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Chisholm woman looks back at her time in the Vietnam War

Betty Doebbeling served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970. She earned a Bronze Star and rose to the rank of captain.

Betty Doebbeling.
Betty Doebbeling talks Monday, June 13, 2022, about her experiences as an Army nurse in Vietnam.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Betty Doebbeling, now a decorated U.S. Army captain, sat her family down to tell them five words that every parent dreaded in 1967: “Mom, I have made a decision.”

Doebbeling, whose maiden name is Stahl, had just begun her nursing career. A graduate from Mounds-Midway School of Nursing in St. Paul, she received her nursing license at age 21. After working at her hometown clinic for one year, Doebbeling joined the Hennepin General Hospital nursing staff in Minneapolis in pursuit of a faster-paced environment. Three years passed, and she was becoming restless again.

“It was so boring, I couldn’t stand it,” she said. Looking back, she finds humor in that war ended up being the workplace she thrived in. The answer to her career crisis ended up being the U.S. Agency for International Development flier she had thrown in her wastebasket.

Doebbeling fished the flier out of the trash and called the information line. A few hours later, she was getting ready to fly to Washington, D.C., for training.

"They (Doebbeling's family) weren't the least bit surprised," she said. Not only did her family support her decision, but they also thought it could finally be the right use of her unrelenting work ethic and passion for health care.

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Betty Doebbeling.
Chisholm native Capt. Betty Stahl (now Doebbeling) wears her Bronze Star in an Army photograph. Bronze Stars are awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service.
Contributed / Betty Doebbeling

Born in 1941 and raised in Chisholm, Doebbeling never would have guessed she would later become a captain in the U.S. Army.

In Washington, D.C., Doebbeling attended training sessions with other volunteer nurses — and had fun doing so. Her favorite classes involved learning Vietnamese, which she picked up quickly thanks to her "musically trained" ear.

Only a few weeks passed until she was preemptively shipped off to Vietnam.

"It was hotter than you would ever believe it to be," she said was her first thought when the plane landed.

She started work immediately. South of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, the Can Tho Provincial Hospital is where she spent most of her service. She quickly took on the role of charge nurse, working 12-hour shifts, six days a week while caring for over 50 patients at a time, with just a handful of orderlies and other nurses by her side. Doebbeling even started a burn unit where she took care of primarily Vietnamese civilians.

Hospital ward.
A Quonset hut medical ward in Vietnam. Each hut could hold 50 patients.
Contributed / Betty Doebbeling

Can Tho was a segregated civilian hospital, meaning the U.S. soldiers were put into separate Quonset huts from Vietnamese citizens. It was an attempt to detect undercover northern Vietnamese soldiers posing as citizens.

“They would count their steps from where they were to where the boss had told them the bomb was going to aim for. Then the rockets would come," she said.

Such brutal attacks led to the death of a beloved colleague, Sharon Lane.

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Doebbeling was getting ready for her 12-hour shift at approximately 6:45 a.m. when she heard a blast followed by someone shouting, "Sharon is hit!"

A piece of shrapnel had lacerated the young nurse's carotid artery, causing her to bleed out immediately. "She told me she wasn't leaving Vietnam alive. Maybe it was a sixth sense, but she knew," said Doebbeling.

A medevac helicopter.
A medical helicopter arrives at Betty Doebbeling’s hospital in Vietnam.
Contributed / Betty Doebbeling

As traumatic as the experience was, nothing could have prepared her for Jan. 31, 1968: the night of the Tet Offensive.

"My room was all brilliantly lit like I had turned on all the lights. I knew that something really weird was going on,” she said.

Dickey Cooley.
The death of Dickey Cooley at age 20 affected Betty Doebbeling. Normally, wounded soldiers spent only a few days at her hospital before being evacuated to better facilities. Because of his condition, Cooley remained in Doebbeling’s hospital until dying 36 days after being injured.
Contributed / Betty Doebbeling

Doebbeling quickly dressed and ran outside. Hues of orange and red danced across the night sky as a result of flares, bombs and smoke. Gunshots and explosions boomed throughout the jungle.

The Tet Offensive was an attack by the Viet Cong on several major cities in southern Vietnam. According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website , 246 U.S. service members were killed that night.

"I thought I was going to die. We had no means of defense. After hearing other cities were being bombed, I felt helpless. ... Then our sergeant handed us each a pistol."

She wanted nothing to do with the weapon. Another nurse even started to cry at the thought. Doebbeling realized: "I have to defend her and myself."

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It was then she learned how to clean, load and shoot a gun. She also learned the value of even the smallest acts of kindness.

Doebbeling became known as the lady who would slip civilians a few dollars if they fell short of what was necessary for the proper medical attention, or the lady who would traverse down cliffs during monsoon season to bring guards soda and popcorn topped with butter she rationed.

Betty Doebbeling.
Betty Doebbeling holds her hand to her face while describing the appearance of one young Vietnamese child she cared for. The child was burned on over half her body in an accident.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Such compassion, along with her bravery and ability to lead, is why Doebbeling now holds a Bronze Star. Although, when asked why she believes she earned the honor, she said with a smirk: “I don’t really know where that came from.”

Doebbeling returned to the U.S. in 1970 and met her husband a year later. However, navigating western society after living in warfare wasn't an easy transition for her.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, around 30% of veterans that survived the Vietnam War struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Doebbeling was diagnosed with the disorder only four years after returning.

With the diagnosis, she was able to combat some of the symptoms. Over time, coping with the trauma and loss from the war became less difficult.

Doebbeling retired from her nursing career in 1993 and now lives in her Duluth apartment with her tiny Shih Tzu, Mitsey.

Her stories of passion and service still inspire those around her.

"Stories like Betty's need to be told," said Doebbeling's neighbor, Kirk Johnson. "How else do we learn from the past?"

Related Topics: MILITARYVETERANSIRON RANGE
Peyton Haug is the intern reporter for the Duluth News Tribune for the 2022 summer.
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