This is the second in a series exploring favorite Veterans History Project collections, chosen by the staff of the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the Veterans History Project (VHP) to be included in our new online exhibit celebrating 20 years of VHP. Each post in the series will offer “love letters” written by AFC and VHP staff about their favorite collection. View the post introducing the series here.
When was the last time you received a handwritten note?
Hyperaware of my terrible penmanship, paired with the plague of perfectionism (wanting to recraft certain lines or words) meant I used to shy away from handwritten cards. Despite my own reservations, I cherish the handwritten cards and letters that I receive. I even keep some I received at work around my desk as a tangible reminder of their significance. Even without graphology, I can see bits of one’s authentic self shining through the words on the page. In a world with notifications constantly sounding on our electronic devices, it is an unexpected and heartfelt gift to take a few moments to dedicate fully to connecting with someone through pen to paper.
Taking Reference Specialist Megan Harris’ latest Experiencing War staff challenge to write a “love letter” to collections that inspire us, literally, I decided to write a handwritten letter to one of the first Veteran History Project interviews I ever viewed: Lt. Col. Janis Nark – Vietnam and Persian Gulf War Army nurse.
I started working at the Veterans History Project in mid-September of 2017. In order to familiarize myself more with my position, I started viewing dozens of collections. Each story spoke to me in a different way, so much so that I decided to draft my first blog speaking to the vast array of collections, and how the emotive and human perspectives seemingly leapt from the screens on which I was viewing and into my heart. Janis Nark’s was one of the collections to which I was referring. By November of that year, I attended a book talk that the Veterans History Project hosted with James Reston, during which he explored the themes of from his book, “A Rift in the Earth,” including the selection of Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial. To my surprise, Nark was in the audience. It was a strange moment, almost like a celebrity sighting, although, my luminary was not a movie star or singer, but rather an Army nurse whose vulnerable letter to her friend changed the trajectory of her career. I wondered if I should thank her for sharing her narrative. I thought about what words to say to convey how impactful her story was. I turned to look for her after the program, and then my phone rang to let me know my ride was outside. My expression of gratitude would have to wait.
Lt. Col. Janis Nark served in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam where, as she says in her oral history, “death was never far away.” She and her fellow nurses were often mistaken by the soldiers they were helping as angels, although she felt far from that when she had to return them to battle. Like many who experience trauma, Nark worked hard to put her memories of Vietnam behind her. She started her own clothing company, had a double black diamond ski path named after her and continued her education as a graduate from the Armed Forces Command and General Staff College. As a reservist, she was called up to “babysit” a nearly empty base at the start of the Persian Gulf War. It was here that she came face-to-face with the war she had long packed away. Suddenly, the Persian Gulf War was over, and contrary to previous experiences, complete strangers thanked Nark for her service. After 20 years of silence, she started speaking more with people who also served in Vietnam. She even let someone talk her into going to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, sometimes referred to as “the Wall,” in Washington, D.C. on two conditions: that she wouldn’t have to announce that she was a veteran of the conflict, and that she could view it safely from the trees. When the show “China Beach” came out, the culture shifted to one in which civilians wanted to know more about Vietnam, about women at war and wanted to pay their long overdue respect.
For the 10th anniversary of “the Wall,” Nark decided it was time to revisit and reconcile. Wearing her Class A uniform, Nark drove to D.C. and let the uniform do the speaking for her. Unprepared for the emotional response by Vietnam veterans and Gold Star Mothers, Nark understood all that she represented and started to make peace with her own memories. She wrote to her longtime confidant and Army nursing friend, Sue Lazar, about what she had experienced, and shared how it was time forgive themselves for their imagined human frailties. The letter turned into her 1993 speech at “the Wall” with President Clinton, Colin Powell and 8,000 of her brothers and sisters in arms. The speech lead to other speaking engagements and writing – even producing several pieces for “Chicken Soup for the Nursing Soul.”
Nark boldly shared her testimony, and has since taken us through a journey of the deeper layers of storytelling, honoring and history. She has allowed those who view her collection to go beyond “the Wall,” and in doing so, has unearthed many other’s inner truths. Although the “PTSD wolf is never far from my (her) door,” she successfully demonstrates that the only way out is through – to relieve the pain by reliving it.
Janis Nark, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing yourself, and actively demonstrating how your testimony will provide immeasurable inspiration and assistance to all who it reaches. Hopefully you, and our readers, will look past the penmanship.