As a young woman coming of age in the small community of Angelus, South Carolina, Libby Shull settled on the intent of someday becoming a nurse. Upon graduation from high school in 1963, she chose to pursue this professional goal by enrolling in a nurse training program at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"It was a residency program at the hospital and they had a dorm on the campus where we stayed," Shull said. "It was great hands-on training that gave us the experience we needed and resulted in a three-year diploma."
Following completion of the program in 1966, she continued to work at the hospital for the next three years. However, when another nurse with whom she occasionally chatted made the suggestion they should consider joining the military, Shull agreed it might be a good opportunity.
"I wanted to serve my country during the Vietnam War, and we spoke to several recruiters but decided on the Air Force," she recalled. "After joining, I was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas in January of 1969 for three weeks of indoctrination training to learn how to wear a uniform, salute and all the basics of serving as an officer."
One aspect of the training that shines brightly in her reflections was being taken to the field with several of her fellow medical trainees and performing triage on the casualties of a simulated aircraft crash.
Appointed as a second lieutenant, her first duty assignment was at the former England Air Force Base in Louisiana, where she worked in a small hospital with "maybe two-dozen beds." Three months after her arrival, the chief nurse approached her and asked if she had signed up for "worldwide duty."
"I had been issued orders for Clark Air Base in the Philippines," she explained. "I was assigned to the Med Surg (medical-surgical) and the Neurointensive Care Unit while I was there."
Although the hospital provided various types of medical care to personnel from all military branches, Shull recalled the most difficult aspect of the hospital's mission included receiving, treating and stabilizing seriously wounded troops coming out of the combat zones of Vietnam.
On some occasions, there were patients who had succumbed to their wounds and injuries while being transported from Vietnam; their remains had to be processed upon their arrival at Clark Air Base prior to being sent back to the United States.
During her 15-month tour of duty in the Philippines, she lived in a barracks building with many Air Force officers assigned to the base and became acquainted with a pilot named Walter Shull. The two became friends and remained in contact after she was reassigned to the base hospital at Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas in late 1970.
"Walt had been assigned to an Air Force base in California but he and I were able to visit one another on occasion while I was stationed in Blytheville," Shull said. "In 1971, we were engaged and planned to be married in December of that year, but Walt got orders for Vietnam and we had to delay our marriage."
"I received my discharge from the Air Force in the fall of 1971 and spent the next year working at a hospital in South Carolina," she added.
In December 1972, after Walt returned from his service flying rescue missions in Vietnam, the couple married. As Shull explained, prior to their marriage, they had agreed she would leave the Air Force since it was unlikely they would be stationed together while both were on active duty.
"Once we were married, I accompanied him on his duty assignments in places like Florida, Alaska, Utah, Scott Air Force Base and at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. I did some part-time nursing work at hospitals near the bases and later stayed home to raise our two sons during their early years," she explained.
Her husband received a transfer to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in the late 1980s since her parents, who lived nearby, were in declining health and passed shortly thereafter. Following Walt's retirement in 1991, the couple moved to Mid-Missouri, settling near the community of Tebbetts.
The former Air Force nurse worked a number of years for a home health care company and later retired from the Cole County Health Department in 2011. She continues to volunteer at Capital Region Medical Center and proudly explained that one of her sons retired from the Air Force while the other remains on active duty.
When discussing her rather spontaneous decision to join the military during the Vietnam War decades ago, Shull maintains it set the stage for an unexpected adventure that provided her with the means to support those who fought in combat.
"At that young age, I thought of it as an adventure and also realized that it would give me the chance to do my part during the war," she affirmed. "The time in the Philippines really was an eye-opener because there were some heavy casualties coming through the hospital and many who never survived the war."
"But you always felt needed and realized you were participating in a calling. It was so very gratifying to be able to help the ones that you could but at the same time heartbreaking because of those you could not help," she added.
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.