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Fallen N.J. nurse earns special honor at state Vietnam memorial

Tour guides at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Holmdel often spoke about Capt. Eleanor Grace Alexander when they reached a single panel in the granite memorial that marks her name.

The 27-year-old Alexander was a nurse serving in the relative safety of the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon, Vietnam. She was killed in a plane crash along with 26 others on Nov. 30, 1967. The plane was on its way back to Qui Nhon after Alexander volunteered to take another nurse’s place on a dangerous forward mission.

“It’s a great story to tell today’s kids about sacrifice and something bigger than yourself, and patriotism and commitment to the country and commitment to your fellow man,” said John Nugent, a tour guide and NJVVM trustee. “It’s a meaningful story to impart to the high school and college kids who come on our tours.”

Tour guides now can tell Alexander’s story with greater impact when they take groups to a special monument dedicated to the only woman from New Jersey killed in the line of duty during the Vietnam War.

The monument for Alexander was unveiled Sept. 28 in conjunction with ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary of the NJVVM. In attendance were Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Brigadier Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, the adjutant general of New Jersey, and Deputy Commissioner for Veterans Affairs Ray Zawacki.

The ceremony in the Women Veterans Meditation Garden included the posting of colors, an invocation by the chaplain from an American Legion post, a reading of Alexander’s military history by Nugent, who spearheaded the creation of the monument, and the unveiling of the monument by Alexander’s younger brother, Frank Alexander, and his wife, Susanne.

When guides tell Grace Eleanor Alexander’s story, it focuses on her service to her country, but Frank Alexander’s memories are more personal about a typical brother and sister playing baseball. “She tripped me and broke my arm when I was running to home base,” he recalled of their youth. “She was full of fun. She was a tough broad, but she was a lot of fun.”

Alexander attended D’Youville College School of Nursing in Buffalo, N.Y., where she earned her BSN in 1961 and where the school’s top nursing award is named in her honor. She worked at a local hospital in Buffalo for a year before moving home to River Vale, N.J., to live with her mother. She then got a job at Madison Avenue Hospital in New York City as an OR supervisor, primarily assisting with cosmetic surgery, according to her brother.

Her career was successful, but she felt a duty to help soldiers injured in the war.
“She decided that her skills would be better used helping the wounded American boys in the war,” Frank Alexander said. “So she went to each of the armed forces asking if they would guarantee that she would get to Vietnam. She was turned down by all but the Army, who said, ‘Come on in.’

“She entered the service as a captain, went to Texas for training, came back from Texas, said goodbye to her two nephews, got on a plane, and six months later she was dead.”

Her time in the Army didn’t last long, but Alexander made an impression on those around her. One such person was Peggy McMahon, APN, MN, NP-C, CEN, FAEN, who remembers Alexander from basic training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
McMahon, who is the senior clinical editor for the Journal of Emergency Nursing, recalls Alexander taking extreme – and sometimes comical – measures to break in her leather boots.

After filling a bathtub with water, Alexander would put on her boots and stand in the water before slogging up and down the hallway for about an hour.

But as company commander, Alexander also had to maintain a sense of discipline. It was her job to get others ready for the harsh realities they might face in Vietnam.
“I think she was certainly well-liked,” McMahon said. “She knew what she had to do in terms of getting us prepared. She was also very personally committed to getting herself well prepared for her mission.” Nothing could prepare McMahon for the news she received shortly before she left for Vietnam.

A story in the American Journal of Nursing reported on Alexander’s death.

“It was a rude awakening,” McMahon said. “It was sad, but it also was scary.”

Alexander’s death impacted McMahon even harder when she arrived in Vietnam in February 1968, not realizing she had been assigned to the same unit where Alexander had served before her death.

“The first thing I saw when I walked in the headquarters was a picture of the memorial altar with her cap and the cap of the other (male) nurse who died in the crash,” McMahon said.

The NJVVM, according to its website, honors the state’s 1,563 casualties in Vietnam. The adjacent Vietnam Era Museum & Educational Center welcomes more than 14,000 visitors a year to the site.

McMahon was unable to attend the unveiling of the monument for Alexander, but she later made it to Holmdel to pay her respects, she said.

Standing all alone in the memorial’s meditation garden, McMahon let her former basic training commander know how important she was – and still is – to so many people.

“It was powerful,” McMahon said. “I think I said out loud, ‘You’re not forgotten.’ ”

Tom Clegg is a freelance writer.

By | 2013-11-11T00:00:00-05:00 November 11th, 2013|Categories: New York/New Jersey Metro, Regional|0 Comments

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