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Interview with Wendy Taines [1/26/2005]

Mary Ann Donahue:

It's January 26, 2005, and this is a tape-recording of the biographical story of Wendy Marie Taines, who was an E-4 stationed with the Army in the 15th Evacuation Hospital in the Persian Gulf, 1990 to 1991. The interview is being conducted by Mary Ann Donahue, a volunteer.

Wendy Taines:

Okay.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay, Wendy. I'd like to start off by asking you a little bit about your life that brought you to joining the military. Would you like to tell us a little bit about how that came about?

Wendy Taines:

Sure. I had no desire to join the military. My father was a policeman and a disciplinarian. And I was a very, very bad student, a very bad juvenile delinquent. And he informed me when I was 17, in Tucson, Arizona, that he and my mother decided that I would be joining the Army, which I thought was the funniest thing I'd ever heard, until a recruiter showed up and my name was signed. And I had a really bad attitude. But I had no choice. My parents were not -- didn't give me any other options and I didn't want to be homeless. So on August -- I think on my 18th birthday I showed up in Fort Dix, New Jersey, ready for basic training. And very angry.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Talk a little bit about what the basic training experience was like and how you handled the fact that maybe this wasn't where you really wanted to be.

Wendy Taines:

Okay. I think my anger probably served in my favor at the time, because I remember being there -- being -- we were all in our civilian clothes. And the drill sergeants were coming through the ranks and screaming at us and calling us pathetic and whatever. And all these girls were crying. And I remember standing there so pissed that I was there, that I think that anger and resentment I had at my parents and the fact that I was there and this was not what I wanted to do only made me -- I'm very stubborn by nature. So to me I was saying okay, I'm going to show them, I'm going to show everybody. You know, you put me in this position, I don't want to be here, then I'm just going to show everyone I'm going to be the best they ever saw. That's just my nature. And the drill sergeant came and was screaming in my face, and I loved every minute of it and I was ready. I knew at that moment that I was going to do it, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

And did that follow through during your basic? Did you really find that you were --

Wendy Taines:

Yes. My anger, and resentment, again, carried me through very -- it's very scary, very scary. It's a completely different way of life. And I mean, you -- it's -- what's the word to describe it? It's waking up at 3:00 in the morning when it's raining and it's cold and you're putting on combat boots. I came from wearing heels and mini skirts in high school, now all of a sudden I have to get up in all hours of whenever and be in full combat gear and boots and have my M16 ready to go. There was a lot of stress involved. A lot of discipline, a lot of stress, and a lot of challenges. And it's very scary because you have to meet certain requirements to graduate from basic training. And so they're constantly -- you're constantly preparing and quizzing for the requirements. And it's a very scary feeling because if you don't pass, you have to do basic training over again. So...

Mary Ann Donahue:

You're motivated?

Wendy Taines:

You're motivated to do what it takes. And so probably the biggest fear I had of the requirements was -- the M16 and I didn't get along right away, but my drill sergeant had a little compassion in that area with me. And I turned out to be a pretty good shot after a while. Most -- the -- most of the requirements were okay. The only thing that kept me up nights was knowing I had to go through a gas chamber, and the stories that I had heard about it. And that we had to go in and remove our gas masks and stand in a shed with -- or whatever, and breathe tear gas. And you had to say your name, your rank, your Social Security number. And just the idea of doing that, that was one of the biggest fears I had the whole time through basic, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

And how was it when you actually had the event and the challenge?

Wendy Taines:

When I actually did it, we went in there and were told to remove our masks, and I did. It was the first soldier moment that I had among many that would follow. I did what I had to do, and I didn't react until later.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Is that what you mean by a soldier moment?

Wendy Taines:

Yes. A soldier moment is you do what you're required to do. It's when your training kicks in without thought.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay.

Wendy Taines:

So at that moment I think I became a soldier because I did it. The women around me, there were some throwing up, some went out crying. Some wouldn't go in at all. And that's why I call it a soldier moment. I knew that I would not get to where I wanted to go unless I did this. And it was required, so it was done.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So you finished basic?

Wendy Taines:

I finished basic training with flying colors.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Excellent. And then what happened?

Wendy Taines:

And then they sent me to Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, where I was to be trained as a 91 alpha, which is a combat medic.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And was that a choice that you had or was that just ____?

Wendy Taines:

When I was applying for the Army back home, when I was 17, we had to take what was called the ASTAB Test that we all take. And whatever you score on it, the Army indicates -- the Army has a certain amount of slots for every job, so they kind of see what area you're good at and then fit you into a slot. And my test scores and my education level or whatever talents they saw at the time, they decided that the medical field would be -- that would be ideal for me. So it was kind of their idea and I went along with it. So I think if I remember that was -- it was either a three-month or six-month training program, I can't recall. But it was very, very stressful. It was in class 10 to 12 hours a day but also keeping up with soldier requirements which was -- you still had to -- you still had an M16, you still had to live in the barracks and GI, and you were responsible for soldiering tasks which take up lots of time. And up at 4:00 with physical training and breakfast and whatever else. And in the classroom by 7:00. And the hardest thing about that was staying awake. I will never forget, because you couldn't fall asleep; if you did, you got sent to the back or you had to drop and do push-ups. And it was really brutal. And the way the Army teaches is very dry. It's straight from a textbook. So you literally -- I just call it torture because you're literally so tired and forced to sit in this wooden chair and have someone shovel textbooks down your -- you know, into your brain. So that was hard.

Mary Ann Donahue:

You learned to tolerate a lot?

