Caring for Vietnam war’s friends and foes fulfilled major’s childhood pledge to nurse sick soldiers

Pam Terry's a rare specimen-one of the few New Zealand women to wear the medals of a Vietnam war veteran.

Not that she saw active service in the jungle battlefields, rather hers was as one of two Kiwi nurses in an Australian-run field hospital at Vung Tau in the country's south where casualties kept on coming and coming-Viet Cong included.

In a continuation of the Anzac spirit Pam was seconded to the posting, whisked away from the safety of the Army's Papakura base hospital, where she'd been o/c (officer in charge).

Our People's taking a liberty when we call this 20th century Florence Nightingale by her Christian name; were we in the military we'd be saluting and calling her Major. She giggles at the suggestion, pointing out she's been away from active service for some time now, civvie street nursing in the public health and health, safety and research fields.


Regardless, her links with veterans from wide-ranging campaigns are cemented; she's dedicated to their wellbeing, providing support to their widows, ensuring they get what they're entitled to. The paperwork's complex, Pam demystifies it and her country's recognised her for it.

In 2004 she was awarded a Queen's Service Medal.

Tell her she deserves it and she blushes military scarlet. Quiet of nature and voice, Major Terry doesn't wear compliments with ease, an archetypical nurse, she has no thought of self. From childhood she wanted to care for sick soldiers, one of her earliest memories is telling that to her mother's friend. She tends to think her fascination stemmed from being taken to see the Army Band playing.

"My mother had to drag me there by the hand but once there I was absolutely fascinated, said there and then 'no snottynosed kids for me, I'm going to be an army nurse'."

By 1962 she was, after training at Waikato Hospital, maternity nursing in Tokoroa, spending 18 months on an Australian working holiday and being a dentist's chair-side assistant.

Her first army posting was Linton Military Camp, her rank lieutenant. Then her name was Pam Miley, many ex-soldiers still call her by it.

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Her military career zigzagged between the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Serving with the RNZAF in Whenuapai generated her love of travel.

"I was a flight sister on planes taking families to and from Malaya, flew to the UK, the States, Singapore, Fiji; those were the days of the old DC6s, not known for comfort."

Following a spell at Ohakea she returned to the Army, serving in the-then Malaya becoming commander of Malaka's Terendak Military Hospital. Then it was the Navy's turn to snare her-as the Devonport base's charge sister. Back in khaki she served at Papakura then Vietnam, leading teams dealing with the worst of the worst cases choppered in.

"Don't ask me to go into it, it was often awful, we'd be treating our guys, Americans, POWs [prisoners of war]. Put it this way: the enemy were given my professional care, I nursed our own blokes with professional, loving care."

Surgical wards turned Pam off operating theatres for life. Years later working at Rotorua's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, she steadfastly resisted invitations to so much as put her nose around the theatre door. It wasn't only injuries Pam and the officer nursing team (Pam then carried the rank of captain) dealt with in Vietnam, malaria and tropical diseases were rife.

They fascinated her.

Away from the wards she regularly visited orphanages, organising substantial donations of clothing and milk powder from the Putaruru-Tokoroa area. Her Vietnam service over, she was posted to Waiouru-as hospital matron.

But war had taken its toll. Six months on she was ready to quit "but they [the Army] persuaded me to take leave of absence".

She went to the UK, travelled in Europe, worked for a while in a Welsh hospital caring for ungdiseased miners. Pam had a particular favourite,a Mr Jones. She doesn't remember his Christian name but she does recall he played for Wales in the only team to beat New Zealand's 1905 Invincibles.

"Patients were meant to get up every day but when he was really sick I told him anyone who'd beaten the All Blacks was entitled to stay in bed, he died soon after."

Home, Pam had a further few Army years before switching to public health nursing in Nuhaka. There she met her husband Dennis "Bro" Terry.

"I'd known him earlier at Papakura, he was a sergeant in the SAS, it was always a sore point that I outranked him."

Regardless, they married in Singapore where Bro was posted.

They had three years together before Bro was killed in a plane crash while training in the Philippines.

"He was due home [New Zealand] the next day, I woke up that morning with a dreadful premonition, by noon I was told he was dead."

That was 35 years ago. Since then Pam's had a slew of nursing roles culminating in research at Massey University, she retired last year.

This was after a violent reaction to a cardiac catheter procedure at the hospital she trained in.

"A friend was driving me home, we got to Tirau and I collapsed, an ambulance was parked by Fitzgerald Glade, I woke up in Rotorua Hospital. I truly believe that ambulance being there was God's intervention, I thank Christ for my life."

A postscript here: Pam Terry made Rotorua Daily Post headlines in the 1990s when her military decorations were stolen. In today's terms the story "went viral". Mysteriously the medals reappeared on her front veranda.

"I've always thanked God that thief had a conscience, I'm a Christian."

Born: Rotorua, 1938.
Education: Te Wahaiti Maori School, Lichfield Primary, Putaruru High School.
Family: Five sisters, 10 nieces and nephews, "lots" of great nieces and nephews.
Interests: Caring for veterans and their families, Tai Chi: "I found it in Singapore watching soldiers on the dance floor", swimming, oil painting (including self portraits), executing portraits in pastels, gardening, travel, U3A research group.
Honours: QSM, eight military medals.
On the Vietnam war: "A waste, an absolute waste, we should never have been there in the first place."
Personal philosophy: "Make of your life what you will."