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Honoring the fallen by helping the living | Memorial Day | Kitsap Week
By Mark Klaas
War seared Sarah Blum. As a 26-year-old Army nurse in an operating room within earshot of Vietnam’s battlefields, Blum saw what modern warfare could do to the human body – and soul.
Soldiers and civilians, bodies torn asunder by enemy and friendly fire, rivers of human blood, suffering on a lunatic scale. For a young woman determined to do her duty, the war cut cruelly, horribly, lastingly deep.
“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. It was crazy,” Blum said of treating the wounded in an evacuation hospital in a battle zone by the Iron Triangle. In that thickly forested, 120-square-mile area, most of the heavy fighting took place in 1967.
“Can you imagine seeing people with their bodies partially mutilated, mangled, blown apart?" Blum said. "I’ve never seen so much blood in my life. Where I worked, the operating room, I was covered with blood. … I literally was standing in blood. It was horrible.”
Because battle lines were not sharply drawn in the confused jungles and thickets of Southeast Asia, Blum’s hospital also served as a MASH unit. The airlifted wounded came quickly and frequently to doctors and nurses at the 12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi, making it the largest user of fresh blood in all of Vietnam, Blum said.
Despite the challenges, Blum said, the efficient hospital staff saved more wounded than it lost.
“I saw the worst because of where we were,” she said. “We were right beside the Ho Bo Woods, where all the fighting was going on. I saw it. I heard it. I smelled it.”
Sights, smells, and sounds that shaped what Blum would become. Drawing on her wartime experiences as a decorated Vietnam War nurse and her later training stateside, Blum works today to heal others psychologically torn by war and other traumatic events — even as she was torn. Her long, and at times difficult, journey ultimately led to a fulfilling career as a practicing nurse psychotherapist, energy healer and author.
Blum is a psychotherapist living in Auburn, and counsels clients from all walks — men and women, active duty and reserve, and veterans in King County and beyond.
She specializes in helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Blum’s personal experiences taught her a great deal about trauma and how to heal it. War, she said, has proven to be the best preparation for being an effective psychotherapist and coach. What she didn’t know then, as an Army captain nurse, is that psychological symptoms associated with PTSD would follow her home.
Blum got through those terrible days in the operating room by “building up a brick wall around my heart.” She only succeeded in suppressing her feelings.
“(In Vietnam) I couldn’t let the emotions get the best of me,” she said. “I had to learn really fast to turn it all off, so that it didn’t show. … I did a lot of stuff internally to be able to survive.”
She deals with the same issues today.
“Being a client, I was doing my own healing work. I spent years in my own therapy and dealt with issues from Vietnam and uncovered the early childhood issues and healed those,” she said.
Blum vows to heal, not assuage, patients. “I tell people when they come to see me, ‘If you just want to cope, see somebody else. If you want to get better, if you want your life to be better, then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work,’ ” she said.
A gifted surgical nurse, Blum decided to get out of the operating room and treat others in a different way. As her military stint ended, Blum went to college, earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Seattle University. Later, she earned her master’s in psychosocial nursing at the University of Washington.
She has been married. She raised a family in Auburn. Her daughter, Lorna, is a social worker. Her son, Sean-David, a professional musician, served in the U.S. Army Band.
Blum has made an impact with her practice and in her efforts elsewhere. She was among the first women to be elected to the Vietnam Veterans of American National Board of Directors. She has worked with others on legislation to help victims of Agent Orange. She was a member of the first international volunteer group, called PeaceTrees Vietnam, which returned to the country in 1996 to plant trees on land once ravaged by war. She went to heal herself — and to heal the land.
“A veteran had given me a letter and asked me to read it when I got to Vietnam and to plant it under a tree,” Blum said of her personal pilgrimage. “It was emotional.”
Blum has set her experiences down on paper. Her first, soon-to-be-published book, “Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military," relates real stories of women who were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted in the military. She is working on a second book, “Women Under Fire: PTSD and Healing,” that chronicles her own experiences and those of others.
Blum says there are more options today for those struggling with PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Attitudes towards afflicted war veterans and soldiers have changed since the Vietnam era, she said.
“It’s much more accepted today. There’s a lot more education about it,” Blum said of PTSD. “I think that's what Vietnam vets have done for our country, in that they educated people about the trauma of war, about PTSD and what it is.
“(The past) has helped modern-day veterans become more accepted and respected because of what we went through from the public.”
Blum recognizes there is more work to be done. She is doing her part. It is her calling in life.
“I’m interested in the truth,” she said of helping to treat the emotional wounds of others. “I’m a clear thinker, a problem solver. I’m a very strong person. I am someone who heals.”
Veterans Services offices, organizations
- American Legion Post 172, 7880 Bucklin Hill Road.
- American Legion Post 149, 4922 Kitsap Way. (360) 373-8983.
- DAV Chapter 5, 2315 Burwell Ave. (360) 373-2397.
- Fleet Reserve Association, Branch 29, 521 S. National Ave. (360) 373-2296.
- Marine Corps League Detachment 531. (360) 695-7233.
- Navy League, Bremerton-Olympic Peninsula, P.O. Box 5719. (360) 479-1233.
- NABVETS Kitsap Chapter, 865 6th St. (360) 434-7572.
- VFW Post 239, 190 S. Dora Ave. (360) 377-6739.
- VA Benefits Administration, Chase Building, sixth floor, 5th and Pacific. (360) 782-9900.
- VA Health Administratoon Outpatient Clinic, 925 Adele Ave. (360) 782-0129.
- DAV Chapter 22, 4475 Birch Ave. W. (360) 275-0329.
- American Legion Post 30, 615 Kendall St.
- VFW Post 2669, 736 Bay St. (360) 876-2669.
- WDVA Building 9 Veterans Service Center, 1141 Beach Drive East, Retsil. (360) 895-4346.
- American Legion Post 245, 19068 Jensen Way.
- Suquamish Tribe Veterans Office, 18490 Suquamish Way NE. (360) 394-8515.
If you are a veteran, contact the Kitsap County Veterans Assistance Program to learn more about local services that are available to you: Leif Bentsen, email@example.com, (360) 337-4883.
— Mark Klaas is editor of the Auburn Reporter (www.auburn-reporter.com), a Sound Publishing Co. newspaper.