Wendy Taines:

Yes, a lot of discipline.

Mary Ann Donahue:

When I see you talking about it, I can see that determination there.

Wendy Taines:

Um-hum.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay. So you completed your training to be a medic?

Wendy Taines:

Yes. Graduated that. And I had no idea where they were sending me. When you go into the Army, you fill out a dream sheet of places that you would like to go.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Is that right, they call it a dream sheet?

Wendy Taines:

They call it a dream sheet. And you get to chose three. My three were I think Hawaii, California, and Germany. And they -- and at the end of the graduation -- they call it your PDS, your permanent duty station. They just call your Social Security number and name the station. It's very informal -- or formal, whatever. Anyway, I just heard -- at the time my maiden name was Womsley (ph), so I heard, "Private Womsley, Fort Polk, Louisiana." And I just remember I looked around and thought, "Oh, my God, is Louisiana even in this country?" I never heard of it. If you showed me a map of the United States at the time, I could not tell you where Louisiana was. So that was quite a shocker. And in a couple days I was on a plane to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And when you arrived at Fort Polk, what was your impression?

Wendy Taines:

My first impression of Fort Polk was where the hell am I? It was -- this looks like a big swamp. This looks like something out of the Civil War photos that I studied in high school. It was like being on another planet, it really was. It was very bizarre. Very old.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And as you settled in and began your duties, how did you find it?

Wendy Taines:

Well, the first thing I needed to do was get a driver's license, because I didn't have one. And I needed a civilian driver's license. And the nearest civilian town was about -- was about two miles off base. It was called Leesville. And I went to get my driver's license and I was stressing out and -- you know, because I never had my driver's license. And I remember getting in the car and going around this very small block and him telling me, "Here." I mean, he didn't ask me to park, parallel park. He just told me to drive around the block and gave me my license. And at that moment I said, you know what, I am really in a small -- this is a very small-minded place, there really aren't a lot of requirements on the civilians here, but there was a lot of respect for us, for the soldiers. And at the time David Duke was running for governor when I was there. I don't know if you --

Mary Ann Donahue:

I do. That was a culture shock for you, I guess?

Wendy Taines:

Well, one of our soldiers was hung so we had -- there were times when -- you know, there was a lot of racial tension going on. And then when one of our soldiers was found -- and he was a black soldier and he was found hung. And it was just -- it was just sad. I didn't realize that that still happens. And it was a really weird time to be there, very strange.

Mary Ann Donahue:

How long did you stay at that duty station?

Wendy Taines:

The whole time I served, I stayed at Fort Polk.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So that was your base?

Wendy Taines:

That was my base until the orders came down for me to go.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And how long was that until you got orders?

Wendy Taines:

Let's see. The orders came down in August of 1990. So I had been there about a year.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And what were your duties while you were there? Were you --

Wendy Taines:

I was a medic in a MASH unit in the 15th Evacuation Hospital. I was in what they call ICU Two. We had ICU One and we had ICU Two. And my job was a combat medic. And -- but we were a field MASH unit hospital, so our whole duty was for wartime. If there's a war, we go support whoever we need to support. We're a field hospital. So during peace time, all we did was prepare for if we were in a war.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So for a year you were just training?

Wendy Taines:

Right. And I thought that's all I was going to do. I never went in the Army to really do this stuff. I went into the Army because I was forced to. Then I got an attitude and said, "Okay, I'm just going to finish it, I already started." And then the GI bill started to look attractive. So I was going to do my time, get out, go to college. I hadn't -- so really, we played a lot, my unit. We thought -- I mean, here we are this unit in Fort Polk, Louisiana, of all places. If there ever was a conflict, we would be the last one to go. We just thought we were all misfits and never took anything that seriously. And we had a really good time with each other, but it was never very stressful. Very laid-back unit.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And did you know that there was a war brewing? Did you have any sense at all?

Wendy Taines:

No, I didn't. I just know it was around August of 1990 that big officers, big brass, were coming around and seeing them. And we heard -- and then I would see People magazine and I knew something was going on in the Middle East; but again, nothing that would affect me.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So when your orders came down, it was a shock?

Wendy Taines:

Yes. It was a real shock. Our orders came in August. And nobody really thought it was really going to happen. I mean, it was just like, we were told we were going to be going over to Saudi Arabia and we had a certain amount of time to prepare, tell our families. You know, there's a lot of preparation to do before you deploy. And actually we were starting the preparations and then I think it got called off. So for a moment I think we thought we weren't going. And then it got reinstated, and it got reinstated quickly. And so then we kind of really knew we were going. So August was when it started, but we didn't actually leave Fort Polk until November or December.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And that was '91?

Wendy Taines:

'90, '90.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay.

Wendy Taines:

And then I just -- as a woman I also wanted to put a part of my story and that is it was -- we -- it was -- I guess I had a hard time with the fact that -- now that I'm an older woman, I have more compassion. But at the time the women who had children and families were coming up with all sorts of ways to get out of going. And I remember the big resentment I had because I was Miss Super Soldier, I was going no matter what. So I thought if I felt that way, these other women should feel that way, too. You know, each day I just saw -- we had two new people that were not going, and each day it just got bigger and bigger. And women were coming up pregnant and, you know, health -- child care issues. And it was really hard -- at the time it was really hard for me to watch that because my faith in -- my faith -- the way I felt about the Army was so strong and it just angered me that these women didn't want to go do what we were there to do.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And isn't it an important part that your unit really is bonded together?

