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Pacific Book Review

2D Surgical Hospital: An Khe to Chu Lai South Vietnam
by Lorna Griess
Reviewed by: Matt Hurd

2D Surgical Hospital is a quietly brilliant chronicle of one woman’s yearlong deployment as an Army nurse in Vietnam. While many books concerning war, be it Vietnam or another, seek to impart a grand, life-changing message by striking the reader over the head and informing them how to think, 2D succeeds by simply allowing itself to be what it is: the story of an individual.

As readers, we follow the autobiographical author Lorna Griess from an airport terminal in Denver, Colorado, to her station in An Khe, Vietnam, and later on to Chu Lai, Vietnam. The purpose of the work is simple: to show the realities of wartime living to those of us who may never have experienced them. This simplicity can be deceiving, almost mundane at first – but around the time of the first mass casualty event at Griess’ hospital, readers realize setting the pace of slow activity then having the triage change into hectic all out action was the literary intent of the author all along. Real war is not a movie, two hours of buildup and excitement, gunfire and outrageous heroism. Instead it is a reality of long stretches of mundanity with lots of hurry-up-and-waits, occasional bursts of activity, humor, friendship and homesickness, separated by moments of terror. In other words, it’s a very specific kind of living. Griess’ stories take readers deep inside her life and therein lies the genius of this book.

2D Surgical Hospital also features many photographs, mostly taken by Griess herself while deployed. As with the stories in the text, the photographs are notable for capturing the simple realities of life on the ground in An Khe and Chu Lai. These are not fancy, posed photographs. These are snapshots of moments, which are so alive on the page precisely because they’re not trying to be anything more than reveal what they are.

As I read this book in the eBook format, I would suggest it worth noting the placement and formatting of the photographs (full-page landscapes) made it difficult to enjoy and take in the photos as intended. Buying the paper edition and seeing the photographs laid out two to a page, vertically placed, would make them far easier to view.

2D Surgical Hospital will be of particular interest to those fans of boots-on-the-ground accounts of the Vietnam War as well as those liking historical and military autobiographies. However, the book is also very accessible to the layperson as Griess does excellent work explaining potentially complex arrangements and procedures. Once the reader learns the fact in which part of her job in Vietnam was to be a teacher to others with medical support, it becomes clear why such emphasis is placed on the details. Although this may be a book that falls into the Military History/Autobiography genre at its core it is a story about a person. A regular person, who followed her passions, her drives, her desire to do good – into a war zone. More than anything else, the detailing of events and emotions makes this an excellent and highly recommended read.

The US Review of Books

2D Surgical Hospital: An Khe to Chu Lai South Vietnam
by Lorna Griess
Reviewed by: Jacquelyn Gilchrist

“…I thought about what really mattered in life, and it wasn’t things. I had lived for a year without all the trappings of civilization.”

After several flights—and two delays circling different runways to allow downed fighter planes to be cleared—Griess arrived at An Khe, Vietnam. This was her new home for the next year while she worked in Second Surgical Hospital, designated as 2D SURG, a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). Anyone who has no combat experience will have trouble understanding exactly what Griess and the rest of the medical staff dealt with, but the author does an admirable job of succinctly explaining the who, why, what, and where of operating a MASH unit in a combat zone.

From her orientation (learning not to salute where enemy snipers could be watching) to her last few months (which involved moving the “hospital in a box” to Chu Lai), Griess learns to adapt again and again to various hardships. In an ER in the States, she might have had to work with a car crash victim’s lacerations or an athlete’s fractures. In Vietnam, some of the worst wounds Griess treated included punji stake wounds. Although these are simple puncture wounds made by sharpened stakes, the Viet Cong had the nasty habit of coating the stakes with human feces. This allowed disease-causing pathogens to be embedded deep within the flesh, and the result could be the loss of limb or life if not treated promptly.

The author writes with razor-sharp precision, and with a frank tone that perfectly complements the bleak hardships of war. Whether writing about being shelled in the middle of the night by the Viet Cong or describing the discovery of a rat-like thing that had had her babies in the author’s dresser drawer, her wartime experiences need no superlatives—the author’s charming, dry wit is more than enough. This first-hand account of what Vietnam was really like behind the scenes ought to be required reading for students, as it is far more memorable and informative than most textbooks.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review