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Interview with Lola Olsmith [3/27/2009]

Ruth F. Stewart:

Lola Olsmith is being interviewed today as a member of the Women's Overseas Service League, San Antonio, Texas Unit. Today is January 15th, 2004, and we're recording at the Army Residents Community in San Antonio, Texas. Ruth Stewart is interviewer, assisted by Carol Hathgood. Lola, start in by telling us a little bit about your early life.

Lola Olsmith:

Well, I was born in Bee Branch, Arkansas, in 1935. We were poor farmers, and my folks moved after a year, when I was one year old. We moved to California, where we stayed for about eight -- till I was eight years old. Then we came back to Arkansas, and that's where I went to school and graduated from high school at -- at Bee Branch. And from there, I had decided that I wanted to be a nurse and fall in the footsteps of an aunt who -- who had previously graduated, and so I went to the same school she did in Little Rock, Arkansas. I went to St. Vincent's Infirmary. It was a three-year diploma school. Following that, I worked for the VA hospital in Little Rock, and later I transferred to Atlanta, Georgia, looking for more excitement, of course, and I worked there for the VA hospital. And then, just looking for more excitement, I decided that, after seeing a -- an ad on TV one day about the Army needing nurses, I decided to myself, well, I could do that. But I went to the Air Force recruiter and asked for -- if -- if they sent nurses to Vietnam, and he says, no, but I think the Army does. So I then went to the Army, and they asked me if I had ten friends who wanted to go with me.

Ruth F. Stewart:

They were eager.

Lola Olsmith:

So that's how -- how I got to the -- to the Army.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Okay. And how did you get started then in the Army?

Lola Olsmith:

Well --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Was it difficult for you?

Lola Olsmith:

No. I was a little older than most -- most of the other women who joined at that time, because so many of them were out of nursing school, directly out of nursing school. And then some were coming out of the Army's WRAIN program, so they were all -- I -- I'd had a little more experience than most of them. And came here to San Antonio to -- for my basic orientation with -- with a -- supposed to have an assignment -- interim assignment. I had a guaranteed assignment to Vietnam. How naive. And I was supposed to go to Fort Ord, California, for interim and -- but two weeks before we graduated from basic, they called 13 nurses aside and told us we were going directly to Vietnam. And that's when I started getting chills up and down my spine. But we -- we had -- we stuck together. Cut it off and -- So, we had our assignment to -- to travel to Vietnam. The 13 of us were together, and we went out of -- what was the Air Force base you told me a while ago? Out of San Francisco. Anyway, we got on the plane, and we were traveling by commercial plane, of -- of course, and there the 13 of us were on a plane full of men, all going to Vietnam. That was sort of a weird feeling. And it was a long trip. Stopped once in Japan. We weren't allowed to get off the plane. Then we stopped in Okinawa and we were -- we were able to get off the plane at that point for a short time. And then when we landed in Saigon, it was like midnight, and you look out the window and you -- you could just imagine all kinds of things going on and -- but we'd landed at Tan Sanut, and we went into this little building where we were treated to canned Cokes. And canned Cokes were very unusual in 1967. That was my first time to see that. And then we went -- [Interview interrupted due to recording problem.]

Lola Olsmith:

So we stayed there through New Year's Eve, because it was New Year's Day that we traveled upcountry to our new assignment.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And when you hit your new assignment, what was -- what was it like and what was your reaction?

Lola Olsmith:

Well, we'd met with the chief nurse at the replacement center, and -- and, of course, she let us know that we were needed and everybody was looking forward to us being there, coming in. And when we walked into the replacement center, the hospital, I guess I didn't have any idea what to expect. When I first thought about it, I didn't expect to have flush toilets or hot, running water, because we thought people were -- the nurses were living in tents and -- But, at this particular place, they had built -- built the hooches. It was built in a triangle, you know. I mean a quadrangle.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

And -- and there were two -- two people to a room. And we did have hot and cold running water, and we did have flush johns, so I was very surprised at -- at the accommodations, that we had that much. Now the hospital was a -- Quonset huts, you know, rows of Quonset huts, with -- with covered walkways between them. And found out -- there's -- well, there were two hospitals in this particular village where -- where I went, and it was in Quinon, which is about -- well, it was on the coast, about halfway in mid-country, halfway up the coast. And one of the nurses in this group was -- had been my roommate in basic, and we thought we were going to the same hospital, or we'd asked to go to the same hospital. Well, we were put in -- in the two hospitals in the same village, and it turned out, the whole year I was there, I think I saw her one time, what whole time. Of course, you -- you soon meet up with -- with the people you work with and -- and that's -- becomes your family.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

