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Call to duty

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Former military nurses recall caring for nation's wounded

By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

Barely out of high school, Leah Lamont was among the wave of nurses who answered their country's call during World War II.

By the end of 1950 there would be hundreds of Army nurses sent to Korea. A year later, Marion Early would be among them.

Now, Lamont and Early - both Enumclaw residents - look back on the long hours they spent tending to the battered and beaten soldiers and sailors, considering it both their duty and a privilege.

"It was one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had," Lamont said. "I got so much satisfaction out of it. I loved military life. The work we did. The people I met. Everybody was different. We all enjoyed lots of good times.

"You think more of it," she said, reflecting on Thursday's Veterans Day observance. "Particularly those who were injured. The suffering they went through. You wish you could have done more for them."

"I have no regrets," Early said of her years with the Army and later the Veterans Administration (VA). She said the nurses did their job, which included keeping up a soldier's courage and faith.

Early, a member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, said working with the soldiers was the most satisfying part of the job.

"We worked long hours. Yes, you were tired, but I don't remember anything unfavorable," she said.

Enumclaw Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1949 First Commander Al Lau said wartime nurses played "an extremely important role as far as the men are concerned."

"They don't get the recognition they deserve," he said. "They were at the side of many soldiers as they were dying. In a lot of cases they were the last hand these men held."

Lamont served a little longer than one year - July 8, 1945, to Aug. 19, 1946 - as an licensed practical nurse with the Navy. Originally from Salem, Ore., she entered nurses training right out of high school and finished her nursing education with the Navy in New York. After graduation, the Pharmacist Mate Third Class was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Seattle where, in its waning months, she saw and cared for many of World War II's wounded soldiers coming in from the battles raging in the South Pacific.

"Some days we worked 16 hours a day," she recalled. "There was such a shortage (of healthcare personnel) and so many people. They were bringing them in (wounded soldiers) by the boatload."

Sometimes the battles were against other enemies like the smallpox invasion that brought a quarantine to the hospital.

"The shell shock was the worst to see," Lamont said. " When a plane flew over they would dive under the bed and shake." She said they nurses would try to comfort those soldiers, reassure them and coax them out. "It was terrible to see."

Early's military time came later, but it was the stories from her friends who served in World War II that convinced her to sign on with the Army in 1951.

Her nursing career began at St. Margaret's Hospital in Indiana. After graduation in 1945, the newly-minted registered nurse went to work for a community hospital. Later she joined the staff at Hines Hospital in Illinois, a VA hospital.

But when war broke out in Korea, she couldn't resist the pull. She attended basic training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas where she learned to set up Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) units.

The Army sent her to Japan and Korea for three years. She started her military career as a first lieutenant and left as a captain.

"There is nothing in this world like American service men," said Early, who saw soldiers from many nations cross through her MASH unit. She said the U.S. soldier was different in his attitude - he was able to laugh despite the despair.

"Freedom was the difference, in my mind," she said.

Her rank and precision with her job made her the target for pranks, but she didn't mind.

"It was the jokes and the fun that helped us through the tragedies," she said.

Her work with soldiers didn't stop with the war. After, she returned to the Illinois VA hospital and was assigned to its new rehabilitation wing to treat those coming back from the war she just left.

There, she said, she will always remember a 19-year-old helicopter gunner from Alabama who returned from the war and to her ward - he returned to the U.S. blind and without his legs.

She said that Alabama soldier was a tough customer. His rehabilitation, like others, was not just a physical battle, but, she noted, he came around. He eventually left the hospital, married and raised a family. She kept in touch with him for many years.

"The greatest thrill was when somebody said goodbye to me," Early said.

In the early 1970s, she was transferred to the hospital's spinal cord clinic. By 1972, her expertise with spinal cord patients was sought out by those caring for Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was paralyzed by a would-be assassin during his campaign for the presidency. It was she and another nurse who came in and taught his staff how to care for him.

She returned to Illinois and worked until her retirement in 1981.

After World War II, Lamont returned to civilian life, married an Army soldier and never returned to nursing, although she used her skills to take care of her children and later in life her ailing mother and father.

"To me, it was one of the most satisfying jobs there is," she said. " You meet lots of good people. I would recommend the profession of nursing to anyone man or woman.

"The memories you'll never forget," she said. "The war we didn't like, but they are days I wouldn't trade. Friendships I wouldn't trade. We shared those times. We helped them over their rough spots. Those are precious."

Lamont recommends military service to young people today. She said the education is priceless, "not only for the book learning, but learning how to live with people. That's what, to me, is one of the most important things there is."

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com.

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