Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Other Angels

    By Patricia L. Walsh

    Boulder, CO: Other Angels Productions, 1995. 56 minutes, $99.00 (videotape).

    The Other Angels, a film written, produced, and directed by Patricia L. Walsh, a civilian nurse who volunteered in Vietnam from 1967 until 1968, won the People's Choice Award at the 1995 Denver International Film Festival. Previously aired on PBS, the film is now being used by educators to show their high school and college students another side of the Vietnam War, a side that Oliver Stone never portrayed. Patricia Walsh's Vietnam is one of caring nurses who went to war not because they had to, but because they wanted to. When asked how she could go there, Walsh replied, "How could I not?" Her brief tenure in Vietnam left her in chronic pain from a back injury and made her determined to share with others her experiences with Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers. In this documentary, Walsh reveals the origins of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a term that "nurses like her" invented.

    Walsh's film oscillates between two events: her reunion with other civilian nurses in 1993 at the dedication of the Vietnam War Nurses Memorial in Washington, DC, and her days in Da Nang, South Vietnam, portrayed through film footage of the war and events surrounding it. Walsh's narration describes her experiences and recounts the horrors and ironies of war in a subtly self-conscious way.

    The Other Angels is important in that it highlights women's contributions during wartime. Walsh explains that the civilian nurses in Vietnam came from all over the world, but mostly from the United States; they were sent by the Agency for International Development and the U.S. Health Service. The majority of the nurses were in their twenties, yet were considered old in comparison to the very young GIs. The women often worked for "twenty-one hours a day," spending much of their time teaching Vietnamese nurses and doctors. They lived and ate locally and learned to speak the language. At the twenty-six-year reunion, Walsh and her colleagues recounted their exhausting work days and interactions with the locals and troops.

    One of the most difficult tasks, according to the women, was running triage. The viewer learns that the hospitals the civilian nurses worked in begged for supplies such as oxygen, but it was reserved for the fighter pilots; they ended up giving ether when treating below-the-spine injuries. The nurses' quarters also often lacked electricity and water. The marginalization of women, even in times of crisis, is highlighted by the lack of supplies and facilities; at the very least the priority of the war machine is made evident by these hardships. Perhaps most revealing and infuriating is that the nurses were not entitled to veteran's benefits upon returning home.

    The Other Angels
    is both haunting and surreal. In one of the most poignant scenes, Walsh remembers the irony of her work in Da Nang: she saved so many lives, but a marine whom she loved died from a "salvageable wound." An interesting effect is the inclusion of footage of anti-war marches juxtaposed with the reunion of women who served in Vietnam. Walsh does not address the pro- or anti-war sides of the debate; rather, she shows the impact of war both on the families around her post and on the soldiers who attended the reunion as world-weary veterans. In this regard, the filmmaker succeeds in depicting how war affects both the innocent and the dutiful.

    After being invited to attend the reunion, Walsh decided to capture the event and its history on film. At times her narration sounds scripted, as if she is reaching for the "Hollywood Moment." For example, at the twenty-five-year Veteran's Day march in Washington, Walsh comments that the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall is "harder to face than rockets and mortars." In my opinion, she does not have to try so hard to tell the stories. For the majority of the film, she lets the story tell itself through those who were there and through powerful visual images.

    The nurses were in life-and-death situations daily, yet recounted their days in Vietnam with a kind of distanced, slightly surreal, sweet-sixteen birthday party fondness. How often do the painful and horrific moments in our lives match the cinematic drama of the silver screen, replete with symphony? Real life, like Patricia Walsh's experience in Vietnam, is complex and contradictory. It is not easy to parse the comic from the tragic. Witness the campy voice of the newsreel narrator as he describes an airfield mishap in which many soldiers were killed. Observe the collection of very young soldiers packed onto the back of a truck, heading off to the front lines, singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Walsh brings the complexity of life at war to each viewer in this moving tribute.

    Acknowledging the hackneyed status the term "closure" has attained in common parlance, Walsh and her fellow nurses agree at the end of the film that the reunion experience has indeed brought closure: "That's when we all realized we were mortal," reflects Walsh. Despite her statement that there are no words to describe Vietnam and the reunion experience, Walsh has crafted an earnest, honest, sensitive film on women's contributions in wartime.

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