More than 40 years after she served as a nurse during the Vietnam War, Doris Troth Lippman finally got her welcome home reception.
Last month, along with 10 other honorees, Lippman was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame. The recognition capped a long career of serving those who serve their country.
From 1967 to 1969, Lippman, now 68, served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at a military hospital in Tokyo, treating troops too seriously wounded to remain in Vietnam.
Since 1980, she has been a professor at Fairfield University's School of Nursing. She also leads the university's Veterans Administration Nursing Academy, a partnership with the Veterans Administration's West Haven center that trains nursing students in the treatment of veterans and prepares them for careers with the VA.
A Westport resident, Lippman also has served as vice chairman and secretary for the board of directors of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C., and is a board member of Homes for the Brave organization, which provides transitional housing for homeless veterans.
On Wednesday -- the day the U.S. House of Representatives voted 250-175 to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- Lippman sat down to discuss her career, the challenges facing veterans today and what she thinks about DADT.
Why did you decide to serve as a nurse during the Vietnam War?
"My husband and I volunteered in 1967. He volunteered for the Army Medical Corps; I volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps. That was in response to several things -- [such as President John] Kennedy asking us not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. We just decided that we wanted to do something; it had nothing to do with whether we supported the war or not, but more that people were being wounded and that we could offer to volunteer to provide care."
What was it like to work in a military hospital?
"Most of the people that we saw were 18- and 19-year-olds. We were their sisters, their mothers, their girlfriends - that's who we represented to them. It was the first time that they really felt safe and that they could open up and talk about some of the things that they had seen. They were extremely traumatized. We had to send a fair number of the people who came to our hospital back to Vietnam. When their injuries healed -- maybe they had a gunshot wound to the toe -- we had to put them on buses and send them off. I often wonder how many people that I took care of died when they went back. That was extremely painful."
How would you describe the reception you received when you returned home from Japan?
"The country was just so outrageously angry about what was going on [in Vietnam]. Unfortunately, they blamed the soldiers and the people who served in non-soldier roles for what was happening. We were basically told not to wear our uniforms when we got off the plane in California; that we shouldn't tell anyone that we'd served during the Vietnam War. But we have this special bond as Vietnam vets. We say to each other "welcome home" because we never got a welcome home."
What were the major challenges that Vietnam veterans faced when they came home?
"For the Vietnam vets, they came back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of them came home with those symptoms -- they had nightmares, paranoia, startled reflexes. Many of them were homeless -- they couldn't find jobs or their mental state was such that they couldn't work and so they lived in the woods, on the streets. Most, if not all, people who served in-country [in Vietnam], and those of us who were around the trauma, probably have some PTSD going on because it's very hard to forget. But at least there's treatment now. People recognize it, it's legitimate, and there's a lot being done."
Where does the focus need to be in treating veterans today?
"I don't think there will ever be enough financially to provide our soldiers what they need when they come home. There certainly needs to be an increase in the recognition of the suicidal concerns [of veterans]. I've been really impressed that when you call the VA now that they tell that you have a suicide hotline that you can call 24/7. The other part of the equation is that the soldier has to reach out and say, `I'm having trouble, I'm having difficulty, I need some help.' Sometimes the soldiers don't think it's manly to do that. I think there needs to be an expansion of what we do around the mental and emotional needs of the soldiers coming home."
What is your position on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy?
"I think it violates our constitutional rights. They [supporters of DADT] say that if you allow people to come in as gays or lesbians to the military, that it's somehow going to disrupt the ability of the service people to work as efficiently and that it'll compromise the work of the services. But the research has shown that's not the case."
What do you think of the argument of some supporters of DADT who say that it would be not wise to repeal it during wartime?
"I think, if anything, wartime is probably one of the best times. You need to have everyone together and united and valuing every one of your fellow soldiers. When you're at war you depend on whoever's shooting next to you or in the tank with you to be somebody that you really feel will help you in any circumstances. I don't think most people who face death moment-to-moment are really thinking about whether the person standing next to them is lesbian or gay."
Having been elected to the state's Veterans Hall of Fame, what do you think when you look back on your career helping current and former service members?
"I felt so honored. I looked at the picture that they took of me with the governor [M. Jodi Rell], and I didn't have a smile on my face. I noticed that afterwards, and some people commented on that, and I said, `That wasn't something I felt smiling about.' I was just proud and honored. I can't think of not continually working with and for veterans. That's what I'll do until the day I die."