Women Who Serve: Pat Hammon’s journey from US Army nurse in Vietnam to veterans service officer for Eagle County
Celebrating the service of four female veterans in Eagle County this Veterans Day
Women have played critical roles in U.S. war efforts since the American Revolution, serving as nurses, spies, disguised soldiers and in other capacities long before the law caught up and formally allowed women to be recognized as service members in 1948.
Today, women are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. military, making up one out of every 10 veterans and serving in all military branches and divisions. There are now over 2 million female veterans in the country and women are projected to make up 18% of all U.S. veterans by 2040, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Though their prominence is increasing, only one out of every 68 American women is a veteran, compared to one in seven men. Recent initiatives like the Center for Women Veterans “I Am Not Invisible” campaign are working to shed greater light on their stories and celebrate the contributions that women make in every facet of the military effort.
This Veterans Day, we are highlighting four female veterans in Eagle County. All are members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Minturn, and bring the perspective, work ethic and care of a U.S. veteran to our local community.
365 and one-half days in Vietnam
Pat Hammon, the current veterans service officer for Eagle County, served as a nurse in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, spending two years stationed at a hospital in San Francisco and one overseas in Long Binh, Vietnam.
Hammon said that she has always considered herself a pacifist, opposed to the brutality of war — her father, a paratrooper in World War II, was the only member of his platoon to survive the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 — but when a military recruiter came to her nursing school, she was drawn to the opportunities that the service presented.
“I was working three jobs and trying to stay up with my studies,” Hammon said. “It sounded pretty wonderful because A) they would pay my tuition, B) they would give me a salary and C) I could see the world.”
Hammon had her first experience with both the war and the anti-war movement in San Francisco. She said that their bus to work was met with protesters every day, throwing flowers and shouting anti-war slogans at her team as they arrived to tend to the ever-filling wards of wounded troops.
“What just really struck me was all of these young men who had been drafted. It wasn’t their choice to go, and they were dying, and many of them had severe injuries, and so my heart just went out to all of it,” Hammon said. “It was my duty, my honor, to go and help take care of them.”
In 1968, Hammon was deployed overseas to a hospital in Vietnam that specialized in injuries to the back and brain. The hospital had 428 beds and eight operating theaters that were occupied almost 24/7.
“Even though I had worked in emergency rooms in Harlem and in New Haven during the riots, you’re just not in any way prepared for war,” Hammon said. “The helicopters came in and out all day long, and it was pretty rough duty. Sometimes we would work for days straight, take a little nap in the corner for a while and get back to it.”
Hammon spent 365 and “one half” days — “Most people can tell you exactly how many hours,” Hammon noted — in Vietnam, a period of time that required great physical and emotional strain. She said that she found strength in the community and friendships that she made in the hospital, a lesson that she has carried throughout her life and continues to lean on in times of difficulty.
“You really develop a sense of almost family, because you’re far away from home and you’re scared most of the time and you’re working your butt off and you’re seeing horrible things, and you have to support each other,” Hammon said. “It’s a wonderful lesson in life that you’re not alone. The military gives me a family and a support group. I have my own PTSD issues, as do most people who were in Vietnam, and it’s just really helpful to have brothers and sisters around.”
Strength in sharing
Hammon left the army after returning from Vietnam in 1969, and she soon found that volunteering her time to support fellow veterans helped her to heal from her own experiences in the war.
She said that the divisive nature of the Vietnam War made it more difficult for her and other veterans of that time period to open up about their experiences, an important step in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of being met with the public’s gratitude upon return, they often faced harassment and condemnation for their involvement in the war effort.
Hammon said that while wearing her uniform on the flight home from Vietnam, people yelled at her, and a passerby spit on her in the airport.
“To blame those of us that were there, doing our duty — to blame us for what was coming down from Washington really hit me, and that’s been a big issue ever since,” Hammon said in a 2020 interview with Eagle Valley Student Media. “For years after I got out, we just never mentioned that we were in Vietnam because it would bring up all kinds of very uncomfortable conversations.”
After moving to Hawaii with her husband Bill, an army surgeon who she met at Long Binh, she began volunteering at the veteran’s center in Honolulu, where much of the meeting time was spent sharing stories.
“That became important, and that helped me a lot,” Hammon said. “Women in war situations, especially my friends from Vietnam, we came home and got involved with our families and went to work and got on with our lives. That’s what women do — for the most part, pretty good survivors. But what I’ve discovered later in life is that what we’ve done is stuff it all down, because we have to be strong for everybody else.”
When Hammon and her husband moved to Eagle County in retirement, she spent a decade fulfilling her childhood dream of being a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service before feeling called to go back to work as a hospice nurse at HomeCare & Hospice of the Valley.
Today, she works full-time as the Eagle County Veterans Service Officer, helping to connect veterans with resources and disability claims, encouraging socialization and community building at local events, and lobbying for legislative support, such as the recently passed Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, of 2022.
“It’s so diverse,” Hammon said. “The issues that veterans have who live on I-25 in Denver are very different than the veteran issues of people in Durango and Weld County, so it’s given me a much more broad view and it’s been an honor to work on those issues. Homelessness and mental health and transportation are the biggest right now.”
While dedicated to helping others, Hammon is open about facing her own struggles with PTSD, which she said have amplified following the passing of her husband, Bill Hammon, on Nov. 17, 2020. She learned to lean on the help of others during her service in Vietnam and has now developed a similarly strong network of friends and fellow veterans in Eagle County from which she gives and receives support.
“I’ve been having troubles, and I’m in therapy, and I’m very, very fortunate to have such good friends,” Hammon said.
A message from the President
Last month, during President Biden’s visit to designate Camp Hale as a national monument, Hammon shared a personal moment with the commander-in-chief and came away with a token of his gratitude for her service as a nurse and veterans service officer: a military challenge coin with the presidential seal on the front and his son Beau’s military unit on the back.
“It’s an old, old military tradition. Leaders will give a coin to someone that has done exemplary service,” Hammon said. “You shake hands, and then when you take your hand away, the coin is left. The president shook my hand, and I took my hand away, and this was in my palm.”
The president’s challenge coin is now added to a collection that Hammon has been gifted over the years for her work, and she is carrying it along with a message that President Biden gave her to pass on to her fellow veterans.
“I feel like I’m on a bit of a mission,” Hammon said. “I told him that the veterans really appreciate everything he does for them, and he said, ‘Please tell them that I really honor all of them,’ and so that’s my mission now, is to spread that word.”
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