Watch Sonja and Norman's story!
Nurses who served in Vietnam during the war were very special and extraordinary people. Nurses were all volunteers—they were not drafted and instead they joined the military when duty called and they served their country admirably. Sonja was one of those nurses. Sonja grew up in Lawrenceville, Illinois. Sonja attended nursing school at the Julia F. Burnham School of Nursing. She graduated in 1965. After she graduated, Sonja joined the Army. In March of 1968, at age 24, Sonja was sent to Vietnam. Sonja supported the 12th Evacuation Hospital in the city of Cu Chi, on the Ho Chi Mingh Trail and the 6th Convalescent Center in Cam Ranh Bay. The 12th Evac unit was one of the hospitals with the heaviest casualty rates in Vietnam. Its specialty was for burns. The hospital, which could accommodate up to 300 casualties, was situated in a violent corner of Vietnam between Saigon and the Cambodian border. Her nursing unit took in-coming rounds, mortars, within the nursing compound and the hospital units, on a regular basis. During Sonja’s year-long tour, sometimes the nurses had to live, work and sleep in flak vests and helmets. Sonja worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, treating wounded soldiers for severe phosphorous burns and amputations. Sometimes however, 12 hour shifts turned into 36+ hour shifts. When Sonja was finally able to lay down to close her eyes, she would be jolted awake from nightmares of more soldiers being brought into the hospital.
During her tour, Sonja and so many of the other nurses were plagued by the terrible helplessness that nurses felt. The military perfected its medevac operations such that the bloodiest no longer died on the field of battle. They were brought by helicopter to the various medical stations across Vietnam. The sound of helicopter’s blades whirring put a lump in Sonja’s throat every time she heard them because it almost always meant more soldiers than their small medical unit staff would be equipped to help. A UH 34 could unload up to 7 casualties, a CH 46: 14 to 16 wounded and the CH-53s could bring as many as 60 severely wounded men. Triage meant something different in Vietnam than it did in a normal hospital back in the U.S. In the military, the purpose for triage is “to preserve the fighting strength.” The goal is to save the people that have the strongest chance to return to duty. Grim decisions had to be made instantly on which patients were tended to first. There was never enough time to work on everyone. Soldiers with massive traumas were immediately brought to the operating table. While they would survive surgery, some would soon die from infections or septic shock. Some died crying for the assurance that they would live. The nurses would always be there with their patients, holding their hand and telling the soldiers that they would be sure to tell their families back home that they were good soldiers. Other times, the nurses were caught in what seemed like an endless stream of mangled and severed bodies in the evacuation hospital, performing lifesaving procedures but the nurses would never know their patients ultimate fate because the soldiers were moved out to make room for the next helicopter that just landed with more causalities. Despite the overwhelmingly number of casualties, thanks to the nurses and physicians incredible dedication to our soldiers, 98% of the men who were wounded and made it to the hospital survived. Sonja also worked at the 6th Convalescent Center. Sonia is still plagued with thoughts of what happened to so many 18 and 19 year-old boys she cared for in her unit. When they returned home, she wondered would their fiancé still marry them now that they had no legs?
For her meritorious service, Sonja was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal as well as the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, among many others awards. After returning from Vietnam, Sonja continued to proudly serve her country for more than 13 years. When Sonja left the military, she returned to the nursing profession to work as a neonatal nurse. Upon her retirement from nursing, Sonja decided she needed the companionship of a good dog. Bailey was her sweet and faithful companion for 14 years. After Bailey passed away, Sonja was heartbroken and devastated. When Sonja was ready to think about getting another dog she began to panic—with her mobility issues, there was no way Sonja would be able to deal with the physical demands of training a dog. That’s when a caring Marine veteran named David Cantu with the Harris County Veterans Services who was assisting Sonja with her VA claim mentioned Paws for Heroes. He told Sonja “Paws for Heroes will find a dog that is compatible with you and they will train it for you, for free.” Sonja was relieved and excited at the prospect of having another wonderful and sweet companion to fill the void that her last dog left when he passed away.
The shy 12 pound Cairn Terrier mix was stray dog surviving for who knows how long on the streets of Baytown, Texas. Like many other homeless dogs’ fate, his luck took a turn for the worse when he was hit by a car and left for dead. A caring driver found him and brought him to Baytown Animal Shelter. There, the shelter staff had to make a difficult decision. Both of the little dog’s hips were shattered and were inoperable. Days went by and no owner came to claim the dog. Even if they fixed him, where would he go? Given the seriousness of his medical condition, the shelter contemplated if it would be best to euthanize him. Multiple dog rescue groups were contacted. Could they take a badly injured dog and help him recover from his serious injuries (and heartworms)? The heartbreaking answer from so many was “We are all full. We don’t have any more fosters.” Until they called Judy Jones, who works with rescues and fosters dogs herself. “I’ll take him,” Judy said without hesitation. Saying yes was the easy part Judy soon learned. This little dog would have to be on crate rest for 8 months as he was slowly nursed back to health and healed. Soon his foster Judy started to notice his big Texas personality…so she named him “Stormin’ Norman”. Somehow, Judy knew Norman was destined for something great. He was indeed. Paws for Heroes was looking for a small laid back dog for Sonja. When Paws for Heroes evaluated Norman, the volunteers smiled and looked at each other and both said “This is it-he’s the one we’ve been looking for.” After Norman was trained by Kelly Green with Green Dog Training, Norman was matched with Sonja 1 day shy of Sonja’s birthday. Sonja fell in love with him immediately. Sonja says “Norman is the perfect dog for me. He makes me laugh chasing the squirrels as if he is on squirrel patrol during the day. At night, he is curled up on my lap or sleeping quietly by my feet. He’s a really great dog. Thank you so much for bringing him into my life.”