Sandie Wilson: A Sense of Mission
By Jim Doyle
I was an OR nurse my entire tour. The guys put
me up on a pedestal and I liked that."
Sandie Wilson pauses, searching for the words
to describe the wounded soldier-nurse relationship. Then she says,
"You would always protect me, because if you didn't, no one would
be there to help you when you were hurt."
Of her tour in Vietnam, Sandie Wilson says she
worked harder than she ever has before or since. During the first
24 hours she spent at the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang, 22 of
them were spent on her feet in the operating room, where she
experienced her first and only rocket attack.
Aside from that, she says, "Nha Trang wasn't a
bad place. We were two blocks from the beach and could hitchhike
to town.'' On her one day off every two weeks, Wilson was able to
exercise that option. She ate with the locals and felt, she says,
like a tourist.
During her first two weeks on duty, the husband
of an old friend from Michigan showed up unannounced at the 8th
"I never even knew he was in Vietnam until he
came into the OR and died,'' Wilson says with practiced
detachment. She never contacted the man's wife because, in part,
"I certainly didn't know what to say." Wilson says the widow moved
out of state, and they have never contacted each other.
After five months in Nha Trang, Wilson was
transferred to Xuan Loc where she cared for the troops of
Blackhorse Regiment, the 11th Armored Cavalry, for four months.
She finished her tour with three months at the 36th Evac in Vung
Sandie Wilson was born in the Detroit suburb of
Eastpoint, the third of four children. Along with her two older
brothers and younger sister, Wilson attended local public schools.
After graduating from high school, she went to the Louisville
Nursing School at Kentucky Baptist Hospital.
Following graduation in 1964, Wilson says she
"played nurse'' until 1965 when her brother, a U.S. Army Engineer
officer, told her she would love the Army. While working at the
University of Michigan Hospital, Wilson joined.
"I went to school part time at Wayne State
University and worked as a nurse. In 1967, I went to Ft. Sam
Houston where I spent a year mostly training, and then to
Returning home in June 1969, Wilson went back
to Wayne State. She then re-enlisted in the Army with the idea
that the military would pay for her schooling. After graduating in
1971, she was sent to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky--again as an OR
In December 1974, Capt. Sandie Wilson left the
service for good. Sort of.
In mid-1976, she joined the U.S. Army Reserve.
In 1991, after 15 years of faithful service, she received a letter
informing her that her services were no longer required.
During Operation Desert Shield in 1990 -- the
buildup phase of Operation Desert Storm -- Lt. Col. Wilson trained
junior officers at the 323rd General Hospital. Too many volunteers
scuttled the chances of Wilson's charges to go to Saudi Arabia in
the fall and winter of 1990.
In 1985, Wilson had received a call from VVA
Board member Marilyn Edgerton Mallard, who asked her to meet at
the Second National Convention in Detroit.
Following the convention, Chapter 310 in Ann
Arbor was founded. Shortly after becoming a delegate to the State
Council, Wilson received a message on her answering machine that
she had been appointed chair of the VVA's Women Veterans
Sandie Wilson pursues her work, inside and
outside VVA, unequivocally and with the clear understanding that a
bad decision can have disastrous consequences. That was the case
in 1985 when she refused to be her chapter's secretary.
"Women should not be the secretary in a `man's' organization,"
Wilson says with conviction. "I don't believe in sexual roles, and
I won't make coffee."
A lapse in that philosophical vigilance in 1987
resulted in Wilson accepting an appointment as secretary of the
Michigan State Council. "I was daydreaming; it was a quick
election,'' she says matter of factly, but with pride.
Sandie Wilson is devoted to the cause of
service to veterans, especially health care. She also has a keen
awareness and sense of mission when it comes to the effects of
toxic chemicals such as dioxin on Vietnam veterans and their
"I think it causes birth defects,'' Wilson
Her work in the Pediatric OR of the University
of Michigan Children's Hospital in the mid-1970s and her service
as a member of the Michigan Agent Orange Commission have given
Wilson a unique vantage point with which to look at Agent Orange
research data, her own experiences treating birth-defect children
of Vietnam veterans, and the relationship between the two.
Wilson maintains that dioxin damages the immune
system and that the levels found in blood and semen samples
indicate there is a correlation between that contamination and
"In 1975 or 1976, the state of Michigan gave a
bonus to anyone who served in Vietnam whose home of record was
Michigan,'' Wilson says. "The state still has all those records.''
