Edwards grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the
1950s and early 1960s, a city on the front lines of the civil rights
movement. There were the boycotts she helped with, and the time she
served ice cream to the young civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. when he visited her church in Birmingham.
Then there was the incident in which she and a friend were arrested
while passing by the Birmingham bus station during a protest, only
to slip out of the police van when the officers were not looking.
(She was more afraid of her parents’ reaction than the police in
She was proud of her involvement, however small, in the civil rights
movement and so was disappointed in March 1965 when administrators
at Tuskegee University refused to allow her and other students to
join the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
All of that seemed a lifetime and a world away from sweltering Long
Binh, South Vietnam, where Edwards was now posted as a nurse with
the 24th Evacuation Hospital.
An old, stuffy Quonset hut served as the hospital’s post-op ward
where she was assigned. That became her home for the next year as an
endless stream of patients came and went, some back to the war, and
others, those more seriously wounded, to another hospital in Japan
or back home.
For her patients, Edwards was much more than a nurse.
“I was 22 and some of [the patients] looked at me
like I was their mother,” Edwards recalled during her recent oral
history interview. “I found myself having to force myself to be
older and more mature than I really was. … That was only by the
grace of God, because I tell you, I had no experience to be as
mature as they forced me to be.”
were warned about getting too emotionally attached to their
“Put your feelings on the floor and just step on them,” was one
piece of advice Edwards recalled from nursing school at Tuskegee.
“But that was better said than done!”
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Several patients left Edwards with more lasting memories. There was
a patient who came in unconscious and with no dog tags, and
therefore no identification, known only as “Unknown.”
Another patient came in with his face looking like “a dirty mop,
just stringy, stringy, stringy,” Edwards said. Following some
initial surgery by the unit’s surgeons, his face was wrapped
completely in bandages.
“He would ask me if he was ugly, …and I told him, ‘You're not ugly.’
And he said, ‘Well, if I'm not ugly, would you kiss me?’ So I kissed
him, but I said you're not going to feel it because he was all
bandaged up,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You didn't kiss me,’ so I
kissed his hand.”
Twenty-six years later, Edwards’s life intersected again with that
patient. In 1993 ABC-TV picked up on a story about a veteran who had
endured some 200 surgeries to reconstruct his face. The network
wanted to reunite the patient with his nurse.
“They wanted me to go and talk with him, and so about 200 surgeries
later he could then speak and he could swallow on his own, and they
did an interview with him, and I gave him a kiss.”
That veteran was just one of the continuous stream of patients whose
lives were touched by Edwards during her time with the 24th Evac
Hospital in Vietnam, patients who were thankful that Edwards was
there, in a year that she will never forget.
DePue is the Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library. You can hear Connie Edwards’s entire story, as
well as those of many other veterans, in the “Veterans Remember”
section of the program’s website,