Linda Pugsley said she will be carrying the banner of all who served in the nation’s military while serving as grand marshal in this weekend’s Veterans Day Parade.
But the chaplain/ lieutenant colonel will have a special affinity for Vietnam veterans, who she said got a rough homecoming when they returned from the war.
Pugsley, who will also be guest speaker at the memorial service to follow the parade, volunteered for the Vietnam War and served two tours as an Air Force flight nurse. There she treated and helped evacuate the wounded from June 1968 to July 1969, and again in 1972.
Pugsley said the memories of those she cared for will be in her mind during the parade.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” she said. “My heart’s going to be full.”
Retired Col. Curt Ebitz, member of the Aaron A. Weaver Chapter 776 Military Order of the Purple Heart, met Pugsley earlier this year when she was the keynote speaker at the 12th annual Purple Heart ceremony.
Ebitz said she made a big impression on everyone there and was a natural choice for grand marshal.
“She was such a well-received speaker (that) her name came up right away,” Ebitz said. “She’s a very inspirational speaker. She doesn’t pull any punches. She says what’s on her mind.”
A native of Massachusetts, Pugsley graduated from nursing school in 1966 and was working as an R.N. trauma nurse at Boston City Hospital when she chose to join the U.S. Air Force Reserve. After basic training and flight school, she was ready to go to Vietnam.
There were plenty of nurses and physicians on the ground, she said, but few in the air. She wanted to change that.
“It was extremely intense in the fall of 1969 due to the number of casualties. We were evacuating 10,000 wounded per month,” she said.
Patients were loaded onto C-141 cargo planes and flown for several hours to major care facilities in Japan or the Philippines, Pugsley said. The survival rate for wounded soldiers in Vietnam was only 70 percent.
“Heavy-duty nursing care was required for the trips,” she said. “If they could walk onto the plane they were considered lucky.”
Flight nurses would accompany the wounded across the Pacific to the U.S. where they were admitted to hospitals as close to their hometowns as possible, Pugsley said.
“There were just so many wounded and so much work,” she recalled. “We knew their lives would be severely affected but you didn’t have time to mourn or grieve for them. We nurses had to stuff a lot of our feelings just to be able to concentrate on keeping them alive.”
"As the saying goes, ‘Men got Purple Hearts and their nurses got broken hearts,’” she said.
After the war, in 1978, Pugsley resigned her position as a flight nurse with the rank of major to pursue a career in the ministry. In 2003 she was ordained and is currently an associate pastor at Great Hope Christian Fellowship in Tampa, where she lives.
At age 71, Pugsley said, “I feel good and still run marathons.” She also remains a chaplain in the USAF Auxiliary/Civil Air Patrol, and works mostly with veterans in five counties.
“It’s like coming full circle,” she said. “As a young flight nurse I tended to the physical wounds of soldiers. Now, as a chaplain, I tend to the spiritual and emotional wounds of vets.”
There is a bond that forms between those who share the horrific experiences of war, Pugsley said.
“It transcends everything. And it never goes away,” she said.