Captain Barbara Chiminello, born 1944, grew up in a military family. She enlisted through the Army Nurse Corps in 1963, and served in the Vietnam war from 1966-1968 for a total of two tours. She served her first tour in Nha Trang and her second in Pleiku, Vietnam. While overseas, her brother Thomas, who also served in Vietnam, was killed in a helicopter crash; Barbara accompanied her brother’s body back to the United States. Now, Barbara pursues a career in the arts and has exhibited and sold her work throughout the greater Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. areas.
Barbara Chiminello interview by Alliyah Nkrumah, Michael Rasin, Luis Reyes, and Madeleine Watts. July 26, 2017, The Vietnam War Oral History Project, New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.
In this clip of the interview, Barbara Chiminello discusses her reasons for enlisting in the Vietnam War. Among them are her sense of patriotism, duty to serve, and her military family’s influence.
Barbara Chiminello: I came from a military family. My dad was a Chemical Corps officer, and we all had the sense of patriotism and serving our country. So, I went into a program called the Army Student Nurse Program, which — they paid for my education, where I got my bachelor science, and it was called BSN. But it was the idea that when I graduated, that I owe them three years in the military. But it worked for me, because it paid all my books and tuition and everything for college. And they needed nurses at that time, because the — like I said, the Vietnam War was at its height. And I knew I was going to be working somewhere, so I felt, well, why not in a military hospital? And I would be debt-free. And that was my goal, was to get a college education without burdening my parents, who were putting my brothers through college, too. I knew very little about Vietnam. Like I said, we came from a family of — we were very patriotic. What our government was doing, we wanted to support. Initially, my brothers and I and my family wanted — because our government, McNamara and Johnson and Kennedy, everybody felt that we needed to be there and there was a reason to be in Vietnam. I was only 23 years old, I — when your government is — or when you’re — when they say that this is what we need to do for democracy and to free up this country, we realize — we wanted to help. That’s when, because they needed nurses over there in Vietnam, I felt that it was my duty to go. It was financial, because of my family situation, and also because of the — being — feeling that we wanted to do something for our country. I have a picture of my uncle, my aunt who was in World War II, my uncle was in World War II, my father was a veteran. And so, I felt this sense of duty to the country. And I really — and I still do, I feel that we all should have a sense of duty for our country in some ways. I was a volunteer, because I was a woman. I did not have to go to Vietnam. I went to Vietnam because I chose to, and I went twice. Two tours in Vietnam. I really feel that it’s a duty to show we appreciate what we have in our country.
In this Audio Clip, Barbara talks about her brother Thomas’s service in Vietnam, his tragic death, and its impact on her family and choice to continue serving in Vietnam. She reads aloud from an article she wrote in honor of the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993. The complete article can be found here.
Barbara Chiminello: Someone took a picture of Tommy and me, smiling in front of his flight operations building before I left my hospital in Nha Trang. Tommy, with a map in his hands, had just been scheduled for a mission. Boarding my chopper, I looked out my window at his waving and laughing. That handsome face, so like my father’s. Those hazel eyes. How many of my girlfriends fell in love with Tom? For some reason, in all that noise and whirling dust, I kept looking and waving at him and he at me, and this was the last time we would be together. When Tommy died, I needed to call home. I needed to comfort my father and mother. Regular telephones were not available. Instead, I called on a military-affiliated radio system called MARS on which you had to end statements with the word ‘over’ in order to switch the line to the other party. It was Sunday. My father answered the phone. ‘Dad, over.’ He was delighted. ‘Barbara! Mom, come here! It’s Barbara! How are you? Over.’ Because they did not know. They didn’t get the message. What could I say? Not knowing about the time difference, I hadn’t realized that my parents had not received words of Tom’s death. ‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Oh, Dad, over.’ They had lost their first son to leukemia years before, and I didn’t know how to tell them that they had lost another child. For what had he died? I didn’t know. ‘Dad, I need to tell you something. Tommy is gone. Over.’ For the past 25 years, these three words have echoed inside my head. There was a short silence as my dad comprehended what I had just said. Then I heard the phone drop and wailing, the scream for Tommy, and I started to cry, filled with sorrow and helplessness. The mood on the plane to the State– was joyful. They were soldiers who had survived the war and were on their way back to the real world.” This is when I was taking his body home. “Every hour, I thought about how strong I had to be for my parents. I was determined not to show my grief or my confusion. I had called home waiting in Long Binh for Tommy’s body to be identified. ‘Barbara,’ my father had said, ‘bring him home. Bring our Tommy home.’ I buried my grief, and alongside it, I buried my feeling in the war — that the war was wrong. My parents could not possibly understand what Tommy and I had seen. I couldn’t even think that Tommy had died for a futile cause. I focused instead on the honorable mission he performed in Vietnam, on the wounded soldiers he had rescued. As the plane touched the runway in Oakland, California, the soldiers cheering and clapping drowned my sobs. I was happy for these soldiers and their families. But my thoughts were only of my brother in the cargo hold of the plane.”