Wendy Taines:

Oh, yes.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And these women that were part of your unit were dropping out?

Wendy Taines:

Yes.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And it had an effect on the morale of everyone?

Wendy Taines:

Yes, it did. And it was fear. What they were doing was generating fear, which isn't allowed. You know -- you just -- you can't go to do a mission like that in fear. And the whole part of being of service to your country is if something does happen, that just comes with the job. But, you know, you're trained at that moment that you're not supposed to think about yourself, you're not supposed to think about that. You're supposed to think about the unit and the country and the guys that you're going to support.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So was that a difficult part of that transition then, to begin the trip?

Wendy Taines:

Um-hum.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay. What date did you leave on? Did you see your family before you left?

Wendy Taines:

No, I didn't -- no, I did not see my family. What I did was I had to do a will and a power of attorney. And at that time I only had a car and a stereo and clothes. But I was so proud of that will. It was the first will I ever did. And it was so empowering to sit there and say, "I bequeath my car to my brother." And then we had to go through a series of shots that made me very ill. I wound up in the emergency room with a fever of like 104, very sore arms. And I also had a credit card. And I remember going to the PX and just buying whatever I wanted with the mentality that I wasn't coming home. I had already had it in my mind that I was going to die. From the minute that I knew I was going, I had the sense that I wasn't going to come home, that was it. When I left the United States, I thought I would never see it again. So I did a lot of things, I did a lot of impulsive things. One of them was buy tons of stuff I would never usually buy. Of course they did send me a bill in Saudi Arabia and I still haven't paid it {laughter}. But, yeah -- and I had to repack my things, like, 10 times because I couldn't get it right. One -- I mean, they have a set thing that you're supposed to pack, but I'm also full of self will, I also need my conditioners and this and that. And every time I packed my duffle bag, the sergeant would come through and throw stuff out. So most of the things that I wanted to take didn't get to go with me, which was -- just came with the territory, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

You really have to trim down?

Wendy Taines:

Oh, yeah, yeah. You really have to trim down. So --

Mary Ann Donahue:

How were you transported?

Wendy Taines:

To Saudi Arabia?

Mary Ann Donahue:

Yes.

Wendy Taines:

On a civilian aircraft. We left out of Louisiana, we left out of Louisiana and -- okay, yeah, England Air Force Base in Louisiana in a 747. And -- okay. So -- and we flew -- we went from there to Germany, from Germany to I think Italy, and from Italy to Saudi Arabia. And we arrived in Saudi Arabia, I think it was like 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, at King Fahd Air Force Base. And I just remember getting off the 747. It was, I think, a 26 or 28-hour ordeal. And getting off the plane, and we were all sitting there and I remember looking up at the plane and the stewardess just had this big smile on her face and she was blonde and she had this flashlight. And she was like, bye -- I mean, she said good-bye to us like she had just dropped us off on a vacation, you know. And I just remember I wanted to shoot her {laughter} because it was so inappropriate for where we were. But, yeah, at that time that's where we were. They dropped us off and we sat there and waited for a bus to come pick us up to take us to our next -- where we were going next. And the bus that drove up was our first Arab that we had seen, he was our very first. And he had really bad teeth and he had, you know, his garments, his dress. And we all -- we looked at him and he looked at us. And it was kind of very, very, very odd and very tense. And he didn't speak English. So everybody was very quiet and we just got on the bus and sat down. And you could just feel it was very tense. It was like all of a sudden we realized that we were really there. And I think he was realizing, "Oh, shit, I have a busload of Americans with M16's." And at that time I heard a tape-recorder switch and he hit the play button and it was M.C. Hammer {laughter}, and I thought that was -- and I'll never forget that.

Mary Ann Donahue:

He was trying to relax you a little?

Wendy Taines:

Yeah, because in his way, he was trying to say, hey, you know, welcome to Saudi Arabia. You know, they're totally against everything we do from dress to being a woman to everything. So the fact -- so that was just his way of welcome, you know, and I don't care if I have to listen to M.C. Hammer all day, thank-you-for-coming kind of feeling, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

Did you get any cultural training before you left on what to expect when you went?

Wendy Taines:

Yes. We had to go through hours and hours of training on the culture. We -- if we were smoking around Arabs, we had to make sure that if we pulled out a cigarette, we had to offer all of them a cigarette, which we hate that custom because we don't like to share our cigarettes. But that's what they do. When eating, we don't show the soles of our feet because it's very insulting. We couldn't take any Cosmopolitans or anything like that because of the women on the covers. They did ask us women soldiers to make sure that we were always covered, which didn't last because we were always hot and we didn't really care once we got there. If the guys were going to take off their, you know, long-sleeve shirts, so were we. And you know, we just learned about the Muslim religion and Mecca, and just how to respect -- and we did have some culture classes.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And was that helpful, do you think?

Wendy Taines:

No, no.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So talk about that initial experience of here you are on the bus, you're going to go to where ever you're going to be stationed over there, and talk about that transition into this strange place that you have now landed.

Wendy Taines:

The transition from the bus ride?

Mary Ann Donahue:

You're on the bus ride, you're going to be going to where you're going to be staying.