The -- the chief nurse was very nice. And she told us that her policy was to -- that every nurse that came in, since our hospital had a prisoner ward, that you worked in the prisoner ward for two weeks to begin with, and -- which I did. And it was at that point that I became disenchanted with the war, I guess. Before that, I was very dovish -- I mean hawkish on the whole thing. But once I saw the prisoners and, you know, found out they were just people like us and they were just serving whoever fed them, that was my impression, that whoever brought the food in, that was who they would serve. Of course, that's -- that's a -- a long way from politics. That was -- that was just down to the very basic level.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

But then I -- following that, I went to the recovery and surgical intensive care ward, which was combined. And we took care of all the post-surgery patients and kept the -- the sicker ones. And that was GIs and prisoners alike. We took care of everybody. Lots of different experiences there. We worked 12-hour shifts. It -- we would work 7 to 7 at night for a while, and then we'd switch and work the dayshift for a while. And most of the time we were able to get two days off a week, even though we were working at least 12-hour shifts, till it got to a crunch time, and then we had to -- we were lucky to get a day off then. I was there during Tet in 1968. And that was rather exciting. There was no -- not any active fighting in this village where we were. It was mostly out in what we called the valley from us. And also the ROK, the -- the Korean army, was stationed out in the -- in the valley. And the -- the scuttlebutt was that the Vietnamese were so afraid of the Koreans that -- that we were safe, you know, because they were between us and the enemy. But during Tet, there was a -- an assault made on the radio -- local radio station.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Which was American military?

Lola Olsmith:

No --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Local?

Lola Olsmith:

I -- no, I had the impression it was a Vietnamese radio station.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh. Okay.

Lola Olsmith:

Now, the American communication equipment and everything was on a big high mountain right behind us, and that was one of the things that they were trying to do, is get up the mountain and destroy the communication. But we -- we had helicopters coming right over the quadrangle where we lived, shooting into the mountain one -- on one of the nights, during Tet.

Ruth F. Stewart:

But that was the closest from -- as far as your being --

Lola Olsmith:

As far -- as far as my experience, yes.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh. Uh-huh. But you got casualties from all of that?

Lola Olsmith:

Uh-huh. We did.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Yeah.

Lola Olsmith:

And I never had to work in the emergency room. I don't know if I could have handled that very well or not. At least when I got the patients, they were -- they had gone through surgery. And -- and that was -- of course, that was traumatic, too. There was a lot of young men waking up with lost limbs. It was pretty traumatic. And things were quiet during that year. You know, it wasn't always real intense. We -- we would do what we called medcaps. We'd go out to the village and -- and just do like a sick call for any -- anybody who wanted to come in.

Ruth F. Stewart:

What'd you call that?

Lola Olsmith:

Medcap.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Mid, M-I-D?

Lola Olsmith:

Med, M-E-D. Medical civilian -- I'm not sure what it means. Medical civilian aid --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Assistance or --

Lola Olsmith:

-- assistance or something like that.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Sort of like a clinic --

Lola Olsmith:

Uh-huh.

Ruth F. Stewart:

-- an on-the-spot clinic?

Lola Olsmith:

Right. And we also visited the orphanages and -- so we did the same thing --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Tell me more about this medcap experience. Think of one day that you went out there and what it was like and the people that you saw and --

Lola Olsmith:

Well, and we also visited the -- the -- the leprosarium, but -- which was, you know, not too far away. But one medcap that I remember, we went into a fishing village, and we walked -- it was very close to the water. We walked through all these little huts, you know, and we finally -- it seemed like there was a porch there, and that's where we set up. We were -- had our -- our equipment and -- all set up on this porch, uncovered, and the doctor was there. And if he wanted to listen to somebody's chest, you know, you would -- it was just no table or chairs or anything. It was just a porch.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

And it -- it was very superficial coverage as far as what we could do.

Ruth F. Stewart:

What kind of conditions were you looking at there or that appeared before you?

Lola Olsmith:

Now, seems to me like it was mostly skin conditions and things like that. I really don't remember much else.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

I don't remember taking any patients back with us or --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

-- or I'm not sure exac -- how extensive that was. I just don't remember if there was follow-up or not.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

And then when we went to the leprosarium, the highlight of that was lunch.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Fed you well?

Lola Olsmith:

Oh, yes. The French nuns were very good to us. And -- and I don't remember. I'm sure that they -- the nuns were asking for -- for certain things for the -- for their certain patients, but I don't remember anything about that.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Did you do something while you were there or were you just observing?

