Taking care of wounded soldiers a team effort

Vietnam war veteran looks back on hospital duty
Deb Hill
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
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A nurse cares for patients in a ward in the U.S. Army hospital Camp Zama, in Japan, around 1968. Local veteran Pam Zerr served as an operating room technician at this hospital for 13 months during the height of the Vietnam War.

Courtesy of UNC Greensboro Digital Collections

The year was 1967. The U.S. was embroiled in bitter fighting in Vietnam, as well as anti-war and civil rights protests at home. It was a time of great unrest and uncertainty when Pam Zerr left South Dakota to enlist in the Army.

“I had very strong feelings about helping in the war. I came from a family where military duty was important; my father was in the Navy in WWII. I wanted to be a nurse, and enlisting gave me the opportunity to help out where help was desperately needed.”

Zerr turned 18 in June that year and enlisted in August. She found herself in Anniston, Alabama.

“I went from a northern to a southern state,” Zerr remembered. “Coming from South Dakota, with very little experience with racial contention, it was like walking into the middle of the civil rights movement down there. I was very naïve.”

It was in that contentious environment that Zerr began training, eventually traveling to San Antonio, Texas, Denver, Colorado and El Paso to finalize her certification as an operating room technician.

“It was pretty intense,” she said. “We had to learn a lot in just a short period of time. It wasn’t just how to take blood pressure – we learned things like how to deal with sucking chest wounds and pharmacology. The instructors were amazing – these were doctors that trained us. We had to know what to do in every situation.”

From El Paso, Texas, Zerr shipped out to the U.S. Army Hospital at Camp Zama in Japan. Designated a general hospital in 1965, Camp Zama had become the largest hospital in the whole war zone. According to a documentary by filmmaker Tom Barry, the 700-bed facility treated an estimated 31,500 soldiers during the Vietnam war.

“We took care of the soldiers shot or wounded in Vietnam,” Zerr said. “We took 48-hour duty, meaning we slept in a room right off the operating room. It was a whole team on duty together – doctors, nurses, technicians.”

Incoming helicopters filled with wounded were announced via the building’s sound system, with accompanying Teletype descriptions of the type and number of cases, and operations they would need.

“The head of our nursing team would let us know what we needed to do,” Zerr said. “We would know what to get ready for, whether general surgery or orthopedic, whatever. Doctors, nurses – we were all a team. What we did as a team was incredible. I am proud to have been a member.”

With her MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of Operating Room Technician, Zerr’s job was considered “critical.”

“I didn’t experience any of the issues with being a woman in the military because my position was critical to the operation,” Zerr said. “I didn’t get any of the put-downs. Instead, I was gifted with a very good education taught by wonderful people. I was part of a team that was able to do exceptional things. The team was what really mattered.”

After only 17 months of service, Zerr achieved the rank of E5 (sergeant status). After three years she headed home to South Dakota, later moving to Montana.

“South Dakota, like Montana, is a very patriotic state. People appreciated my service. You give what you can. My family is a medical family. My brothers who served were medical specialists and one was a nurse. It was an incredible experience and opportunity,” Zerr said.

On Veterans Day, Zerr said she remembers the people she served with and the camaraderie they shared.

“Because my family was very involved in the service, I am proud that I can be counted in that number. But I also want to emphasize that what I accomplished was not because of who I am as an individual, but because of the team I was fortunate to be part of,” she said. “It was everyone working together that I think about when I look back.”