A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 2001/November 2001

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 Field Hospital.

"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 Tau.

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 Vietnam.''

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 nurse.

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 Committee.

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 families.

"I think it causes birth defects,'' Wilson says.

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 birth defects.

"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 children.

"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 further.

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 was, "mess."

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 launched.

"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 program.''

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 Wilson.

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 afford.''

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.


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