PHILADELPHIA -- Ask Marsha Four about the Vietnam War and she turns her gaze toward the window and falls silent. She sighs. Presses her lips together. She starts to speak, and stops. She puts on her tough-girl face. Her eyes tear up. Her hand trembles. She shakes her head. And sighs again.
"Blood has a very peculiar… old… dark smell," Marsha Four says softly. "It's like from all-of-time old. And you never forget that smell. Or the smell of burning flesh."
18th Surgical Hospital, Quang Tri, Republic of South Vietnam,1969-1970. Heavy fighting between American soldiers and Marines and the North Vietnamese swarming across the DeMilitarized Zone a few miles north. Marsha Four, age 22, had graduated the year before from St. Vincent's School of Nursing in Indianapolis. A straight-A, white-glove Irish Catholic girl, gone to war. Never been in an emergency room. Never seen a body mutilated.
Now, suddenly, medics are bursting through the doors carrying litters with the wounded and dying, their eyes an agony of pain and desperation. Focus: scissor off the fatigues and boots, scan the body to count and assess the gaping wounds, get in a chest tube and catheters, start an IV, draw and type blood, try not to notice that's a person down there with a name and a mother back home. This is here, now. Keep his throat clear as he's pushed into surgery and pivot to the next bloody litter as more medevac helicopters thwack-thwack to a landing outside.
"The abnormal becomes normal," she says, when she can speak again. "War becomes normal. Death becomes normal. You do what you have to do. When you were off duty you went to where you were needed. We worked hard. Played hard. We tried to find as much humor and laughter as we could."
Outside, an elevated train rumbles past the window that looks out on a dreary North Philadelphia neighborhood. Marsha is director of a non-profit, the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center.
She is struggling to explain what has drawn her back, from a comfortable postwar suburban life, to one dedicated to the veterans who crowd through her door. There is some inexplicable magnetism that binds those who have shared the experience of war, a force that transcends color and income and education and social status, one that draws servicemen and women back to… service.
No one comes back from a war zone the same. Well before the end of her year in the combat zone, the well-behaved, obedient young Marsha had evaporated in the heated intensity of war. In her place was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking tough who could shoot an M-16 with deadly accuracy, who shrugged off incoming artillery and mortar rounds, who quickly learned to ignore what the good sisters of St. Vincent's had taught her: that every patient was a human being who loved and was loved. No, they were just bodies to be prepped for surgery.
Still, they are catalogued deep in her heart.
Currents of emotion run strong and deep in war, and if Marsha was forced to suppress her compassion for the wounded, she held on gratefully to the intense bonds that flourished among the doctors, nurses, medics and corpsmen joined in combat surgery.
In her 12 months in Vietnam, Marsha learned to love the people who served in the military, and to hate war. She learned to distrust authority and got good at thwarting it. She painted the door of her hooch black and emblazoned it with a gigantic peace symbol. When her commanding colonel sent a soldier to repaint the door a flat blue, Marsha redecorated her living quarters to resemble a prison cell with bars on the window.
Today, looking back across the decades, she pinpoints that year as a pivotal one for so many of her generation. "You didn't have to believe what you were told," she discovered. "There are things that are just… wrong. We weren't satisfied."
But she was restless. After two weeks at home, an acquaintance from Vietnam showed up in an old Volkswagen bus and invited her along. She went. When they tired of life on the road, they got married. They started a family. Marsha worked in a civilian hospital, then quit. Worked in the butchers department of a grocery store, racking meat. Went back to hospital work. Raised three sons.
Seventeen years after she returned from Vietnam, her rising anger finally burst. Too many Vietnam veterans homeless, without jobs, struggling with the ravages of combat trauma. Too many military women suffering sexual trauma.
In 1987 she began doing work with the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center, which provides a safe, clean place for veterans to gather, to secure VA benefits and find a job, to get PTSD counseling, a hot shower and haircut, a good lunch. Soon, she was asked to be the director.
"It is too easy," she explains, "to turn your back and not be involved."
She took over when the center had a budget of $500,000. Now it runs on $5 million a year, providing a range of free services http://www.pvmsec.org/services.htm from computer repair training to transitional housing -- 125 beds for men and 30 for homeless women. It is a warm and safe place for veterans, a sanctuary against the chaos and danger of the streets. Here, veterans help veterans assault the tangled bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
"The VA can be a tough system to negotiate,” Marsha says. “We help veterans understand the VA; we are an arm of the VA's outreach. Many of our veterans come for the day from shelters, which are closed during the day. This is a safe respite from the chaos of the street. Shelters don't know veterans. We ARE veterans."
Ernest Wilson is one veteran often found at the center. Tall and thin with a graying goatee and thick black glasses, he is a recovering alcoholic. He served in the army in the 1980s and subsequently "slipped into the deep end," drunk and homeless. He found his way to Marsha’s center where he got into an alcoholic treatment program. "It's a chance to take the stress off, get my head right, get a job and a home," he says. He comes to get breakfast in the morning, then goes on the computer and searches Craigslist for job openings.
Shadidah Oliver, 35, was also rescued by the Center. She served in the army at Fort Bragg and on Sinai peacekeeping duty, then used her GI Bill to put herself through college. She got a loan and enrolled to get her masters degree. But her GI Bill benefits ran out and soon, she was unable to pay her rent and found herself with two young children, out on the street.
With the help of counselors at the center, she got a voucher for housing, furniture and a paying internship at the center through her graduate program. She will finish her masters degree in social work this spring. Being homeless was a frightening experience. "I'd never been in that situation," she says. "But it just took a few months, with their help, to get back on my feet."
Marsha spends her days on the phone, berating VA officials, coaxing donors, collaborating with other service providers. A pair of shoes worn by her father, whom she adored, lie at her feet. The Bronze Star she won for valor in Vietnam hides on a crowded bookshelf. She is a veteran in the world of veterans affairs, a familiar voice testifying before Congress. Mornings, she's often standing out on North 4th Street in front of the center, with coffee and a cigarette, chatting with staff and old soldiers.
"She is a remarkable woman -- expert with the M-16" assault rifle,” says Tom Berger, a friend who also served in Vietnam, as a corpsman with the Marines. "She is not only a warrior and a healer, but is very smart and obviously has done great things there in Philadelphia… I think the world of her."
Her passion is undiminished, especially toward women veterans who are homeless. "Often their kids have been taken away, and some will never see them again," she says. "They have a lot of grief issues. They don't feel safe. Many of them are fragile but they take on a tough demeanor. So it takes a long time to get their trust; they don't believe any more, in themselves or in others."
For these veterans and others struggling with drug or alcohol addiction or combat trauma, "my deep feeling is we have to give them a chance," she says.
She holds special concern for the waves of young veterans surging home from a decade of war, many of them having endured three or four year-long tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Marsha knows what that can do to a human being, and she fears what is coming.
"We are going to pay a price," she says, "for what we have done to this generation."
This story originally appeared in Issue 22 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.