A Conversation with Linda Sharp Caldwell BSN ’66

Linda joined the Army Student Nurse program at the end of her sophomore year in the University of San Francisco BSN program.

Linda Sharp

Linda joined the Army Student Nurse program at the end of her sophomore year in the University of San Francisco BSN program. Several of Linda’s fellow nursing students joined either the Army or Navy Student Nurse programs because the war in Vietnam was ramping up. In exchange, the military paid for the student’s tuition, fees, books, and a monthly stipend for the last two years of school and students committed to three years of service upon graduation. Linda grew up in a military family so she was familiar with the military way of doing things and it was a great way to pay for school.

Linda graduated in May of 1966, took the state board exam in June, and then worked at St. Mary's Hospital for the summer until she received her nursing license. She left San Francisco the end of August ‘66, flew to San Antonio, Texas, and underwent six weeks of Army training at the Medical Field Service School at Ft. Sam Houston. After training, Linda’s first duty station was on a female medical unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. A couple of months later, her supervisor recognized she needed a more challenging assignment, so she helped Linda transfer into a male neurosurgery unit. Linda shared that this was an excellent experience for her and her professional development.

In the summer of 1967, she received a notification from headquarters of the Army Nurse Corps to come in for an interview to be a recruiter. In those days, there weren't that many nurses who had a BSN degree, which was a requirement for the recruiter position. She interviewed, was told she needed to do a year of foreign duty, and volunteered for duty in Vietnam. She arrived in Saigon on Thanksgiving Day 1967 for three to four days of in processing, then flew overnight to the 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon, on the coast of the South China Sea where she was assigned to a surgical ward with 72 beds. Nurses did three shifts, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Linda was a staff nurse and soon got promoted to head nurse at only 23 years of age.

I credit USF with teaching me very well. It was a superb education."

Linda Sharp Caldwell BSN ’66

In February 1968, when the country was celebrating Tet - the Vietnamese New Year - the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a counter-offensive operation throughout Vietnam.

“There were some scary times. Our hospital was right next to the airfield runway, which was convenient to bring in the wounded by helicopter, but it made us very vulnerable. We admitted patients by candlelight and had to sleep under our beds with helmets on. That lasted only a couple of days, thankfully. We sometimes received a significant influx of patients and it was all hands on deck; it was hectic. Our mission was to stabilize patients to leave the country and schedule their departure.”

One of Linda’s patients in the orthopedic unit was Jim Baczkowski. He was a young soldier from Colorado who had lost his right leg in a firefight. He shared he was married five months to the day that he lost his leg. He was 19; she was 18. For his actions during the firefight Jim received the Silver Star, which is the third highest medal awarded for heroism in the military.

Linda had a rule that patients couldn't leave her ward without writing a letter home to their families to tell them they were okay. When it came time for Jim to write, he was struggling. He said he couldn’t write the letter, so Linda sat with him and wrote to Jim’s wife. She had never done that before nor did she do it again. Linda remembers getting teary while writing the letter, putting herself in Jim’s wife's shoes. How would they cope with his condition?

Linda finished the letter, put it in the envelope along with Jim’s, and he included a Polaroid picture of her and another nurse with the letters. Jim went back to “the world,” the military slang for the United States, in August 1968 and the orthopedic unit where he had been a patient received a letter and a picture of him on snow skis in October. The amputee center for the Army was at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Denver, which was a perfect location for Jim because he was from a nearby town. (The military tried to send wounded servicemen and women to a facility closest to their home to make it easier for families to visit. There were also designated military medical centers of excellence throughout the US for treating various conditions such as amputees or burn patients.) It was very gratifying for the medical personnel who had cared for Jim on the orthopedic unit to see him doing so well!

Fast-forward to 1990 and Linda was living in New Jersey and one evening was watching ’Unsolved Mysteries.” During the program, the host announced next week’s show was about a young Vietnam veteran, who for 20 years had been looking for the nurse who saved him, mentally and physically, and announced that her name “is Linda Sharp.” Linda was in disbelief and felt it couldn't be her they were looking to find. But her sister convinced her to call the program producers. She did and was asked if she remembered a patient named Jim Baczkowski, which she did. The producers then arranged for Linda to fly to Grand Junction, Colorado where Jim and his family lived to film the story update, which aired about four weeks later. As a result of this experience, Linda has done many public speaking events for nurses and others about this show and her work in Vietnam.

After leaving Vietnam, Linda had to serve another nine months in the Army so she requested to be stationed at Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco because as the song goes, she “left her heart in San Francisco.”

While living in New Jersey, Linda worked in the pharmaceutical industry for Schering-Plough. In 1996, she helped develop the concept of nurses working alongside sales representatives to offer side effect management strategies for medical professionals using Schering’s medications for their patients with melanoma and hepatitis C. “I'm very proud of that group of nurses who worked in such a novel area of nursing. “We were considered trailblazers at the time and nurses are still working for and with many pharmaceutical companies.”

Linda and her husband live in Aiken, South Carolina where they are both involved in several veteran organizations. She currently serves as President of the South Carolina Council of Chapters, Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), the first woman to do so in South Carolina. In 2019 she initiated the Aiken County Hometown Hero Banner program to recognize local military veterans and it has grown from the initial 22 banners to 209. She also serves on the board of Our Community Salutes, an organization which honors high school seniors who enlist in the military upon graduation.