CAP Chaplain Served Two Tours as Flight Nurse During Vietnam War
SE Region's Pugsley: 'What Heroes They All Were'
By Sheila Pursglove
Linda Pugsley will always remember the young men she cared for as a flight nurse during the Vietnam War. “They were the finest threads of America’s cloth, and I will never forget them,” she said. “I would do it all again in a minute.”
Now a lieutenant colonel in Civil Air Patrol and chaplain for CAP’s Southeast Region, in the 1960s Pugsley fulfilled her childhood dreams of becoming a nurse. She began her career at Boston City Hospital in Massachusetts, gravitating to surgical units handling gunshot wounds, stab wounds and car accident victims. A colleague who was a flight nurse in the U.S. Air Force Reserves piqued Pugsley’s interest, and after graduating from nursing school in 1966 she went into flight nursing the following March.
“By then, Vietnam was getting worse, and TV pictures of our young men so badly wounded really stirred me,” she said. “I was trained to help them, so I wanted to be there with them.”
She volunteered to transfer to the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron out of Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, which was being deployed to fly the wounded out of Vietnam. She went on to serve two tours, earning promotion from second to first lieutenant.
The Massachusetts native was stationed mostly in Da Nang under primitive conditions: small, cramped quarters, plastic wrap for windows at the Officers Club and limited chow.
“In-country anywhere was not a very welcoming place,” she said. “Saigon, though, was a city with restaurants and streets, although pretty dirty with trash and cramped streets. I had the best French onion soup ever at a restaurant there. Kind of weird ... sort of like the best of times and worst of times ... great soup in a dirty little restaurant in the middle of a war — go figure!”
She would sometimes fly into Cam Ranh Bay and Tan Son Nhut (Saigon), where her brother was a flight mechanic at nearby Bien Hoa. “We’d visit when I got there,” she said. “My parents and his new wife were, of course, doubly worried" since both siblings were vulnerable. Her home station for her 1968 tour was Yakota Air Base in Japan, and for her 1972 tour Clark Air Base in the Philippines. But she was often gone months at a time from either base.
She and colleagues took turns performing ground duties in Vietnam, preparing thousands of patients for flights — setting up medical and surgical equipment, visiting patients preflight, developing load plans for aircraft, giving patient reports preflight and helping U.S. Army nurses with patient care.
“We would then fly out from Vietnam, sometimes a turnaround and return right back or get on ‘the route’ and fly to Japan, the Philippines, Alaska and East Coast units,” she recalled.
“Some had the most devastating wounds — multiple amputations, facial injuries, testicular wounds, abdominal injuries ... often on the same guy. It was an honor and privilege to help stop the bleeding, assuage their pain and give them a little hope of returning home.
“We dropped off at major points and the C-9 air evac crews would take it from there to deliver patients to the military hospital closest to their home. Many died there, but at least their families were with them,” Pugsley said.
She has vivid memories of one young man on a stretcher on a C-141 cargo plane, blind, with massive abdominal and genital injuries, loss of both legs and one arm, and shrapnel pieces in the left side of his face.
“He looked like someone took a black marker and made dots all over,” she said. “He called out for a nurse and when I went to tend to him he said something that stopped me in my tracks: ‘Nurse, will my girlfriend still love me when I go home?’ I told him, ‘Sure, she’ll love you all the more because you’ll go home a hero.’
“That surely didn’t happen to him or the many of us who returned from this hellhole. I wish I hadn’t have told him that. The sadness and anger of what happened over there and when we came back still lingers like smoke after a fire.”
The team occasionally evacuated civilian casualties; she recalls a toddler being evacuated for reconstructive surgery after suffering massive facial injuries from an explosion . The tot was missing part of her lower jaw and one eye was gone, leaving only a puckered remnant. Since the child couldn’t suck a bottle, Pugsley used a large syringe with rubber tubing to feed her.
“As I stood in front of her litter, I thought, ‘Geesh, one of her relatives may have been the one to have blown off the legs and arms of the guys with us on the plane,’” Pugsley said. “As I cradled her in my arms, I looked over at all of those severely wounded, ever-so-young Americans and saw them smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign.
“What heroes they all were.”
After resigning her position as a major in 1978 to pursue a ministry career, Pugsley was ordained in 1989 at Great Hope Christian Fellowship Church in Tampa, Florida. She became associate pastor in 1994.
She joined CAP in May 2003 with the rank of major and was promoted to lieutenant colonel four years later. Appointed chaplain in April 2004, she filled that role for the Florida Army National Guard’s 53rd Brigade Support Battalion in Tampa and St. Petersburg from 2006 to 2011.
“That was an awesome experience – to help them prepare for, and return from, their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “As a former combat vet, we really clicked.”
Pugsley said her calling to the ministry is a blessing and “a circle of life.”
“As a young nurse I tended to physical wounds, and now, as a chaplain, I tend to spiritual and emotional needs.”
She has ministered to veterans at various functions, conventions and events, but her main focus as Southeast Region chaplain is to encourage and assure the training of CAP chaplains for disaster ministry as well as for regular search and rescue missions.
“I have set some policies and standards that have helped to congeal our resources and teams into a well-trained resource and asset to both CAP and the Air Force missions,” she said.
An author, speaker and member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Speakers Bureau, Pugsley regularly gives presentations at churches, seminars, conferences and civic activities. “I truly love to share these experiences in many different venues — it gives me the opportunity, using real-life examples, to remind veterans of their importance and their value in the history of our great country,” she said.
“It also affords the opportunity to speak to our youth and, through comparative analysis, show them the damaging changes that have occurred in our culture and country and how they can bring back integrity first, sexual purity, sobriety, service before self and excellence in all they do.
“These building blocks of America have been knocked down, and they can build them right back up. The majority of the young ones I have spoken to, surprisingly, are in total agreement.”