LOUISVILLE, Ky. — More than 50 years after returning home from war, Marj Graves’ mission continues.

What You Need To Know

  • November is Veteran and Military Families Month 

  • Marj Graves is a combat nurse veteran of the Vietnam War

  • Graves speaks publicly about mental health and the stresses of her wartime experience 

  • Graves and her husband, Retired Lt. Col. Bob Graves, were inducted into the Kentucky Veterans Hall of Fame

Louisville native Marj Graves did a brave thing in 1972, voltunteering to be a combat nurse during the Vietnam War.

“I was 24 when this picture was taken and I think my mother wanted me to have a professional photograph done because she had a fear that I might not make it back home again,” Graves said while showing a portrait taken over 50 years ago.

In many ways, this photo commemorates a new and harrowing chapter in Marj’s life. “I never took care of anything but male soldiers,” she explained.

By 1972, Marj was an experienced military nurse at home, based at Fort Knox, but as the Vietnam War waged on, Marj felt a calling and volunteered to treat soldiers closer to the battlefield.

“My dad said, ‘what did you do?’ And I said, you know, I’m the middle child, I’m independent, I can make my own decisions and I’m going over there to serve,” Marj recalled.

Graves’ time in Vietnam was a life-changing one. In fact, part of her deployment was to be a traveling nurse with big-time celebrities like Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr. as they traveled the country on USO performances.

But the nature of a combat nurse means Marj was also witness to the horrors of war. With two weeks left in her deployment, Marj was assigned to identify the remains of over 30 U.S. soldiers who were killed in a helicopter crash. “For two days I was one of the body identifiers, where we sifted through body parts trying to find dog tags, wedding rings, anything possible that might identify who that individual was so we could get them back to their family,” Marj said.

It was a traumatizing assignment and, like so many veterans of her time and the present, she took the bad things she experienced and packed them away. Marj returned home, but the battle within herself continued and progressively got worse.

For decades, Marj maintained all the hallmarks of a successful and happy life. In reality, she was struggling. For years she saw counseling but never told the story of her most traumatic experience identify those soldiers’ remains.

“Again, I’m still under the care of a psychiatrist, never, never one time telling him what I had done, and I was in an out-patient treatment program. The last week that I was there I started having suicide ideation,” she shared.

In 2005, over 30 years after coming home, Marj nearly become another casualty of war. She tried to take her own life.

“I didn’t even know who I was at that point and I made the suicide attempt. I took 18 Ambien,” Marj said.

Only after her attempt did she regain a will to live. And her recovery included writing and talking about her experiences in war and her feelings about it. At this time, Marj threw herself into speaking openly about what she experienced as a combat nurse. In quick order, Graves began speaking publicly about the war she was fighting physically and mentally.

“We have a tendency not to talk about trauma because then it makes it real, and that’s what got me in trouble,” Marj said.

Nearly 20 years since attempting to take her own life, 75-year-old she is a sought after public speaker, telling her story to veterans’ groups, high school classrooms and corporate outings.

“Having problems with dealing with trauma is not a weakness, and it’s so important to deal with it because number one, you may help somebody else but there are lots of people out there who want to help you get through it, instead of still experiencing 22 veterans a day that chose to commit suicide,” she said.

Of all the sacrifices made in war, Marj also gained a husband, retired Lt. Col. Bob Graves. “21 years, 10 months and eleven days, but who’s counting,” Bob said with a smile.

For his service, he received two Bronze Stars for heroism in battle among many other distinctions. “We’re both members of the American Legion and VFW and also the Vietnam Veterans of America,” Bob said.

The Graves are proud Americans, embodying the kind of resolve it takes to preserve a country and family. “I think it’s helped other people too to recognize they need to open up about traumatic experiences,” Bob said. 50 years of serving their country and their work isn’t done.

Both Marj and Bob were inducted into the Kentucky Veterans Hall of Fame for service to their community following their time in service.