Given the choice, civilian surgical team nurse Karen Pilcher would have departed New Zealand for Vietnam wearing army greens. An eager Territorial Force volunteer, the well drummed mantra that Karen and her khaki sisters "were soldiers before we were nurses" had hit home for the young woman with service in her blood.
"We were nurses, but there was another discipline we had to obey. That was always in the back of our minds," she recalls.
In spite of her enthusiasm for army nursing, there were few opportunities for Karen to join the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps contingent in Vietnam.
"Most of the nurses I joined (the Territorials Forces) with wanted to go to Vietnam, but only two nurses went (at a time) with the Aussies. We then applied for the New Zealand (civilian) surgical team – again only one or two went. I was fortunate to be picked out of 60 nurses. I come from a military family and saw it as a great experience."
I was quite surprised as I'd not long registered as a nurse. I thought my theatre training was probably helpful and also the fact that I'd done theatre plaster. I was told there were problems with relationships with the team at the time and I wonder whether maybe they saw me having not long come out of the convent that I might have some influence. I don't think it did. It was a whole new experience for me and I learned a lot.Karen Pilcher, New Zealand Surgical Team
Part of the steep learning curve Karen faced as a civilian nurse in an impoverished provincial hospital was learning to improvise in the face of limited medical kit and rehabilitation equipment.
"I learned how to use other basic equipment like chairs. Often we had to model equipment into walking sticks to help patients move along. I remember one time we had to use newspaper because we had no sheets for the operating table. Another time our machine broke down for sterilizing equipment so we had to wash the equipment, throw it in a dish, put some alcohol on it, throw in a match – and then throw in some water so the surgeon wouldn't burn his hands."
Vietnam War Oral History interview, November 2012. Deposit pending.