Donna Rowe has always advocated for U.S. military veterans, especially those who fought in the Vietnam War. However, it wasn’t until a phone call almost 35 years after she served as head nurse at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon that she began to voice her opinion about how Vietnam veterans are perceived back home.
“I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Rowe says with passion in her eyes, reflecting on the targeted verbal abuse of her fellow men and women in service after they returned from war. “There are some men who are still very shy about defending themselves, but I am not.”
A longtime Cobb County resident and the first female inductee into the Georgia Military Veterans Hall of Fame in 2016, Rowe served in Vietnam in the emergency and triage area from 1968-1969. She was commissioned as a second lieutenant and promoted to captain while there, and served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps between 1964-1969.
In 2003, Rowe received a phone call from the director of “In The Shadow of the Blade,” a documentary about a restored UH-1 helicopter on a flight to reunite Vietnam vets and families of the dead, asking if she could share her contact information with Kathleen Epps. Rowe and her corpsmen had rescued Epps as a child in Vietnam on May 15, 1969. According to Rowe, the 1st Infantry Division had radioed for an air evacuation in a small Vietnamese village that was wiped out by the enemy, requesting pick up of one small casualty. Though there was reportedly a firefight at the time of approach, the team was able to complete the evacuation and requested permission to bring the casualty to Rowe’s hospital, which at the time had strict priorities for accepting civilian casualties.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Rowe quickly learned that the casualty was an infant. The baby girl was brought to the hospital still locked in her dead mother’s arms, though suffering from fragment wounds in her chest and abdomen. Rowe had to break the mother’s arms to free the child, which immediately caused massive hemorrhaging. Rowe and her corpsmen rushed the child from triage to surgery, and requested that the chaplain baptize the baby on the way. If the girl survived surgery, Rowe knew she wouldn’t be able to stay in the hospital long, so a baptism would allow her to be taken to a Catholic orphanage. Rowe, a Methodist, and her corpsmen, one of whom was a Mormon and the other a Catholic, were officially named the infant’s Godparents and the child was named Kathleen after an Irish song and given the last name Fields because she came from the battlefield. Epps is her married name.
Later that day, the priest at the orphanage shared the story of the rescue during mass. After hearing the story, U.S. Navy Lt. Marvin Cords requested to see the child, later extending his deployment nine more months so he could adopt the child and return to Texas, where the little girl was welcomed by three more adopted siblings and a new mother.
The connection between Rowe and Epps came to light more than three decades later. During filming of “In the Shadow of the Blade,” Rowe revealed to the director that she had kept mementos of the rescue of the infant baby girl, dedicating scrapbook pages to images she received from a reporter who documented her team during that time of war. That footage of Rowe made the final cut and was mentioned in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article detailing the Georgia filming of the documentary, which is how Epps found Rowe. “She was Googling the names [in the article] and that’s when it popped up. … This scrapbook started the whole thing,” Rowe says, holding a large black scrapbook, visibly worn along the edges and spine. Inside, Rowe keeps the history alive with detailed images of Epps’ rescue, her care team and the other men and women who served alongside her.
Epps had been looking for Rowe and her fellow corpsmen since she was 13 years old. She always wanted to meet the people who saved her life. “The flight medics who rescued her were absolute heroes,” Rowe says. “They flew into a firefight to save this baby. It took seven rounds in their aircraft just to pick her up.” On April 14, 2003, Epps was reunited with Rowe and Spc. Richard Hock, one of her corpsmen, in Austin, Texas. Lt. David Alderson, who flew the helicopter to save Epps, died 10 days shy of the reunion.
Until 2003, the story of Epps’ rescue had gone untold by Rowe. She believed the events of that day were just part of her duty. However traumatic, Rowe says the role she played in the rescue helped her realize the then-common misconceptions about Vietnam vets she recalled hearing upon her return were very untrue. “My mother said to me when this story broke, ‘You know, Donna, God has chosen you to be there and be willing to talk about the Vietnam vets because you are so forceful in your commitment to them.’ And I am because I am one of them and I can speak with credibility about it. … This story dispels all that and I’m not afraid to talk about it.”
Rowe spent 369 days at the hospital in Vietnam and returned home in 1969 with her husband, the late Col. (Ret.) Al Rowe, by her side. The couple married two years prior to their deployment and served together in Vietnam. Today, she speaks at community events and to students, explaining why members of the military deserve respect and compassion. “I talk about how great these men and women that served this country are and the sacrifices their families make,” Rowe says. “I know the plight of military families and I know the plight of the mothers and fathers back home because I know what my mother and father went through.”
She also stresses to students how young those who served in war were, especially Vietnam. “The average age of the men in Vietnam was 18, the average age of the women was 21, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that on the [Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall] in Washington, D.C., of the 58, 267 names, 33,301 were 18, five were 17, two were 16 and one was 15. So, when I’m talking at high schools, I’m speaking to the age of the men who served.” Rowe says. “Yes, the Kathleen story is a good intro for them to understand how wonderful we really were, but this is a chance to tell the real story. I just feel it was my duty.”
Rowe also serves the veterans community as director of the Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance, Chapter One and is an active member of American Legion Post 29 and VFW Post 2681, both in Marietta. In addition, she is a board member with the Cobb County Veterans Memorial Foundation, which has plans to construct a veterans wall dedicated to all Cobb veterans, and she helped with the opening of the Military Family Support Center that opened last summer. The one-of-a-kind center is a public-private partnership between the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, Defense Commissary Agency, Georgia Department of Defense and Dobbins Air Reserve Base and serves active military personnel, as well as veterans.