Wendy Taines:

Oh, that bus ride. Okay. Shock. We were all very quiet. And the one thing that was very apparent was -- I think -- well, we were all very jet-lagged and very tired but we also realized kind of all together, because I could feel it, that we all had our M16's and we were all locked and loaded, which means it was the first time we had our ammunition on us. I mean, we had been carrying our M16 in training, and whatever, and now it was the real thing. Now the guy sitting next to me had his M16 loaded. And it was -- that was tense. That was one of the first things that was really different was having the loaded weapons. And again, it was -- that bus ride was -- we were just so tired at that time that I don't think there was any thought really, just nothing that I can recall except just the M.C. Hammer incident, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

Tell us what happened when you get there then. How did you get settled in, and what went on over the next week or so?

Wendy Taines:

We went to what they called Soldier City. And Soldier City was -- they were condominiums that were built for the Saudis but they were unfinished. So the Saudi government allowed, when the soldiers came in, to stay in those condos until we went to our site. And when I got there, I could see why they called it Soldier City. There were thousands and thousands of soldiers, Army, Navy -- well, mostly Army -- just sleeping on the ground. And fortunately we were able to sleep in the building. But it was about 30 -- 30 to a one-bedroom or two-bedroom condo. And the toilets and the water didn't run. So one of the first things to get used to was our water issue was two bottles of bottled water every day. And with that water you needed to wash, brush your teeth, wash your hair and drink in 24 hours before you got two more bottles the next day. So you really had to decide what was important. Was, you know, washing your hair as important as maybe having water for your soup at 5:00 or 6:00. So the bare necessities of life started to take hold. So that was something I remembered.

Mary Ann Donahue:

When did you begin work there?

Wendy Taines:

Okay. We stayed at Soldier City for about three or four days. I went on the advanced party to our first site which was Log Base Victor I think. And what we did there was we set up some tents. We were waiting for some more equipment to arrive from Germany. So the initial work we had was getting to a site and building tents, sleep tents, for the rest of the unit to come. And that was really strenuous work. That was, you know, just all day and all night, building sleep tents in the sand. And the sand was awful. You know the desert and the sun is brutal, the sunburns are brutal. We had sand in our lungs, in our mouths. And it was hard. It was very hard work. And we did that until the rest of the unit came. And then we finally got where our hospital was going to be which was Log Base Charley. We arrived there I think two weeks after being in the country and we had our hospital set up and ready to go I think within like a week. And then we started getting our first casualties.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Let's look a little bit about what Log Base Charley was like, which was the hospital where you worked. When you'd been back in Louisiana, you talked about doing a lot of practicing but really never seeming, you know, really that real to us. And here you are, you've set up the hospital and now a casualty comes. What was that initial experience like for you?

Wendy Taines:

Our first casualty was an Iraqi prisoner who was about 16 years old. And he was the first one -- I remember he was just sitting on his bed and his eyes were just so big and he was so scared. And it's like everyone in the whole compound knew we had an Iraqi. So we all ran to go look at him in the bed. And we were scared and we were looking at him like he was some laboratory specimen. And, you know, I think at that moment we all realized this is what our patients were going to look like. And it was just a really odd moment, you know, that it wasn't an empty hospital anymore. It wasn't playing war. This is what they looked like, they were going to be coming, and it was just, like, get ready. And so we did.

Mary Ann Donahue:

How did you get ready?

Wendy Taines:

Well, first we had a lot of mock trials. One of the colonels that was with us was a Vietnam colonel. And it was very -- it was the Vietnam vet that really knew just some really common sense things that most of us wouldn't think of. And I remember in one of our mock trials I had to be a patient. And I was laying on a stretcher being ready to be taken in the hospital, and the colonel came over and he put something in my shirt and told me to -- he said, "Shhh, be quiet and lay there," because I was supposed to be unconscious. So I did. And I made it through the emergency room and then I made it through a couple other wards and then triage. And they finally got me in the emergency room. The Colonel came over to me and he pulled out -- he had made this little thing and it said, "Boom!" It was a bomb. And everyone was just really quiet at that moment because they had realized that they had gotten me from one end of the hospital -- and I had made it through that entire -- I had made it through like 10 assessments of areas with a bomb and got to the operating room before somebody noticed it, and then it was too late. And it was at that moment we said, "Oh, my God." And he was, like, "Look, this isn't play time, this is the shit that happens." And so that was kind of an eye opener, too. Because on one hand we were all trained medics and doctors and nurses, but we were also in the middle of a war. So each day was getting a little bit more serious and a little bit more serious. And then once we got our first -- once we got our first helicopter in, it was nonstop after that.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Can you talk about that time and what the work was like when the helicopters came in?

Wendy Taines:

Yeah, it was -- can we pause for a minute?

Mary Ann Donahue:

Sure. [Brief recess requested by Ms. Taines]

Wendy Taines:

