Former Vietnam Army Nurse Fights To Stop The Privatization Of VA Healthcare

Retired nurse/nurse practitioner Arlys Herem knew she wanted to be a nurse since she was in the sixth grade. What she didn’t know was that she would  spend most of her career in other countries caring for the disenfranchised, educating medical personnel, promoting peace and advocating for veteran care when she retired.

Arlys joined the service when she was 17 to “get out of Milwaukee” and take advantage of a scholarship offered by the Army Nurse Corp. She trained at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center in Washington DC and received a BSN from the University of Maryland.

As an Army nurse she flew to Vietnam and worked for 13 months in Phu Bai, Pleiku, Bin Thuoy and Saigon between 1971-72. Most of her patients didn’t require combat-related care apart from those who caught diseases or experienced psychological trauma. She did mention a helicopter pilot with a serious chest wound who received 11 units of blood and survived.

From there, she seesawed across the ocean between Asian Refugee camps and American hospitals for most of her career with pit stops on a Navajo Indian Reservation near Monument Valley and a Mayan village in Belize where she landed after joining the Peace Corps in 1978. “I would know what to do next when it would come along” she said about her decision to join the Peace Corps in the middle of a Scrabble game while talking with her friend Connie.

After working two stints at Cambodian refugee camps during the 80’s, she hooked up with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in 1993 and returned to Asia to work 25 more years in Cambodia. She spent the first six years at a hospital in NW Cambodia where she said the Pol Pot regime left the area “incredibly devastated — rubble everywhere, no books or curricula, institutions demolished.”

A colleague recalled working with Aryls at a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border beginning in 1986.

Aryls and I were teachers in the camp health training school and shared a house there for 3 years. My main impression of her is that she is an eminently practical optimist who finds creative ways to manage challenges–of which there were many in a camp with a thatch-roofed, dirt floor hospital. She worked with refugees whose educations were cut short by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge– yet they learned enough to provide good care even in the midst of malaria and cholera outbreaks. The many students trained in camp schools went on to jobs with the U.N. after repatriation and were influential in rebuilding their shattered country. Arlys gave many of them the foundation for their future work. After that, she moved to Cambodia and helped local people set up a care network for HIV/AIDS patients. That was 22 years ago. The group has since continued to expand their scope by supporting volunteers who teach about living with HIV as well as organizing associations in the district that support the elderly and educate them on managing common chronic diseases such as hypertension. The impact for good she has had on many, many lives is immeasurable. I greatly admire her and am so fortunate to have such an extraordinary friend.

— Deb Webber

In 1995 she participated in the eight-month Peace Walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshima when it passed through Cambodia and began networking more with spiritual leaders, ex-pats, war resisters and inter-religious peace workers from nearby countries. Five years later when the AIDS epidemic reached Cambodia, she founded a local NGO called Dhammayietra Mongkol Borei (peace walks and ease suffering) to expand education/care and raise social awareness through non-violent efforts. The NGO is still operating.

She was beginning to enjoy teaching more too. “I think people need to see something grow, I really do…it’s part of us: Gardens, kids, watching people get better at doing something, training volunteers, teaching barefoot doctors.” Strong relationships she formed with people while working in Asia including Khmers, prompted her to retire in Minneapolis after many of them moved to Minnesota. When she felt “it was time to come home” in 2017, she flew back to Minnesota to be with her friends.

Three years later she joined Veterans For Peace (VFP) in the Twin Cities and soon teamed up with VFP member Jeff Roy and David Cooley to help organize a nationwide effort called SOVA (Save Our VA) to bring awareness to a recent bipartisan trend that seeks to further privatize veteran health care. Cooley had already been working nationally and leading the local chapter 27 SOVA committee.

Jeff Roy wrote:

Arlys is a very talented and detail-oriented activist with a big heart for others in her political work and otherwise. With her many years working in Cambodia and after her time in Vietnam, she seemed to develop a passion for and deep skills with collecting and organizing information critical to the effectiveness of nonprofits. As a key member of SOVA and its Steering Committee, she outdoes herself regularly in her ability to help other members have easy access to critical SOVA Campaign data that she’s helped sort out and store in Google docs. Finally, she’s a key organizer in Minneapolis, turning out with VFP members and other activists to attend our monthly SOVA demonstrations at the VA…sometimes in very crummy weather. We’re all fortunate to have her!

While the VA has always farmed out medical services it couldn’t provide, the VA Mission Act signed by President Trump in 2018 called for expanding non-VA care based largely on accessibility and drive times to and from care centers. SOVA though, argues that the new Mission Act “Community Care Network” (CCN) may provide more convenience for some, but it diminishes the integrated and specialized care veterans are used to receiving at VA facilities.

“I feel respected and the staff seems more personal” said Arlys about the care she gets at the VA. Adding that the VA has become more holistic and community oriented in their public health approach by offering alternatives to conventional care and helping veterans with homelessness, legal problems or readjusting to civilian life. She also likes the idea of having so many medical specialties and social services in one place with VA representatives on hand to investigate patient complaints about medical care.

She mentioned that a number of studies have shown that VA medical care is just as good or better than care in the private sector. A 2020 Stanford University study confirms this, noting that veterans receiving care at the VA (even though vets generally have worse underlying health problems than non-veterans) usually survive medical emergencies better than those receiving private care — and at a lower cost.

Moreover, the VA has a longstanding reputation of being a teaching and research center for healthcare professionals. At least 70% of American physicians have received some training at a VA facility and she pointed out that the VA’s Million Veteran Program has the world’s largest genomic database. Some of the VA’s contributions to medicine include implantable cardiac pacemakers, a shingles vaccine and the Nicotine Patch.

Other concerns of hers raise questions about the competency of non-VA medical personnel who are inexperienced in spotting symptoms from military-related traumas, chemical exposures or burn pits. Also, cynical and dishonest attacks on VA care from right-wingers including the Koch Brothers, keep groups like SOVA and the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute busy doing research so spurious accusations can be refuted. Not up for debate is a massive increase in fraudulent billing since the push for privatization began a few years ago.

Her efforts with lobbing are starting to pay off. A number of representatives have already signed on to legislation that would automatically enroll veterans in the VA health care system after being discharged from the service. Sometimes a congressional staffer will call her to keep apprised on veterans issues. “It’s good to get know the staff” she said.

As of February 18, 2022 Aryls has crocheted 300 hats for the poor. It seems even in her spare time she practices the four-word mantra printed on her front doormat: BE KIND DO GOOD.

Bruce Carruthers (left), Arlys Herem and Jeff Roy meet with Rep. Watkin’s staff to advocate for VA care.

Arlys Herem and co-worker at a Saigon hospital.

Arlys Herem on the job near the Minneapolis VA.

Craig Wood is a Minneapolis writer and member of Veterans For Peace. He can be reached at Read other articles by Craig.