During the Vietnam War, a chief triage nurse told veterans' stories
Capt. Donna Rowe had to make a decision.
The U.S. Army nurse was helping run one of the largest shock/trauma triage hospitals in Saigon during the Vietnam War on May 15, 1969.
A pilot transporting a severely injured baby was seeking permission to land at 3rd Field Hospital. The child was from South Vietnam.
Rowe knew her orders when the hospital was in "offensive mode" because of low supplies, such as IV fluids and blood.
In order, the hospital was supposed to prioritize U.S. military members, followed by U.S. civilians, Allied forces, host country military and host country civilians.
She decided to try to save the native baby. A captain said Rowe would "catch hell for this."
"I'm already in hell," she said. "What else can they do to me?"
Head triage nurse from Vietnam War addresses vets
Rowe was the keynote speaker Saturday for the third reunion and dinner for Vietnam-era veterans in Ashland County. A crowd of almost 250 people filled the dining room at the Ashland Eagles for the occasion.
Rowe kept their attention.
Returning to her story, she said the baby was the only survivor in her village, which had been attacked by the North Vietnamese.
The baby was locked in her dead mother's arms. They had to break the mother's arms to free the baby, only to discover the infant had fragment wounds in her chest and abdomen.
The baby's mother had apparently saved her life by clutching the infant to her own chest.
Estimated to be 4 months old, the baby was in bad shape. Rowe intubated her with a catheter because the hospital did not have equipment for children.
As Rowe and two of her corpsmen rushed the infant to surgery, she urged a chaplain to baptize the baby. Rowe feared the infant might not live and if she did survive, she may have been taken to a Catholic orphanage the hospital supported.
The chaplain took water from a nearby drinking fountain and said he needed a name for the baby, along with a godfather and godmother.
Rowe chose the name Kathleen.
"My first daughter was going to be Kathleen," she told the crowd. "I ended up with John, Peter and Richard."
Rowe and her corpsmen became the godparents for the baby, who survived the surgery.
American adopts lone survivor from South Vietnamese village
The next night, the chaplain told Kathleen's story to his congregation. Navy Lt. Marvin Cords asked to see the baby and later worked for months to adopt Kathleen and bring her home with him.
Rowe stayed in touch with Cords and the chaplain for about three years. Kathleen's story later became a segment of a documentary called "In the Shadow of the Blade."
In March 2003, Rowe received a call from the film's director, saying Kathleen wanted to have Rowe's number. Of course, she said yes and was reunited with the young woman she had helped save her all those years ago.
Kathleen has four daughters.
"They are living today because some young man on patrol heard a baby crying and had enough nerve to help," Rowe said, adding the enemy often booby-trapped children and dogs.
She also credited the pilot for getting everyone safely out of a firefight.
Many Americans didn't know of their sacrifices.
"They called us baby killers and war mongers," Rowe recalled of how veterans were treated when they came home. "That's why I go out to tell our story — the true story of who we were."
Prior to her speech, Rowe sat down for an interview. A native of a small town in Massachusetts, she has lived in Georgia for the past 50 years. At 21, she joined the Army Nurse Corps, which offered to pay for two years of schooling.
"They were desperate for nurses because of the Vietnam Conflict," Rowe said.
She also wanted to do her part, noting 12 of her classmates in her hometown joined the military and served in Vietnam.
Rowe volunteers to go to Vietnam
"I went because my hometown was very patriotic," Rowe said. "It was the right thing to do."
She worked in the emergency rooms of four military hospitals before going to Vietnam, along with her husband, Col. Alvin Rowe, whom she married in 1967.
Rowe volunteered to go to Vietnam because of her husband's imminent service. He died in 2014 of Lou Gehrig's disease, brought on by exposure to Agent Orange during the war.
"He fought two wars," Donna Rowe said.
She had her own issues, overcoming a bout with polio at age 9 that left her in an iron lung.
Vietnam was just as challenging.
In addition to dealing with wounded soldiers, Rowe and her colleagues handled heart attacks, heatstroke and snake bites.
"It was constant," she said of the frenetic pace. "It went on for hours. We just kept on working."
When Rowe finished her tour, her parents organized a reunion party for her and her husband. One of her sisters said she didn't know if she could sit with baby killers.
"When we came home, we were hated. All people saw was the uniform," Rowe said.
A frequent speaker, Rowe said she often hears from veterans who thank her for telling their stories, particularly if they don't feel comfortable doing so.
"I may be 5-4, but I'm not afraid," Rowe told a reporter.
She wants Vietnam veterans to get their due.
"The country needs to realize the debt they owe to these men," Rowe said. "They came home, and they didn't ask for anything."
Sheriff welcomes Vietnam War veterans
Ashland County Sheriff E. Wayne Risner warmed up the crowd before Rowe's speech.
"Welcome home, brothers. That's what I want to say," he said, drawing a round of applause.
Prior to Rowe's address, organizers showed a short film featuring pictures of Ashland County veterans who served in Vietnam.
Rowe told the crowd she takes on many speaking engagements, adding she will go "anywhere, anytime" to honor Vietnam veterans.
She said her respect for veterans was instilled by her mother, who had Rowe place little American flags on the graveyard markers of vets when she was a child.
She urged those in attendance to recognize March 29, National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
"Our country and patriotism is paramount, especially in these times," Rowe said.
She is proud of the 265,000 women who volunteered during the Vietnam War, noting the 11,000 who put their boots on the ground were almost exclusively nurses.
"Our war, the Vietnam War, had more Medal of Honor recipients than any other war we've fought in," Rowe said. "Does that not tell you the caliber of the men and women who are sitting in this room?
"I'm here to tell your stories."