Veteran Spotlight: Army Lt. Col. Dorothy Courtemanche
MASHPEE, Mass. — Dorothy "Dot" Courtemanche served her country in the Army as a nurse. She retired a lieutenant colonel after a marvelous 23-year career with assignments at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, Cutler Army Hospital in Ayer, Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., and Fort Meade in Maryland.
Born in Dedham, she did her basic training at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., which received all
orthopedic Vietnam War combat injuries.
Lt. Col. Courtemanche received her first assignment in Seoul, South Korea, at the 121st Evacuation Hospital.
"It was unbearably hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Many of us wrote home to ask our families to send electric blankets," she said. "We got monsoons that were brutal — the whole base was flooded."
There were six nurses to a "hooch" (a cinder block building) she recalled. Her first recollection of Korea was one she can never forget.
"There was this constant smell of septic. After a while, your brain just accepted it and you didn't really notice it," Courtemanche said. "The Korean people were lovely people, very respectful. The Korean nurses were excellent, too, they were very good at what they did. They didn't chum around though or mingle ... they were strictly professional."
She described her service there as having "walked right into the fire."
"I had 20 soldiers the left side of the ward and 20 on the right. You didn't call the lab to get blood, you drew it yourself — I got competent real fast. I never forget how upbeat the guys I took care of were, they never complained. It was such an honor to take care of them ...
"I'd walk in and say, 'Hello everybody,'" she remembered.
When asked about being away for the holidays, Courtemanche responded, "Oh, they were
tough, no doubt about it. We had a Christmas tree but everyone wanted to work, because nobody
wanted to be alone. You just accepted it."
One of the great memories she shared was seeing Bob Hope perform but she almost missed it.
"I had just finished my shift and got home around 7a.m. My fellow nurses were getting ready to go, I told them I'd see them later. They were persistent and told me I had to go. They had the stage set up in a big amphitheater," she said. "Bob Hope was 64 years old at the time and he sang, tapped danced — did everything — had Lola Falana with him and the Dingaling [Sisters].
"What a great morale booster! Oh god, it was so tough when they sang 'Silent Night' at the end, everybody was crying."
Lt. Colonel Courtemanche experienced many horrific memories. She shared this one: "It was Christmastime in Korea, guys were messing with drugs, many were naïve — we had six overdose deaths. The hospital said they couldn't accommodate them as they were already overloaded. They put them in boxes outside in the freezing cold. It was really tough knowing those six bodies were out there."
When asked to share a good memory, she quickly responded, "the camaraderie of our nurses was the highlight, without question. We saw a great deal of death. We were very close, all in this together. If it wasn't for that, we all would have gone nuts. When we had a day off, we went to other MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units to visit the other nurses."
She continued, "I worked in ICU. We handled everything — from the colonel that got drunk and fell off his barstool to the little baby in the incubator."
Courtemanche spoke highly of her mentor in Korea, Capt. Eileen Gentile. "She was like a big sister," she said. "My specialty was orthopedics. They sent me to Captain Gentile in ICU. I was terrified, thought I would hurt the soldiers. She took time with me and was very patient, just really good people."
There were humorous moments, too, that brightened the darkness of death.
"Had one patient, his wife lived on base, kept telling me he had to get home because it was his one-year anniversary. I told him he couldn't move. He went to the latrine and jumped out the window. I was a wreck in having to tell my supervisor, "Courtemanche said. "If you looked up the word battle axe in the dictionary, you saw her picture. She called the MPs to bring the soldier back. I felt terrible."
Her final thoughts on her career? "It went by so fast — I can't believe how fast it went by," she said. "I miss it a lot. I wouldn't have traded it for the world."
Lt. Col. Dorothy Courtemanche, thank you for your service to our great country.
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