Okay. The first helicopter night was a very significant night for me. I was in the ICU and we were told that we had a helicopter crash. And that we had one -- no, they didn't say we had any DOA's. They said we had pretty much three injured, but no DOA's. And it was dark. And they said they needed -- I usually didn't have to leave the ICU but this night they were short-handed and they needed me to go help them unload the helicopter. So I went out. And the first guy we got off was the copilot and he was a marine. And he was just screaming and screaming. But it was dark, so I couldn't really get a good look at him. And we also dropped him, the poor thing. But, you know, we just were not -- we're doing the best we can. And after we dropped him, we got him back on. But I remember dropping him because once we got him in the emergency room where the lights were on, one of his eyes was hanging out and he had compound fractures all over, bones sticking out. I mean, he was a mess but still alive. So the fact that we dropped him in that condition really upsets me to this day, but, you know, I have to get over it. And then somebody said, "Wendy, go back, we need help with the other one." So now I'm really sensitive -- I'm more sensitive to the patient on the stretcher now because I dropped the first one. So -- and it's still dark. And I got the stretcher and this guy is really quiet but his arm keeps coming off and flopping off, and I put it back on, and then it flops off again. And I keep going, "Come on, Guy, you know, keep your arm on." And we get to the emergency room and the major says, "You need to go to Tent C." And I'm like, "Oh, that's strange." So we're still going and we get to Tent C. And we put him in there. And I said, "What are we doing in here?" And the guy was, like, "This is the morgue." He was dead. And I was like, "Oh, my God." And then it hit me, because I had been -- I didn't make the association that he was dead. But he is very significant to me and my story because he was my first American GI that I saw dead. And he was a captain, pilot. And he was just a really beautiful soldier, he was really handsome. And so that was the first night that my own mortality hit me, that you know, that could be me, very easily. And that was the last night that I -- the last and only night that I cried. After this ordeal I had gone outside of my tent and I was just asking God, you know, "Please, I just am not ready to die." It was just really real at that moment. But that was the last time that I felt like that because I think I must have needed to do that. But after that, the first helicopter coming in, it was nonstop. We started -- because of the Geneva Convention, we had to take care of everyone. So we had Kuwaitis coming in, Saudis coming in and Americans coming in, and we had the Iraqi POW's coming in. So in one night of a shift -- we had to separate the tents, so we had the American tent, Saudi tent, Iraqi tent, Kuwaiti tent. And in one 12-hour shift of on my watch I would be in the Kuwaiti tent taking care of this little five-year old with multiple gunshot wounds, and then I would have to run over to the Iraqi tent to take care of this asshole who probably shot the little girl, you know. And I'm just all night running back and forth between tents. And one night I did snap and I just said, "This is crazy. I can't do this. This is bullshit. I don't know why I have to take care of these animals, they're shooting at these people, and I don't even care about these Saudi people, whoever they are." And this colonel came over with this big book and he just threw it at me and he said, "Open the first page." And I opened it and it was the Hypocratic Oath that I basically to the best of my ability sustain and care for all life despite my personal and moral judgment no matter what. And, you know, that was an adult moment.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Were you able to take that in?

Wendy Taines:

I had to. I had no choice {laughter}.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Talk about your most memorable things that happened during that period of time that you were there. There must be moments that you would like to share.

Wendy Taines:

I had a hot romance.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Ooh, we have something good.

Wendy Taines:

I had a very hot romance. I was an E-3 at the time and my love of my life was an E-7, which was -- during peace time and during state side they would never allow us to be seen or talked about. But when we were over there, it wasn't -- they didn't really enforce the -- we call them the PDA laws, the public displays of affection, and the fraternization, and all the things --

Mary Ann Donahue:

What's an E-7? Help me.

Wendy Taines:

An E-7 is a Master Sergeant.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And that's not an appropriate rank for you?

Wendy Taines:

No, no. And -- not for him or me. It's a total -- what's the word -- it's like pretty much against the military law. But when we were over there, that was really not -- they were not really, you know, cracking down on that because everybody was pretty much screwing everybody. Married, not married, it really didn't matter because the sense of it was this could be your last day, this could be your last night. That was the favorite line, you know, this could be it, we could get hit by a scud. And so we made the best of every moment.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So living in the present really became the whole focus?

Wendy Taines:

The whole focus. You ate when you ate, you slept when you slept, and you screwed when you screwed. Wherever it was, whoever it was. That's just the way it was.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And what happened with this guy that you fell in love with? You were really in love with him?

Wendy Taines:

Yes, I was. And he proposed to me over there. And then when we came back to the states, they transferred me out of the unit because our relationship couldn't go on. And what I noticed from myself is when we came back, the excitement died for me, you know, the excitement of the whole relationship and the war and everything else. And it became very, very boring. And so I broke it off and broke his heart {laughter}.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And you're laughing about that?

Wendy Taines:

Well, it's just among one of many that I have, you know -- I don't have a real good history with men, you know, and I'm not real proud of it, but...

Mary Ann Donahue:

That's what was?

Wendy Taines:

It's what was, right.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So at the time -- what was the meaning of that relationship in coping with the war for you at that time?

Wendy Taines:

He was my protector. He was my protector. If I left my -- he always knew where I was. I never -- you know, if I would say, "Oh, are those fireworks or bombs are going off?" And he'll say, "Oh, those are just fireworks, Wendy. They're just celebrating." And of course I was a shmuck and I believed it. And he made it very -- he made it bearable. And he was older and more experienced. And so -- and he promised my mom that he would take care of me. And so it was -- it was my safety net.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Friends, did you make a lot of friends there?

Wendy Taines:

No, no. We didn't have time to be friends. Everyone just -- it was survival, it was survival of the fittest. We were hungry. Meals were -- I mean, it was very, very, regimented. You really had to respect each other's space, privacy. It was -- I mean, yeah, when we had down times, we liked to laugh and joke and -- but most of the time it was very high stressed. We spent about 70 percent of the time there in our gas masks.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Oh, my gosh. 70 percent?

Wendy Taines:

Um-hum.

Mary Ann Donahue:

I'm gasping at that because I had to wear a respiratory mask to interview a patient in a hospital, and it was just so irritating just for that 20 minutes ____.

Wendy Taines:

It was -- it is suffocating and it is scary. But we also had our gas alarms going off daily.

Mary Ann Donahue:

And you were in Saudi?

Wendy Taines:

Um-hum. I was in a place 30 miles from the Kuwait border.

