together, but she was suffering silently. In 2005, Marj tried to kill herself.

“When you don’t process any kind of trauma the appropriate way, you know, your thought process may be totally warped. And mine was. Mine was,” Marj said.

Marj shares her story today, speaking across the state. She’s been proudly married for 46 years to a man who also served in Vietnam, Bob. She’s a mother to two daughters.

“My mom is really a, a strong woman and a feminist,” Ashley Johnson said of her mother. “And I think my dad and mom both raised us that way, to be very strong. Both me and my sister.”

Marj enjoys her grandchildren, too. Life is good.

“I appreciate everything I have, and every blessing I have,” Marj said.

Still, she hasn’t forgotten all she saw halfway around the world in Vietnam.

“Things that you don’t, that you still carry in your soul, and you don’t quite ever get over them,” Marj said.

Among what she carries are the memories of her patients, the ring she wears for Charlie and 34 names of men who died when a helicopter exploded. Those names are always with her: names etched in black granite on The Wall That Heals — and on her heart.

In September 2018, Marj was inducted into the Kentucky Veterans Hall of Fame for the work she has done since she left Vietnam, including her efforts to spread awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports 22 veterans a day die by suicide.