Thursday, July 20, 2017

Suzanne Constantini - I’m A Better Person for Having Spent a Year in Vietnam

Suzanne Constantini is an Army Nurse Corps Veteran, having served one year in Vietnam. She received her BSN from Alverno College, in Milwaukee, WI and her MBA from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. Her career in nursing spans 46 years holding various leadership positions: head nurse, clinical director and VP of Patient Care Services. She retired in January 2015 and now spends her time volunteering, painting, traveling, reading and gardening.

It was spring of 1968 and I was busy completing my junior year in the nursing program at Alverno College. During that time, an army recruiter was on campus and I decided to set up a meeting to learn if there were any opportunities that would help me fund my last year in school. The army offered to pay my tuition for my final year and, in return, I would give them a two-year commitment for military service. I entered the Army Nurse Corps in November of 1968 as a student nurse and subsequently completed my degree in May of 1969. After completing basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX, I was assigned to Martin Army Hospital in Fort Benning, GA. Much to my delight, I was assigned to the pediatric unit to care for the children of the resident military personnel.

In early January 1970, I received orders for Vietnam. I wasn’t afraid to go and believed that every American soldier deserved the best medical care the United States could offer. I was confident I could use my nursing skills to help deliver that care.

When I arrived in Vietnam on March 7, 1970, I was processed through the 90th replacement center in Long Binh and received my assignment to Cu Chi. Oh my! When my boots hit the tarmac, I felt overwhelmed and encompassed by the sounds, the smells, the heat, and the whirl of the chopper blades in the background. At that moment, I had to really reach deep inside to remember why I was there.

I was assigned to the post-operative recovery room and ICU. The trauma I witnessed was horrible and I still remember the first soldier who died on my watch. I cared for him every day for six weeks; 12 hours a day, six days a week. His name and face are etched in my memory, and when I close my eyes I can see him as clearly as if it were yesterday. The empathy and camaraderie I experienced following his death, helped provide a psychological and physical healing, but I would never again remember any last names or let myself get emotionally attached. Years later, during a visit to Washington D.C., I went to the “Wall.” I found that soldier’s name and touched it, and when I did, I found peace in knowing he was home.

Although my year in Vietnam was long and difficult, I got through it and found the ability to cope, adapt, improvise, and make tough decisions – sometimes under the most dire of circumstances. As I reflect on that year, I know the clinical experiences, collegial relationships, and camaraderie of my Vietnam experiences formed the foundation for my nursing career, as well as defining the way I lead my life today. When my world seems to be closing in around me, I revert back to those days in Vietnam so long ago and say, “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Suzanne’s experience and those like hers are a critical part of the story of the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the American and world consciousness. This September, when PBS premieres the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, “The Vietnam War,” these stories will once again rise to the forefront of the national dialogue, and the Minnesota Humanities Center is poised to help further and facilitate those important conversations. If you are interested in hosting conversations about Vietnam and the war in your community, please consider becoming a host site for Minnesota Remembers Vietnam.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

War & Remembrance: Bringing New Perspective to the State Capitol Mall Memorials

According to the Oxford English dictionary, a ‘war memorial’ is a “monument commemorating those killed in a war.” Memorials of all kinds have been erected in the U.S. to commemorate wars and those individuals who served throughout our country’s history, ranging from the nationally known Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, to single statues or plaques on display in town squares across the country. Like most states, Minnesota has its share of small-town memorials, but also boasts a large and varied display of memorials situated on our State Capitol Mall in St. Paul. Included among the many statues, art pieces, and plaques, is a World War II Memorial, a Korean War Memorial, and a Vietnam War Memorial, as well as a unique and moving Minnesota Military Family Tribute area, lending a voice to the non-military citizens who deal with fallout from war — the families of those who served or are serving. Part of that Family Tribute area features “Story Stones” — large rocks with etched statements taken from the letters of soldiers who were in service away from their homes and families , spanning a time period from the Civil War through to present day. Three very different examples of these Story Stones include the following:
There is no language that can describe, no pen, picture, or painting that can or ever will illustrate the scenes that transpired.
1862 – Waseca

Though oceans and islands may keep us apart, nothing can take you out of my heart.
1943 – Beltrami

Dear Mom, I miss you like crazy!
2014 - Isanti
If you have not spent time taking in the memorials on the State Capitol Mall, you should plan to go and see these monuments and statues and plaques up close. There is something about being in the presence of these often thoughtful and sometimes poignant remembrance pieces that helps make all of the history recounted by them more real, despite the bronze, and stone, and frozen-in-time faces. This is especially true of those memorials — like the Vietnam War Memorial and the Korean War Memorial — that list the names of those who served but did not return, giving you a very tangible look at the human cost of war.

Both adults interested in state and/or military history and students could benefit from some on-the-ground experience in this walkable memorial park, experiencing awe at the number and design of the memorials, and taking time to read inscriptions and the names of those who did not return from war. If you want to delve deeper into the differences between memorializing war and remembrance of the people and events involved, you should check out the “Reflections on War and Service” guide developed by the Minnesota Humanities Center in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs — available to download for free from our Absent Narratives Resource Collection. Although it was developed for use by educators, the guide is full of reflection questions and information useful to anyone visiting the memorials who might want to spend additional time contemplating deeper questions around war. Specifically, the guide is designed to help you think more clearly about the differences between how war is memorialized and how war is remembered by the individuals — the Veterans and their families — who experienced it.

For educators who are interested in gaining an even more in-depth view of the memorials and learning about presenting the information to different age groups, the Humanities Center is co-sponsoring (with the Minnesota History Center) the War and Remembrance Educator Workshop on August 3. The workshop will include learning from and with Veterans and a facilitated tour of the State Capitol war memorials. For more details and to register, visit

No matter how deeply you choose to explore the State Capitol memorials, we suspect you will come away from your visit with new perspectives on war and will feel more connected to the individuals who are remembered there.