Mary Ann Donahue:

How did you explain to yourself the meaning of what you were doing over there?

Wendy Taines:

Never did.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So it was absolutely focus on the moment, do what needed to be done --

Wendy Taines:

Right.

Mary Ann Donahue:

-- and don't think about it?

Wendy Taines:

Exactly. You couldn't think about it because if -- you couldn't make sense of it. You just couldn't make sense of, you know -- we weren't -- we weren't at the level that I felt that we could be accommodating to every injury, especially the burns. I was very pissed off that we weren't prepared for more burn victims because we had a lot of GIs come in from tank burns, just burns -- we had a soldier with third-degree burns. And when a patient has that kind of burns, there's a layer of white, we call it S-scar (ph) that has to come off the burn so that new skin can heal. And what they do is here in the States they usually put them in whirlpools and it softens the burn and then that layer comes off naturally. But we didn't have that, so I literally had to scrub burn patients because that's all -- we didn't have -- that's all we could do. And just a lot of primitive medical care that, you know, in the future I would like to see -- I'd like -- there could have just been so many things done better.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Talk about that a little bit.

Wendy Taines:

Well, for example, the first helicopter that the marine -- I don't know if he lived or died, but he wound up in our ICU. And he had lung injuries and compound fractures and I -- oh, we didn't have pulse oximeters, they're the little --

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay, Wendy, let's continue.

Wendy Taines:

Okay.

Mary Ann Donahue:

You were talking about some of the medical care that you had to provide seemed really primitive and that you didn't have some of the equipment that you needed?

Wendy Taines:

Um-hum, exactly. Very basic medical -- like I was saying, pulse oximeters. And certain -- for compound fractures, certain splints and things like that. And, you know, it just made it uncomfortable for the patients. And that's what our mission was, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

How did you work around that?

Wendy Taines:

Well, at the time I was only a medic, so my education or my training level was that of a field medic. So I just did what I was told, did the best with what I could. The burn patient that I had to scrub, I had to scrub through screams. I gave him as much morphine as I could, but it's just, like, I was given orders to do what I had to do. And so he worked through the screams and the "please stops" and you do what you're told.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay. Can you tell us about any of the guys that you took care of that you remember really well?

Wendy Taines:

Oh, yeah.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Or girls?

Wendy Taines:

Oh, sure. Some of our favorites were -- well, the five-year old Kuwaiti girl, she came to us with multiple gunshot wounds in her abdominal area. And she had lost her family and she was orphaned. And I just remember all the officers wanted to take her home so badly because she was so cute and she just -- we were able to save her. She was like our little angel on the floor. The Iraqi prisoners, I had an attraction to them for some reason. They were just so scared and helpless once they got to us. And, of course, we had MP's on the floor with us and they were all handcuffed to the beds. But you could tell -- they were, like, relieved to be there. You know, you could just see in their face, they were just so happy, not -- happy isn't the word. It was more just -- just they had this sense of relief that they were in an American hospital and being taken care of. And I think they were surprised at the way we treated them, which was mostly with respect and dignity. And I don't think they were expecting that. The Americans are funny. They always come in with just funny stories, they're always joking, they're always -- you know, I love American GIs, I always have. They just have this sense of humor that never stops, even in the hospital bed. And you know, I love them to this day, that's why I know that I'm going to be working back at the VA and -- anyway, I will be taking care of my Vets again. I just had to take care of myself -- I've had 10 years of some problems, a lot from the war, too, that I didn't realize that I had still, that I've had to deal with. But my calling is to be back with my Vets, and I'll do that.

Mary Ann Donahue:

So that was really meaningful for you to be able to take care of our guys?

Wendy Taines:

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Always. That was the high -- yeah.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Do you have some stories about any of the guys that you interacted with that you would like to share?

Wendy Taines:

That I took care of?

Mary Ann Donahue:

Yes, that you took care of.

Wendy Taines:

Let's see. They were terrible drivers. There was no speed limit in Saudi Arabia, so they loved going up and down the highways. They had a lot of wrecks. They -- because of the alcohol laws of the country, they had very scheming ways. Their families used to send them alcohol. But before they figured that out, they were drinking gasoline from their trucks. And so we got those, too, with respiratory distress. And I'd say, "What the hell did you do that for?" And they said, "Wendy, you don't know what it's like." I mean, 82nd Airborne, the poor things got called out in August and the war didn't start until February. So these guys are sitting out in the middle of a desert, told to shoot at anything that moves, for months. And so they did, they shot camels and chickens and whatever else came into their sight range. But they were -- they got bored. I mean, I can totally understand that. And so they started doing stupid things. We had some that accidentally shot themselves and we had some that purposely shot themselves. We had a lot that were scared and wanted to go home. So -- and then of course we had to be able to tell the war-injured from the self-inflicted. So that was an interesting part of medicine because if it was self-inflicted, you got court marshaled and kicked out for abuse to government property. It was bad. GI means government issued. So a sunburn is an article 15. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Mary Ann Donahue:

You've got to take care of yourself because --

Wendy Taines:

Yeah. You belong to Uncle Sam now, so...

Mary Ann Donahue:

How would you make those determinations? That sounds like it would be tough.

Wendy Taines:

Self-inflicted wounds?

Mary Ann Donahue:

Yeah.

Wendy Taines:

You listen to the story. You know, like a soldier will say that he was walking to the bathroom and his gun went off and shot his foot, but yet he has a femoral artery injury. So, you know, you just --

Mary Ann Donahue:

Common sense?