Lola Olsmith:

Mostly observing and looking around. They -- they -- they had just like a village. You know, everybody with their separate little houses and everything. And it was very beautiful, because it was right on the beach and there was bougainvilleas, you know, and beautiful shrubbery and trees. It was -- it was just beautiful.

Ruth F. Stewart:

So as part of your Army nurse corps duties in Vietnam, you were being a diplomat, too?

Lola Olsmith:

I guess you would say that. Yes, because, another incident, we took care of civilians, and we got this young man in who had been a victim of an attempted assassion -- assassination, and he'd been shot in to the mouth, through the mouth some way, and he was bleeding. Well, the Vietnamese didn't have the capacity to -- to give -- collect blood and give it, so he required several blood transfusions because of the bleeding in his mouth. And I became friends with his sister, and I sort of got the feeling they were fairly well-to-do people because of his intention to be a -- like a mayor of a village. He was being groomed for that. And I was invited to their -- to their home on one occasion for a -- for a dinner. And that was quite --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Very interesting.

Lola Olsmith:

-- interesting to -- to do that.

Ruth F. Stewart:

What did they feed you?

Lola Olsmith:

I can remember shrimp, boiled eggs, I remember, and vegetables. But I don't remember what kind. Fruit was always -- always very good there. Pineapple was delicious. But the shrimp is the main thing I remember.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

And -- and I -- we tried to correspond a little bit after I left the country, but it was almost impossible to get mail back and forth at that time. And I'm trying to think of --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Were you at that same location throughout your Vietnamese tour?

Lola Olsmith:

Yes. Our hospital was moving right as I was leaving. It was going -- going to go upcountry from there.

Ruth F. Stewart:

How long were you there then?

Lola Olsmith:

Almost a full year. Just -- just a half a month short of a year. I went on R and R twice, and that was sort of a different experience too. Went to Australia the first time. And the nurses that went with me, we were -- got there on a Sunday and nothing was open, and we finally wound up going to a movie. But it wasn't near where our hotel was, and we went downtown for a movie. And coming back, we caught a taxi. Well, as soon as we got in the taxi and started talking to the driver, he knew instantly that we were Americans. And he says, oh, R and R girls. He says, we're used to R and R boys, but we don't get R and R girls. And so he insisted, when we got back to the hotel, he turned the motor off and we sat there and talked for a good length of time, and then he insisted that his family take us sightseeing. And he and his wife and one or two children -- I can't remember -- came the next day and took us sightseeing up the coast, and went -- took us to the zoo. It was just unbelievable. And they kept wanting to do more and more for us, and they finally -- we were trying to get out, you know, and they insisted, well, come have tea with us. Well, we thought tea and that would be it. We learned our lesson. Turned out tea was, of course, dinner.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

Yeah. But they were very nice to us. Very gracious.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And where was your other R and R then?

Lola Olsmith:

It was to Hong Kong, which was a very exciting city. Lots of shopping. That was fun, too.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Did you have any of the kind of experiences with local people that you did in Australia?

Lola Olsmith:

No. No, I did not. Huh-uh. No. They were just hustling to -- to make you anything you wanted made.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Yes.

Lola Olsmith:

Suits, shoes, anything. Dresses.

Ruth F. Stewart:

So, actually, overall in -- in your experience in Vietnam, you said you'd really virtually turned from being a hawk to a dove there. Did that remain with you throughout that?

Lola Olsmith:

I felt that we were fighting a losing war. That's just what I felt like. And that we were not giving it what we needed to to win the war.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

One thing about it, though, in coming back, I've heard so many people talk about the bad experiences they had on coming back to the states from Vietnam. I never had that. I was always cautious, of course. But when I got back, I was at Letterman, and I worked there in thoracic surgery and cardiovascular surgery. I did that for a short time and -- and it was another thrilling experience for me, and I kept thinking, what am I going to do after this? That I just felt like the -- the freedom in nursing that we had in Vietnam and then -- then the experience at Letterman, I just -- I felt like that anything from there would just -- would just be a letdown. And, so I -- I went on recruiting at that point. And I was visiting -- mostly visiting nursing schools in Northern California. And I -- I had film -- I showed films about nursing in Vietnam, and generally it was well accepted. I know one time, particularly, one student got very upset over the -- the film. It bothered her because of some of the surgery that was being done.

Ruth F. Stewart:

It showed the actual surgery?

Lola Olsmith:

Yes. Uh-huh. It was the removal of a bullet from an eye. But we were very proud of military medicine in Vietnam. The word, at that time, was if a soldier made it back to the hospital, less than one percent died. And we really thought that was -- we were proud of -- of what we were doing in -- medically speaking.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And you still feel like it was very well done --

Lola Olsmith:

Oh, yeah.

