Lone woman at frontline of Vietnam War horrors
http://www.theadvertiser.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5936,18744218%255E2682,00.html
2006-04-08

Jean Debelle had only been in the war zone for days when the hospital in which she worked was rocked by a blast around 5am on a steamy Vietnamese morning. It shook the bed of 26-year-old Jean and she awoke terrified. ... "I was told the only women going to Vietnam were nurses and Go-Go dancers. I couldn't nurse and I couldn't Go-Go dance." As a welfare officer for wounded troops, she found herself on a flight with the first Special Air Services squad sent into the nightmare of the Vietnam War. "I was assigned to the elite Phantoms of the Jungle - about 100 of the fittest, most handsome men I have seen."

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JEAN Debelle had only been in the war zone for days when the hospital in which she lived and worked was rocked by a blast.

It was around 5am on a steamy Vietnamese morning when the explosion erupted. It shook the bed of 26-year-old Jean and she awoke terrified.

"It was only my second night in Vung Tau. I thought 'OK, this is it'. I was terrified," she said.

The young Red Cross worker rushed towards the door in her nightdress, believing the hospital was being bombed. As it turned out, the hospital's faulty and stressed-out water system had blown up.

For South Australian-born Jean Debelle, it was her first feel of war.

Born in Port Pirie and raised in Adelaide, she worked as a journalist at The Advertiser in the 1960s, writing about cookery and household tips before "seeking adventure".

"Vietnam was then the biggest story going but it was men-only," she said. "I was told the only women going to Vietnam were nurses and Go-Go dancers. I couldn't nurse and I couldn't Go-Go dance."

Jean joined the Red Cross and, within eight weeks, found herself on a flight with the first Special Air Services squad sent into the nightmare of the Vietnam War.

"I was assigned to the elite Phantoms of the Jungle - about 100 of the fittest, most handsome men I have seen," she said.

On landing in Saigon, she said: "I felt excited. I wasn't scared. It was a big adventure for me. I was in Vietnam before the army nurses and, in the first six months, I was the only woman among 5000 men."

Working as a welfare officer with wounded troops, Debelle said: "It was difficult trying to be a sister, mother and friend - especially when sex was in the very air you breathe."

For 12 months from June, 1966, she faced the daily atrocities of war.

"I saw the real horror of war. It was traumatic but I'm a tough bird, with a resilient nature," she said.

"It made me much more aware of the value of life and I came to embrace life with both hands."

Based at the hospital in Vung Tau, Debelle comforted the wounded and provided Red Cross packs, such basic needs as shavers, toothpaste, notebooks to write home.

She did see some breathtaking action, recalling: "The closest escape was when I was in a Huey helicopter that was about to land in what turned out to be a minefield. The downdraft of the helicopter landing in a field set off mines all around us. The pilot immediately pulled up and away. There were 18 holes in the aircraft and several people aboard had minor wounds."

Debelle had joined an intelligence gathering mission because she wanted to understand what the soldiers were facing. Returning to Australia in June, 1967, she worked as a journalist for the Women's Weekly and Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1980 she was posted to New York, where she met Manhattan stockbroker John S. Lamensdorf.

They married in Adelaide, at Kent Town Methodist Church, in May 1981. Their wedding made the social pages of The New York Times.

Jean Debelle Lamensdorf, now 66 and living in Pennsylvania, has written a book about her time in Vietnam, titled Write Home For Me, which will be launched in Adelaide next week in the Sergeant's Mess at Keswick Barracks.

Ask if she was changed by the Vietnam War, she said: "Yes. I got very irritated by plastic, superficial people. And people who lacked compassion."

About war, the girl who was educated at Woodville Primary and Woodlands Girls School said: "War is the most futile thing. I wish humans were capable of living together peacefully but I don't think they can. We don't learn enough from history."

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Vietnam War in the News