Wendy Taines:

Common sense. If you look at the story and where the wound was, you could usually figure out. But it was sad. That was hard for me because, you know, I'm seeing a really scared little boy, sometimes, wanting to go home. But then the other side of me is saying, no, you're a soldier, you're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to be out there doing your job. So a lot of that.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Did you have any interaction with chaplains while you were there?

Wendy Taines:

Oh, yeah. Our chaplain was the best. He -- we had to -- one of the things we had to do all the time was make sandbags and -- because we needed to make bunkers in case we got hit by a scud. So when we weren't working, we were filling sandbags all the time. And it was so tedious and it was so -- we hated it. And our chaplain came up with this device to help us with our sandbag making. And it was the most brilliant thing. You put the sandbag on the e-tool (ph) and turn it upside down and the sand would go right in and then you would just tie the bag. And it was brilliant. And we loved him. That was the -- if there was any -- that was probably the best invention ever made. And it was done by our chaplain. Our chaplain was just always with us, always doing the sandbags with us, cleaning the latrines with us, he was wonderful. Okay. I guess what I'd like to discuss is the day-to-day operations in our unit in a wartime situation. One of the things I wanted to mention was when we were driving to our hospital site, as we were driving in, it was funny to see all the civilians driving the opposite way. They had packed all of their belongings and everything they owned, pretty much their houses on top of their cars. And we were heading into the -- we were heading into the situation, and they were going about a hundred miles an hour out of the direction. So it was kind of funny to see that. And as we set up the hospital every day, we would just see the cars leaving. And we just kind of were looking at -- you know, it was just kind of odd to be there and we couldn't go anywhere, that's where we were. So it was just kind of funny. And one of the things that I faced personally was I was a combat medic, which historically women don't serve that role, especially in a wartime situation. They usually are nurses or officers. I was an enlisted combat medic. The lifespan for a man as a combat medic in war is not very long. So because I was enlisted, my rank was an E-3 at the time, and I was a combat medic, I carried an M16. My job was to work on the ICU for 12-hour shifts and -- but then after that I was responsible for doing other duties that enlisted personnel are supposed to do, which is guard duty; we called it shit detail which was cleaning up the latrines which -- because sanitation -- we couldn't bury our waste, so we had to burn it. And it took -- it took all day to burn cans of human waste. And so that was an all-day detail. So my details included sandbagging, guard duty, shit detail and -- let's see what else -- and making bunkers. So on top of working in the ICU, then us getting assigned those details, sleep came when you could. My sleep cycles were not -- I mean, on a day-to-day basis it was just when you could -- when you could sleep. Our shifts were -- I was on night shift. And then -- you know, I can't remember. But it was just -- it was -- by the time you hit your cot, whenever that was, you just slept. You didn't really -- I mean, if you could get comfortable or whatever. But your gas mask was always close, you slept with your M16. I mean, sleeping was just something you did. Sleeping was something you took advantage of when you could do it. Also, going to the bathroom was very interesting for us. We were women. And you couldn't go outside of your tent without all your full gear on. So you had to wear your helmet, you had to have your helmet, your gear, your Kevlar, your LCE belts, your combat boots, your gas masks. You had to have all of this to step outside your tent. Well, in the middle of the night or middle of the day, whenever you woke up and your bladder is full and you have to go to the bathroom -- and I don't know if you know what that feels like to wake up in the middle of the night and you gotta go, and the bathroom better be close. So we used to call it the dance because we would just hold ourselves literally and be dancing around the tent, trying to get our stuff on to make it out to the bathroom which was not close. And we were peeing on ourselves. And so we had to come up with a solution. So the water bottles that we were issued, what we did was we cut the tops off of them and we stored them underneath our cots. And, you know, it wasn't unheard -- you know, it wasn't out of the norm to wake up and see the girl next to you peeing in a bottle. But the rule was you could pee in the bottle but you had to empty it in the morning. You had to empty it somewhere. And some of the girls would empty them near the tent, and then we had big fights about that. And so that was interesting. We didn't have the shower facility set up for I'd say about two months. So basically -- I think I said before we were issued two water bottles a day. And with those water bottles you brushed your teeth, did your hygiene, drank, whatever it was, those were your two bottles. So you really had to start prioritizing what was important. I ended up braiding my hair so that I wouldn't have to wash it. And wet wipes came in handy. Bathing I was not able to do every day. And then when we did get the shower set up, you had to go in groups and you only have a certain day of the week. So I think showers were twice a week. You were just dirty. Except, you know, when you -- well, and I know you're saying, "But she worked in a hospital." Yeah, we worked in a hospital. We cleaned the best that we could, you know. And of course in wartime we sterilized the best that we can. But, you know, you have to look at the conditions. And like I said before, there was a lot of things, a lot of equipment that we needed that we didn't have, basic necessities. And so for future generations, cleanliness would be something you want to look at and -- and like I said before, just basic medical supplies. Don't always go for the big things when you're deploying. Make sure you have the little things. Eating. We went a lot -- we went many, many days without hot food. We had MRE's three times a day. And after about two weeks in Saudi Arabia, we, I, started really missing everything about this country from chocolate to cigarettes to -- we didn't get American cigarettes, we were buying Arabic cigarettes that were generic American cigarettes. Nothing tasted the same. And it makes you extremely homesick. I remember I missed -- one thing I missed the most was chocolate. I missed McDonald's. We were in a Muslim country. We had no access to alcohol. There was just -- we were pretty much Muslim while we were there. We respected their radical way of living and we had to respect that. One of the things that was most memorable for me during my experience were the -- one thing that sticks out for me the most were the prisoners, the Iraqi prisoners, when they came in. And I don't know if I mentioned this before. Did I mention about the different tents we had, the Kuwaiti tents?