Ruth F. Stewart:

-- what you were doing there?

Lola Olsmith:

Oh, yeah.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Overall, it was very good?

Lola Olsmith:

I thought the medical care was terrific. And the -- and the people who really fought, under -- under duress and bombing conditions, you know, people who were fired upon --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

-- really, they were all just outstanding. One -- one experience, going back to my early days in country, during Tet, one night I was -- I was on night duty and there came a great explosion, and it was -- just rocked everything, and it blew the -- the electrical outlets -- cords out of the outlets on -- in the wall, it was so tremendous. But we, of course, thought we were under attack. We later found out though it was -- somebody got into the ammunition dump and blew it up, so. And it was several miles away, but it was a horrendous --

Ruth F. Stewart:

It was an enemy action though?

Lola Olsmith:

Yes. And -- but I was so scared, I -- we had to throw thin mattresses under the beds. You know, we had those tall beds. We threw thin mattresses under the bed, and we put the patient under the bed for protection. I lifted a -- a Vietnamese lady -- pregnant lady. Of course, she wasn't a big lady, but I lifted her by myself. I went down on one knee and stuck her under the bed. I was -- my adrenaline was so high.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

The next day, my legs were so sore. I couldn't -- I could hardly walk from -- just from that action.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Yeah. But your back survived?

Lola Olsmith:

Yes, I did. My back did survive. Yes. Another thing at the time I was -- I was suctioning a patient, I think, in the recovery room. Some -- a patient had a trach. And, of course, those things came out of the wall, and we had to makeshift there. That was about the biggest experience from -- from --- during Tet, from that. So where would you like me to go to now?

Ruth F. Stewart:

Well, then, you were in Vietnam about a year?

Lola Olsmith:

Uh-huh.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And then you went back to Letterman?

Lola Olsmith:

Uh-huh.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And how long were you there?

Lola Olsmith:

I was there a little over a year, and then I --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Was that the extent of your tour in -- or your Air -- Army experience, or did you stay in the Army?

Lola Olsmith:

I stayed. Then I went on recruiting from there, and I was assigned to in the San Francisco area. And I stayed, and I stayed there on recruit -- in recruiting for Army nurse recruiting for a little less than a year. And then a position opened up in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where I was living when I joined the Army, and -- and to be the coordinator of nurse recruiting for nine southern states and Puerto Rico. So that's where I went next. And that, of course, was at the drawdown and -- and eventually the -- the end of the war in Vietnam, because we were getting out of that country. And, of course, it was a cutdown on -- in military personnel too.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

And, so, I had told you earlier I had graduated from a diploma school. I had been going to night school, because I had the time there, and catching up on some required courses before. And then I applied to go full-time to -- to get my undergraduate degree. And I was accepted at Medical College of Georgia, so --

Ruth F. Stewart:

And was this with the Army --

Lola Olsmith:

I was still in the Army. Uh-huh. And I was able to go there, and within a year I got my degree.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Bachelor of Science?

Lola Olsmith:

In nursing. ____

Ruth F. Stewart:

Okay. So then did you stay in the Army a little while longer after that?

Lola Olsmith:

I did. From there, I came back to San Antonio for the -- for the advanced course, and -- which is a -- was a six-months course. That was 1975. The beginning. January through June. And it was one of those very mild winters in San Antonio, and I just thought this was the most wonderful place in the world, and I said this is where I want to live. And from there, then, after completing the course, I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I stayed at Fort Leonard Wood for two years, and I was head nurse on a general surgery ward for part of it and -- and head nurse in the emergency room for part of it. And I was still undecided about what I really wanted to do, and -- and looking for the next assignment, they offered me recruiting again. I went to -- to Fort Meade, Maryland, where I stayed for two years, and I was again the coordinator of nurse recruiting. And at that point, I decided that I wanted to get back to San Antonio, so I resigned my commission. Well, I resigned from active duty. I did not resign my commission. I resigned from active duty, transferred into a -- the -- to the 94th General Hospital here in San Antonio.

Ruth F. Stewart:

In the reserves?

Lola Olsmith:

In the reserves.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And what year was that?

Lola Olsmith:

1979. '79. Yeah. It's unbelievable.

Ruth F. Stewart:

So how -- how many years were you in the --

Lola Olsmith:

I was --

Ruth F. Stewart:

-- active duty?

Lola Olsmith:

I was on active duty for 12 years. And I went into the reserves as a major, by that time, and I stayed with the reserves and -- and retired as a full colonel.

Ruth F. Stewart:

So how many years were you in the reserves then?

