The original story published in the Journal
Times misspelled Linda's last name, this version is correct. We
A nun and a veteran: Having served in Vietnam, this Dominican
is known as Sister Sarge
By Paul Sloth
- 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
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
She still has nightmares, but they don't overwhelm
her quite as much as they used to. And certain things still trigger
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
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
Reprinted from the Journal Times
photo credit: Joe Crimmings
(c) The Journal Times.