Colleen Mealy's story

Colleen Mealy was born in 1943 in Port Augusta, South Australia. As a child, Colleen had polio, a highly infectious viral disease. During recovery, she stayed in a specialised children's home in Adelaide. She later returned to primary school in Port Augusta and regained the full use of her legs.

After school, Colleen became a nurse, training at St Andrew's Hospital in Adelaide. In 1965, she followed her dream to join the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC).

I liked the life, the lifestyle, the career. I'd always wanted to be an army nurse, ever since I can remember

[Colleen Thurgar interviewed by Susan Mann, 27 September 2007, Vietnam Veterans Oral History Project, State Library of South Australia]

Her first posting was to Brisbane, working in a surgical theatre where they treated many men returning from the Vietnam War. During this time, she completed camp training, learning to live and operate in tents.

Colleen discovered that she was being sent to Vietnam in a most unusual way, on ABC radio. In 1967, at 22, Colleen was one of the first 4 army nurses deployed to Vietnam. Later nicknamed the ‘Fab Four' after The Beatles, they served with 8 Field Ambulance on the ground in V?ng Tàu, Vietnam.

As a team, the nurses set up the hospital in 4 tin huts with no running water. They worked 10-hour shifts, and sometimes worked around the clock to care for the sick and wounded. Colleen fondly recalled the resilient spirit of the wounded, who forever changed her life.

Not long after arriving, the unit upgraded to 1 Australia Field hospital, heralding an increase in the provision of equipment.

The 4 nurses returned to Australian in 1968 after paving the way for future army nursing staff in Vietnam. After 5 years in the Army, Colleen resigned with the rank of Captain and continued nursing.

Colleen met her husband John ‘Jack' Thurgar when he was admitted to a Canberra hospital with a fractured shoulder. Jack served in the Army's Special Air Services Regiment before joining the Australian Federal Police. Colleen and Jack married and had 2 sons. Over the years, they have both contributed immensely to the veteran community.

Colleen worked as a welfare officer and home visitation officer for the ACT Returned Services League (RSL). She was also actively involved with the ACT Health Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Committee.

In 1993, Colleen was awarded Member of the Order of Australia for her services in Vietnam. In 1994, Colleen became the state President of the Women's Sub-branch. She was an active member on the Vietnam Welcome Home Parade Committee and was also involved in the project to build the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade.

Colleen Mealy (Australian Army), Army Nurse

Transcript

Colleen Mealy discovered that she was being sent to Vietnam in a most unusual way.

I found out on the ABC radio. They said four nurses were going. My name came up so I raced down to matron's quarters and said, 'I've just heard I'm going to Vietnam!' And she said, 'It's a secret.' I said, 'Well it's not anymore.' So I had to ring my parents then.

We flew into Saigon, got met, stayed there one night, nice hotel. Next day on a Wallaby flight into Vung Tau to the dirt and the dust and the mayhem.

Colleen was one of the first four Australian Army nurses in Vietnam, serving with 8th Field Ambulance In Vung Tau.

It was tents and some Nissen huts. No air-conditioning, no running water. We managed to make it a home ourselves; we went out, we shopped in the village and we got some of the boys who weren't too sick to paint the walls for us. We made it our home, we made it feminine.

Usually dusk and dawn were the times when we got casualties. The siren would go, you'd quickly get dressed, race downhill. The boys would carry the stretchers from the chopper they would have had their weapons taken away from them before they got into the triage area unless they had a rifle strapped to their leg as a splint.

We'd then just cut off their clothes straightaway so we could look over them completely; meanwhile the medics were popping drips in both arms and an ankle if you could get it, and then the surgeon would come and do a quick look over and then we'd patch them up with dressings and things as much as we could. Gut wounds would go straight into theatre without any hesitation, and then we would just work until all the casualties were treated.

Seeing all these young boys, the ones who had been killed and the ones that we worked on, losing both legs and an arm, I mean, how can you see them going back into civilian life? And the number of boys that were crying, 'My girlfriend won't want me anymore.' It breaks your heart.

We could help the boys - when they'd come in and they'd see an Aussie nurse there they'd have a smile on their face. And no matter how bad they were they'd all have a little joke. They'd say, 'Oh Sister, my family jewels alright?' 'Yup', you know. Then they'd be happy.

Or if they'd come in with their leg off. 'Oh well, no more dancing for me.' It was just that Aussie attitude they had. You couldn't do enough for them. It changed my life completely. I don't know where I would be today if I hadn't gone.


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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Colleen Mealy's story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/colleen-mealys-story
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