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Cheryl Miller poses at her home on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Miller signed up for the army nurse corps in Vietnam. Behind Miller is her Quilt of Valor, given to her for her service by her quilting guild.

Bio:

Name: Cheryl Miller

Age: 72

Current city of residence: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Military branch and rank: U.S. Army Nurse Corp, major

When the Chinook helicopters landed, 2nd Lt. Cheryl Miller and the rest of the Army Nurse Corps knew up to 45 wounded soldiers could be piling through their door.

Stationed at the foot of the Ho Chi Minh trail, 20 miles outside of Cambodia, the 71st Evacuation Hospital was the first stopping point for injured American soldiers in 1969 Vietnam.

But information was so scant the Army nurses did what many Americans do: watch the news.

"We'd watch the news at night and find out there were 12 injuries and say to ourselves, 'What'd we do with the other 40 we had today?" said Miller, 72, who now lives in Chattanooga.

At age 23, Miller entered the service, following in the footsteps of her father, a World War II veteran who was fighting overseas in the Pacific theater when she was born in Alabama.

She rarely talks about the war and she doesn't keep in touch with her fellow Army nurses. She saw bodies that never made it to the operating table, soldiers going home in bags, and held the hands of the dying.

"The experience was over there, so I don't like to relive it," Miller said.

The nurses worked 12 to 16 hours a day and didn't have much spare time, but small rituals kept their spirits afloat. They would watch "Star Trek" on Friday nights or play volleyball. Occasionally, they trekked into a nearby town, when it wasn't too dangerous.

"No shopping there," Miller joked.

After a year, Miller returned to the United States and was stationed at an Army hospital in Denver, eventually working her way to the rank of major. She also got her master's degree in nursing education in 1971 from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Miller could always tell who on the staff had seen combat.

"We calmly went about [surgery] and the others ran around like chickens with their heads cut off."

Miller said she wanted to do something honorable, something where she couldn't back out if things went bad. That's why she signed up for Vietnam, taking a two-day nursing exam in 1968.

She entered the service around the time her older brother was drafted to be a mortar platoon sergeant in Vietnam, a dangerous assignment with on the front line. But because she received her orders two months before he did, Miller went in his place.

"By law, they can only have one person from a family in a combat zone at a time," Miller said. "So I went because it was safer for me to go than him. They changed his orders to go to Korea, and by the time my tour in Vietnam ended, he didn't have enough time on his initial draft to be sent anywhere, so it kept him out of Vietnam entirely."

To this day, he still says thank you, Miller said.

"'For saving me.'"

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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