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Marjorie Nelson

Photo: Archives / AFSC

Showing compassion and humanity in war

By Ronna Bolante

During the Vietnam War, Marjorie Nelson—a 28-year-old doctor from Indiana—worked at AFSC’s Quang Ngai Rehabilitation Center in Vietnam. The facility provided physical therapy and prosthetics to people in the community, as well as day care for refugee children.

In the course of her service, Marjorie was taken as a prisoner of war. But the accounts she shared of her experience in captivity reminded U.S. audiences of the value of recognizing the humanity in all people, even in times of conflict.

It happened in late January 1968, when Marjorie took a muchneeded vacation to the city of Hué during the Tet holiday. Soon after her arrival, Marjorie and the teacher she was staying with, Sandra Johnson, disappeared. They had been caught in the U.S. bombing of Hué, taking refuge in a bomb shelter in Sandra’s house during the first few days of the Tet Offensive.

When National Liberation Front soldiers arrived at Sandra’s home, they told the women, “When there is peace, you will be returned to your families.” The soldiers took them into the mountains west of Hué, where they joined other POWs, both American and Vietnamese, in prisoner camps.

The two women were released on March 31. Marjorie and Sandra had to endure some cold, rainy nights sleeping outside and trekking through the jungle with little food or water, but they were never harmed during their two months in captivity. And despite U.S. news stories reporting their inhumane capture and treatment, Marjorie made it known publicly that they had been treated with kindness by the soldiers.

“The night before [we were released], the soldiers had a farewell party for us where we ate peanut brittle and drank tea,” Marjorie says. “They had many questions about what life was like in America. ‘What crops do you raise there?’ ‘Do you mainly cook with wood or coal?’” Upon her release, the soldiers even returned her purse to her.

During Marjorie’s detention, AFSC had paused its work in Quang Ngai but resumed it in May of that year. Marjorie flew home to the United States soon after her release, but just six-and-a-half months later, returned to Vietnam, finishing out her twoyear commitment in Quang Ngai.

In addition to her work at the rehabilitation center, Marjorie started a ward in the hospital for patients with spinal cord injuries. She also paid weekly doctor’s visits to a local prison. Many people in the facility were Vietnamese political prisoners and their family members, including women who were pregnant and needed prenatal care.

Today—nearly 50 years later—the impact of Marjorie’s work with AFSC is still apparent in Quang Ngai.

“After the war, the new government offered our local staff jobs in the Qui Nhon Rehabilitation Center [about 100 miles away], which most of them accepted,” she says. “Two of them later opened a branch center back in Quang Ngai province, where they could continue to serve our former patients. I was delighted to find when I visited in 2008 that they were in turn training a young man in the making of prostheses and braces. The service goes on.”

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