Lola Olsmith:

12 years.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Oh, 12 in active and 12 in --

Lola Olsmith:

Uh-huh. Yeah.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Okay.

Lola Olsmith:

Yeah. And then that's when Desert Storm came along and our hospital was active -- activated, and we were sent to Germany, our whole -- the whole hospital personnel, where we were just scattered throughout the country. You know, just assigned to different hospitals throughout, because we were expecting the -- the injured out of -- out of Saudi Arabia to come back through Germany.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

And that's what we were expecting. And they were very needful in -- in Germany because they had depleted the hospitals there with -- from military personnel, medical personnel. They'd sent them to the desert before we got there. And so they were really needing more personnel there.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And your experience in Germany then was how long?

Lola Olsmith:

We stayed there four months. It was January to April. It was very cold. I just --

Ruth F. Stewart:

And what year was that?

Lola Olsmith:

'91.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Of what year?

Lola Olsmith:

1991.

Ruth F. Stewart:

'91.

Lola Olsmith:

Uh-huh.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Okay. In your experience in that kind of a situation, in the Gulf War, how did that compare to Vietnam in terms of your own feelings about it or your own response to it?

Lola Olsmith:

Well, I think it was totally different. Of course, the country -- it was totally different for the country, too. And we were just very thankful that -- that we didn't see the casualties that we were -- could have seen.

Ruth F. Stewart:

You didn't get many of the casualties, then at all?

Lola Olsmith:

Huh-uh. I think I saw one.

Ruth F. Stewart:

You were really just staffing the routine --

Lola Olsmith:

That's right. We -- we just were there. We -- we -- I think the civilian personnel were very happy to see us. Dependents I'm talking about. Not personnel. Civilian dependents were very grateful that we were there, because their care had been cut down drastically.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

So, I re -- we returned back home, and I had planned on retiring before we ever knew we were going to be activated. That -- we got back in May, or first of May, and by the -- by November, I had retired from my reserve unit.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh. In reflecting on your military career, do you -- what do you feel that you gave to the military and that the military gave to you?

Lola Olsmith:

Well, I'd like to talk about what the military gave to me. I was -- being a diploma graduate, I was very unsure of my capabilities and what I could do. I felt like I -- I was just a nurse. That -- you know, that's the way I felt. But after being in the military and having so many different experiences, I just -- it -- it was -- gave me more confidence and assurance that I could ever -- ever dream about. It was really good for me. And I -- in turn, I think I gave all I could to -- to my duties and responsibilities. But I was -- I was very grateful for -- for what it did for me.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh. What were the specific highlights, not necessarily dramatic ones, but what stands out in your memory when somebody asks you about your experience in the military? And it might have been Vietnam or it might not.

Lola Olsmith:

I'm not sure. I -- I really don't know how to answer that. I'm just very proud to be part of it. And -- but as far as any one incident, I can't -- I really can't think of anything.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Okay. Since you left the reserves, have you joined any veteran's organizations?

Lola Olsmith:

Well, I think the -- the Overseas Service League is my first experience with -- with joining an organization. And I'm finding that very interesting, the -- being able to -- to work with wonderful ladies that I'm meeting there.

Ruth F. Stewart:

And what do you do besides, then, with your life now that you're out of the military, out of the reserves?

Lola Olsmith:

I've probably spent most of my time with my community, with my neighborhood. I joined the -- our homes association, and I served as president on it for four years, and I'm still active with it as the secretary and doing different things with it. And that's probably my biggest -- more time consuming than anything else I do.

Ruth F. Stewart:

It certainly can be.

Lola Olsmith:

Promoting membership in that and --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Uh-huh.

Lola Olsmith:

So --

Ruth F. Stewart:

Is there anything else that you would like to say about your experience or your feelings or your contacts in the military or since then that you'd like to add in now?

Lola Olsmith:

Well, once you've been in the military, there's a very -- there's a closeness there that you don't experience anywhere else. And even when I was in Vietnam and the -- the feelings that -- that -- that the whole group had would -- we knew that it wouldn't last. You know, that once we got back to the real world, that -- that we wouldn't experience that anymore. And -- but, likewise, you have that on a similar way with -- with the people that you work with or assigned with in the military. And I think it's even more so now that, when you meet up with people, that -- that you've shared common interest with.

Ruth F. Stewart:

The bond is still there?

Lola Olsmith:

Yes. Uh-huh.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Well, we really appreciate your taking time to do this with us, Lola, and to add this bit of history to that of our country, the military, the women in the military, and nursing.

Lola Olsmith:

Well, I hope it will be useful.

Ruth F. Stewart:

Thank you. END OF RECORDING.

 
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