Michael Rasin: How did you learn about your brother’s death?
BC: It’s so funny you should ask this, because it’s like yesterday. I was — I told you, I was on the beach, after work, I went down to the beach every day and it was with friends, and we would — swam and then we would eat down there and go back to get our fatigues on to go back to work. And the — my commanding officer, chief nurse, came towards me on the beach, with a chaplain. And I realized that something was wrong. And I had just seen my brother, as I explained in my article. I had some time — and thank God, I had that time, because the picture I have of — and I have it here — of the two of us, standing there, just before — to say goodbye to each other, not realizing that I would never see him again.
And to this day, it’s such a loss for, it was for all of, my whole family. And as I look — as I hear about the Iraqi War and Afghanistan War, and knowing these young soldiers and sailors who have been just — you know, these young sailors were just killed. What the families are going through, I can appreciate that. And it’s never-ending, because the loss is always there. I always think, he was only 23 years old, he’s never seen my children, we’ve never experienced middle age together, he never was married. It’s just a shock.
In this clip Barbara focuses on the draft. She explains why she agrees with the draft citing that it brought people of all diverse talents and backgrounds together. She also says that the people being drafted had more experience than the soldiers now, as most of them enter now due to lack of other opportunities.
Barbara Chiminello: We all should have a sense of duty for our country in some ways. I’m not totally — I mean, I felt that the draft, in some way, was good, because even for men and women, at that time, women — I was a volunteer, because I was a woman. And unfortunately, now, because there’s no draft, the young soldiers, men and women that are in the military, that’s the only opportunity they have, and a majority of them are poor. And lot of us don’t even know what’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ones who are dying now are fighting for us in Iraq and all poor kids that go in because that’s the only opportunity they have. They want an education and the health benefits, in Vietnam, it wasn’t like that, because everyone had to go to — into the military. And unfortunate — we did have people who were called draft dodgers, as you know. Some of them went to Canada. Some of our leaders got out of Vietnam.
I mean, this war was started by the politicians. And unfortunately, these young GIs were dying and people needed to help them. They needed good doctors. And I’m not sure they’re getting those good doctors now by not having a draft. I’m for some service, that’s what I’m for. I mean, how many of us know someone that’s in the war? Not many of us. We are so far away from it. But if you go onto a military concern like, you know, Fort Knox or Fort [Bragg] you have military families are hurting. These young people don’t get the medical [services], the VA is hurting. Lot of these young GIs coming home have such serious problems. Health problems, psychological problems, drug problems. I’m just for helping them. And I guess it’s because I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I think the draft should be put back. How many congress people have kids in the Army? Not many. I think there was one. They don’t want their kids to be in the front lines. That’s what really irks me, so — and I think it should be fair, across the board. And if you want to do something else in the way of service, well, that’s a good choice, too.
In this audio clip, Barbara’s shares about her painting during her Vietnam experience.
Barbara Chiminello: I’ve always loved to paint. When I was in Vietnam, I painted. My family sent me little canvases and I’d come home — I would go down in Nha Trang, on the beach, and paint. And I would think, God, here I’m in this combat zone and I’m,(laughter) I’m painting. And I would send them home. And they were little primitive pictures of the sea and shells and, you know, and then when I came back, I really pursued it and loved it,
In this audio clip, Barbara’s discusses her experience as a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Barbara Chiminello: That was a big problem with us returning, the veterans returning. Because it was such an unpopular war, no one wanted to talk about it. It’s true that lot of Vietnam veterans now came home to no support. No one really reached out to us. I did not have an adjustment. I would have loved to have talked to people about it. For years, no one knew I was a Vietnam veteran. I’m so far away from it. This is an opportunity for me to honor my family and honor my service and my brothers’ service. But I haven’t talked about it for a long, long time. For years, I [didn’t] talk about it. Even now, a lot of my friends here in New York, they don’t know I’m a Vietnam veteran.