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editor's note:

The original story published in the Journal Times misspelled Linda's last name, this version is correct. We apologize.

A nun and a veteran: Having served in Vietnam, this Dominican is known as Sister Sarge

By Paul Sloth

RACINE - She has a mouth like a sailor and the heart of a saint.

Sister Linda McClenahan is a veteran and a Dominican nun who lost God in Vietnam and found her way back to the church after years of struggling with her own demons.

She now works as a trauma counselor, helping patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, many of whom are Vietnam veterans just like her. She admits she uses colorful language at times as a way to help some of the veterans she works with. The technique helps put her clients at ease as she helps them cope with their lives while they try to put them back together.

They call her "Sister Sarge."

McClenahan lost her faith in Vietnam, but she didn't lose her spirit.

She'd enlisted in the Army as a good Catholic girl with plans of becoming a nun when she finished her stint. But in the midst of war the idea of a loving God no longer made sense to her. Not much did.

She worked in an office not far from the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, an Army camp built northeast of Saigon. It was one of the hospitals set up to treat injured soldiers. Sgt. McClenahan, raised in Berkeley, Calif., was stationed at the 24th from 1969-70, filing classified documents.

Long Binh was attacked 13 or 14 times in the year McClenahan was there. And it was there that she developed some of the fears that haunt her to this day.

And when she talks about those experiences, the memories come flooding back.

"When I tell a story, you're getting a snapshot or a trailer of the movie,"McClenahan said. "I'm getting the whole movie."

Trying to forget When she returned to the United States, McClenahan scrapped her plans to enter a convent and decided to go to college. After bouncing from one college to the next, she finally received a business degree from Antioch College, where she also studied psychology.

After college she got a job supervising a communications department for Bechtel Corp. in San Francisco.

She buried herself in her work, like a lot of Vietnam veterans, as a way to avoid facing the memories of what she'd experienced there.

She also drank to numb the pain.

For a time, she dealt with a violent temper that people around her learned to accept.

McClenahan is fond of a quote from Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, a character from the television show "M*A*S*H." "I'm as old as I'm ever going to get, but so much older than I ever expected to be."

That summed up perfectly how McClenahan felt when she returned home from Vietnam.

She also felt out of place: "It was weird. You just thought you were crazy and you had to keep it secret."

What she and other Vietnam veterans didn't know was that they suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She still has nightmares, but they don't overwhelm her quite as much as they used to. And certain things still trigger reactions.

She's still working on it.

The road back to God It was a long road back to God and the church.

It took a long time and a lot of searching before McClenahan could look differently upon her faith and spirituality. She'd tried different churches while searching for the answer. But eventually she found her way back to the Catholic Church.

She found God years later as she helped men and women, Vietnam veterans themselves, reclaim some of the life they left there during the war.

She started thinking again about being a nun, but she didn't think any convent would want her because of things that had happened during her time in


"In an insane situation, people act insanely, and war is an insane thing," McClenahan said. "War is a horrific, gruesome, smelly mess."

That's how she found her way to Racine. The Racine Dominicans recognized the importance of McClenahan's mission to help veterans and trauma victims.

McClenahan eventually got a master's degree in guidance and counseling. One of the things she noticed about the clients she worked with, many of whom battled drug and alcohol addiction, was the fact that they had some kind of traumatic experience in their lives.

Out in public, she know the people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress order. She knows the signs to look for.

She also knows how good a supportive group of people can be on the road to recovery.

"What makes a difference is supportive people and the willingness to stay in a process of talking out," she said. "The key to recovery is being willing to share your story."

Reprinted from the Journal Times

photo credit: Joe Crimmings (c) The Journal Times.

She now works as a trauma counselor, helping patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, many of whom are Vietnam veterans just like her

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