Mary Ann Donahue:

Um-hum.

Wendy Taines:

Okay. That was something to get used to, the Geneva Convention. That was something I had to swallow. But one of the things that I was really proud of was the way we treated the prisoners. We were -- when I saw the pictures lately of what's been going on, or whatever, it was hard for me to see because we treated -- and to the best of my ability we treated those Iraqi prisoners just pretty much like our own. I mean, cleaned them and fed them. And we were -- we treated them really well, better than they would have been treated in their own country. Okay, what else do you have?

Mary Ann Donahue:

Are there any other things that were really memorable to you, any particular moment that sticks out in your mind about that time?

Wendy Taines:

The things that stick out for me to this day are pretty much the patients, you know. The children are what most come to me even today. The children coming in with gunshot wounds and burns and dead. It's a part of war that is not easy to accept. You know, at the time that you're on your mission, it's pretty much black-and-white thinking. It's pretty much you're there on a mission and you're the American, you're the GI, you're instructed as to what your job is, and that's what you do. You don't sit around and have talks about well, you know, that six-year old that got shot accidentally by that GI or that -- we don't humanize anything because we can't, we don't have time. So we play monopoly a lot, we play cards. And we really get -- we really keep a sense of humor. It's a really sick sense of humor, but it's one that you just have to -- you know, have to keep a sense of humor about it all. And one of the things -- one of the most memorable experiences also was coming home, and that was -- we were on a flight home. And it was about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and we had been on this plane for, God, 30 hours. And the colonel said, "Okay, we have to stop in this place called Bangor, Maine. And there's some people there that -- they want you to get off the plane and they just want to say hi." And we were like, "You've got to be kidding." And we were, like, "Do we really have to?" And he was like, "Just make them happy, or whatever." So the plane lands and we get out of the plane. And the first thing is a long line of American Legion -- American Legionnaires and World War II, Korea, and they all wanted to shake every one of our hands as we got off the plane, and so we did that. And at 4:00 in the morning this town had a band in the airport that was playing songs for us. And they had all their families there. You had kids and -- I mean, the whole place was just full of civilians. And we, you know, when you're over there, you're cut off from -- we had no idea what our country saw us doing. We only know what we did. We had no idea that we would get a reception like that. We didn't understand. We had just gone to do our job. And so to come home to that. I mean, I had kids coming up wanting me to sign the back of their T-shirts and wanting me to sign their diaries and autographs. And I felt like, you know, I felt like a movie star that day. But that's -- that was probably one of the most memorable was coming home. That's why it's so important for me to be there for the people coming home now.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay. Did you make any close friendships that have lasted since then?

Wendy Taines:

Did I make -- not really, no. I haven't really kept in contact with anybody, no.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Sometimes it's one way, sometimes it's the other.

Wendy Taines:

Yeah. I did just by coincidence about two months ago I ran into a girl that I served with over there. And so we've reconnected. And we have a lot of the same problems. I didn't realize -- I didn't -- I'm being treated for PTSD at this time. And I feel that -- see, when we came back from the war, we just came back and put on our tennis shoes and went back to life as usual. And it wasn't until about 10 years later, which is my life now, that I'm having reactions to what I did, which they're calling posttraumatic stress disorder. I am very numb today and I'm trying to work through that because I would like to have feelings back. After the 9/11 attacks, my psyche -- I went -- I got really, really sick. I drank a lot, I took pills a lot, I had suicide attempts, I had a lot of self-destructive behavior. And it got really bad to the point where -- and it's still to the point where I can't watch the news and I can't read newspapers. And, you know, I'm at a point in my life where I'm trying to -- I'm living a sober life, I'm learning how to work through all this, I'm doing psycho therapy, and I'm really positive that I can become well-adjusted. I'm one of the lucky ones, though, because I'm determined to be healthy in spirit and mind. And one of the things that keeps me going is that I -- you know, I fully support this country. I think we live in the best country in the world. And when our Vets go off to do their job, that's what they're supposed to do. I also feel that when they come home, there needs to be a lot more aftercare, immediately. Not 10 years, 15 years later when the family is gone and the money is gone and the drug abuse is up, you know, off and running. The -- issues need to be addressed within that first year that they come home. They need to talk about -- in a safe and healthy environment, they need to talk about what they did, they need to make sense of what they did, they need to have an opinion about what they did. It's really important. So those are the kinds of things I'm working through now.

Mary Ann Donahue:

You mentioned that this is something that's made you really interested in helping veterans now who are coming home?

Wendy Taines:

Yes.

Mary Ann Donahue:

How have you been involved in that?

Wendy Taines:

Well, I'm in a drug program right now and I'm getting ready to go through a PTSD treatment program for 90 days in Palo Alto. But after that, one of the things -- one of my passions is to go back to school to learn more about PTSD, and I want to work with the VA and get my foot in the door. And I really want to push for more treatments, more psych treatment for our soldiers when they come home before transitioning back into civilian life, before transitioning back into their families, they need some debriefing, they need to -- they need to do that. And I feel very passionately about that. So -- and I say that from my own experience. So that's what my goal is for the future.

Mary Ann Donahue:

Okay. Thank you.

Wendy Taines:

Um-hum. [End of interview]

 
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  October 26, 2011
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