Wilson believes that by correlating those files
with child mortality autopsy data accumulated by the University of
Michigan Children's Hospital, a causal relationship can be
established. The university maintains a 95 percent autopsy rate on
"The data is there,'' Wilson says.
She goes on to say that a 1983 study showed a
high incidence of childhood leukemia among Vietnam veteran
families, but there wasn't sufficient funding to pursue the study
It's not just Agent Orange that Vietnam
veterans should be concerned with, Wilson says as she describes
how Michigan uses Agent Orange's cousin, 2-4-D, to kill vegetation
in lakes. The cumulative effect is what concerns her. "We were
exposed in Vietnam and we are exposed again here.''
As a member of the State Council, Wilson was
active in the effort to have the state ban dioxin--an effort that
was thwarted by the agricultural chemical industry, which lobbies
heavily in Michigan.
Since "Vietnam veterans are dying younger and
faster'' than a generation ago, Wilson says, she is working for a
careful examination of the "in-country effect.'' She believes that
heart attacks and cancer among Vietnam veterans are more prevalent
than among those who did not serve in the war zone.
"There has got to be a reason,'' she says. "The
data is in the state Public Health Department computers.''
Wilson's passion was born out of her initial
response to the Vietnam War. "I went to Vietnam because the guys
were there and they needed medical care," she says.
"This is just an extension of that. These guys
came home and had kids, and their kids had problems."
This fact confronted her on a daily basis in
the early 1970's at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where she says the
problems experienced in the pediatric ward of the base hospital
Fort Campbell was home to the 101st
Airborne Division, which had recently returned from Vietnam.
Wilson recalls that the wives of otherwise
healthy men, many with families before deployment to Vietnam, were
experiencing difficult births, and the rate of C-section births
was so abnormally high that a congressional investigation was
"I remember one kid who was born without a
brain," she says. "Like idiots, we resuscitated the kid. A few
days later we sent it to Vanderbilt university Hospital in
Nashville, where they resuscitated the kid five times before they
diagnosed what was wrong."
Wilson recalls the day the child's father came
into the ward. He held the child while he sat and watched a
football game on TV. When the game was over he gently placed the
child back in its hospital crib.
"He was a distinguished looking man, she
recalls. "He came up to me and said, 'We have seven children. This
is the youngest. The other six are healthy and fine, and my wife
believes if we wait long enough, this one will be fine too.'"
The pain of this father, who had six healthy
children before going to Vietnam, and one with terrible birth
defects after his return, was not an unusual experience for Wilson
during this period.
"We had so much trouble delivering kids," she
says. Her passion obliges her to deal matter-of-factly with
everyone she deals with, no matter what the issue.
The same matter-of-fact attitude Wilson brought
to her career as a nurse and teacher was how she managed the
Michigan State Council during her five-plus-year tenure as
President. "After five years as Secretary I got bored,'' she says.
"So I ran for Vice President.''
In August 1995, when State Council President
Jack McManus was elected National Treasurer, the VVA Board of
Directors ruled he could not hold both offices. When he resigned,
Wilson became president in January 1996.
"The next week we were sued,'' she says. "The
Finance Committee recommended we file bankruptcy. The council was
forced to lay people off from the service program.
"We had a lot of help and got a loan from
national,'' Wilson remembers.
"We had to find new ways of fund-raising, but
eventually we re-employed all the service reps and expanded the
Wilson and the council asked the Michigan state
Legislature for a grant to continue and expand the program,
explaining that the other VSOs in the state received state funding
for their service programs at a ratio of $1 for every $43 in new
benefits received by a veteran. By contrast, VVA was getting $86
in new benefits for veterans for every $1 spent, and that was
accomplished without any state funding.
"We weren't getting our fair share,'' says
The program currently operates on an
approximately $250,000 budget--$50,000 from the State Council--and
reaches across the state, even to the remote Upper Penninsula.
Some State Council money comes from a very
active car donation program.
Wilson says that for the last several years her
yard has been a used car lot. Over the years, an inventory ranging
from Corvettes to SUVs has passed through the yard on its way to
helping Vietnam veterans.
"No State Council money is used for the
program,'' says Wilson. "We put vets in cars for whatever they can
After five years as state president, Sandie
Wilson is looking forward to reclaiming her dining room, spare
bedroom, hallway, garage, yard, and other areas of her home that
have been filled with VVA-related material. But she just might
hold onto the Pontiac Fiero in her yard that's painted like an
American Flag and spins the needle off the speedometer at 147 mph.