Share this article

Open for business
Find out the latest updates from local businesses as our region reopens.
print logo

On a mission to treat the wounded in Vietnam

Ever since she was a young girl, Cheryl A. Johnson had dreamed of being a nurse.

Her dream took her to the Vietnam War, where there were more than enough opportunities to ply her skills as a healer.

Working at the then-E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital as a newly graduated operating room nurse in 1969, Johnson heeded the call of patriotism when Army recruiters showed up at what is now Erie County Medical Center desperately in need of nurses to serve in military hospitals caring for those wounded in Vietnam.

Raised in a family of war veterans, including her dad, Edward T. Ormond, who had been part of the pivotal invasion of Normandy on D-Day in World War II, Johnson entered the military as a second lieutenant.

She completed Army operating room nurses basic training at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, where the most seriously wounded casualties arrived from Vietnam.

“They were such young men, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds. Many of the wounded were amputees who had stepped on land mines,” she recalled, heartbreak still in her voice all these years later.

While stateside, Johnson realized she would be unable to keep a promise she had made to her parents – not to volunteer to ship off to Vietnam.

“The need to take care of the wounded was so great. They needed good nursing care in Vietnam,” Johnson says. “I was 22 years old, and I wrote my mother a letter explaining why I had to volunteer.”

She arrived in late 1970 at a mobile Army surgical hospital, or MASH unit, about 74 miles from Saigon.

From the moment she arrived, she says, she felt right at home professionally.

“It was a pretty busy hospital with four operating rooms. The wounded arrived by helicopter, and the emergency room personnel would unload them and patch them up, and then they would be brought to the operating room,” Johnson recalls.

“Our job was to do whatever surgery was necessary to return them to the field, or if they were seriously wounded, do surgery needed to stabilize them so that they could be brought back to the United States, usually for more surgery and long-term recovery.”

The Vietnam experience showed this young woman from South Buffalo the true cost of war.

“I remember holding this one GI’s hand, and he was begging me to not let them amputate his leg. I told him that everything would be done to save it but that it didn’t look good,” she remembers. “The leg was already gone. He just didn’t realize it because of the shock of the severe wound.”

Even when troops experienced an amputation, Johnson took heart in knowing they could look forward to something of a normal civilian life after returning home and being fitted with an artificial limb.

Not so for the South Vietnamese soldiers treated at the hospital.

“As a nurse and a human being, it was difficult when we treated the South Vietnamese soldiers who’d lost a limb. I knew they would be confined to a life of begging,” Johnson says. “At that time, that was about their only choice.”

Going beyond the call of duty, she volunteered to serve on “goodwill missions” to orphanages to provide medical care to the abandoned children in the war. On one occasion, she said “yes” when the brass asked if any nurses would be willing to provide medical care at a prisoner-of-war camp. She did so even though the enemy sometimes shelled the hospital where she worked.

“I just remember the POW camp being a great, big fenced-in area, and there were hundreds of men. We basically gave them physical exams and prescribed antibiotics and other medicines and vitamins,” Johnson says. “One of the doctors I had served with was really on a campaign at the time. He figured that we wanted the North Vietnamese to treat our men well in prison camps, and so we’d better treat their men well.”

She left Vietnam in March 1972 and returned to civilian nursing.

“I went right back to ECMC,” she says, “and from a nursing standpoint, I would say it was pretty compatible to Vietnam, because ECMC did a lot of trauma surgery.”

In 1977, she married autoworker Robert Johnson and raised a family of their own children and foster children. Eventually, Johnson was able to retire from nursing and be a full-time mom. Even more than nursing, she says, her No. 1 dream was “to be a mom.”

“We would take in medically fragile infants who would stay with us four or more years,” she says.

The inspiration for this challenging work, Johnson says, traced back to her maternal grandmother, Alice McSkimming, who opened her home to many foster children. When she was unable to care for children, the grandmother became a senior companion to mentally challenged adults until she was 86, her granddaughter recalls in amazement.

As for Johnson, she and her husband relish spending time with their grown children and seven grandchildren.