Dorothy (Dot) Courtemanche served her country in the US Army as a nurse. She retired as a lieutenant colonel after a 23-year career with assignments at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver, Cutler Army Hospital in Ayer, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC, and Fort Meade in Maryland.
Born in Dedham, she graduated from Dedham High School and later from the Catherine LaBouré School of Nursing in Boston. She trained at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, where all orthopedic Vietnam War combat injuries were received.
Lt. Colonel Courtemanche’s first assignment was in Seoul, South Korea, at the 121st Evacuation Hospital. “It was unbearably hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Many of us wrote home to ask our families to send electric blankets…got monsoons that were brutal…the whole base was flooded…there were six nurses to a hooch (a cinder block building),” she recalled.
Her first recollection of Korea: “There was this constant smell of septic…after a while, your brain just accepted it…didn’t really notice it…the Korean people were lovely people…very respectful…the Korean nurses were excellent, too…they were very good at what they did…didn’t chum around though, or mingle…they were strictly professional…
“We walked right into the fire…I had 20 soldiers on the left side of the ward and 20 on the right…you didn’t call the lab to get blood, you drew it yourself…got competent real fast…never forget how upbeat the guys I took care of were…never complained…it was such an honor to take care of them…I’d walk in and say, ‘Hello everybody.’”
When asked about being away for the holidays, Lt. Colonel Courtemanche responded, “Oh, they were tough…no doubt about it…we had a Christmas tree…everyone wanted to work, because nobody wanted to be alone…you just accepted it.”
She shared a memory of seeing Bob Hope perform but said she almost missed it. “I had just finished my shift and got home around 7 AM. My fellow nurses were getting ready to go…told them I’d see them later…they were persistent and told me I had to go…they had the stage set up in a big amphitheater…Bob Hope was 64 years old at the time and he sang, tap danced…did everything…had Lola Falana with him and the Ding-A-Lings…what a great morale booster…oh god, it was so tough when they sang ‘Silent Night’ at the end…everybody was crying,” she remembered.
Lt. Col. Courtemanche had many horrific experiences. She shared this one: “It was Christmastime in Korea…guys were messing with drugs, many were naïve…we had six overdose deaths…hospital said they couldn’t accommodate them as they were already overloaded…they put them in boxes outside in the freezing cold…it was really tough knowing those six bodies were out there.”
When asked to share a good memory she responded, “The camaraderie of our nurses was the highlight, without question…we saw a great deal of death…we were very close…all in this together…if it wasn’t for that, we all would have gone nuts…when we had a day off, we went to other M*A*S*H Units to visit the other nurses.”
She continued, “I worked in ICU…we handled everything…from the colonel that got drunk and fell off his barstool to the little baby in the incubator.
Lt. Col. Courtemanche spoke highly of her mentor in Korea, Captain Eileen Gentile. “She was like a big sister…my specialty was orthopedics…they sent me to Captain Gentile in ICU…I was terrified…thought I would hurt the soldiers…she took time with me and was very patient…just really good people.”
There were some humorous moments that brightened the darkness of death. “Had one patient…his wife lived on base…kept telling me he had to get home because it was his one-year anniversary…told him he couldn’t move…he went to the latrine and jumped out the window…I was a wreck in having to tell my supervisor…she called the MPs to bring the soldier back…I felt terrible,” she remembered.
Her final thoughts on her career? “It went by so fast…can’t believe how fast it went by…I miss it a lot…wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” she said.
She lives in Mashpee with her husband, Robert (a 40-year Army veteran) and has two children.
Lt. Col. Dorothy Courtemanche, thank you for your service to our great country.
Contact Wayne Soares at email@example.com