KEARNEY — Kate Nickel was living a life of luxury.
She lived in a beautiful home in Beverly Hills. She shopped on Rodeo Drive. She spent time with movie stars.
The glamorous life Nickel led changed after she spent 22 days in Vietnam during the war.
Nickel, who was 23 years old at the time, traveled to Vietnam on a USO tour in 1969.
The USO provides entertainment to troops to keep them in high spirits while they are deployed.
“We were on a handshake tour,” Nickel said. “During that period of time, they would take shows over. Bob Hope would go; he’d have a big show. Johnny Grant, who was a local TV celebrity out in California,
he went out and took a show.
“I was married at the time, and my husband was a producer in Hollywood. Because of his work we met a lot of different people, and I met Johnny Grant and he asked me if I would want to go with his group, and I said yes.”
Although she agreed to travel with Grant she ended up traveling with a smaller USO group.
Nickel traveled with Dixie Clegg, a dancer on the “Dean Martin Show,” and Tom Tully, an Oscar-nominated actor who appeared in the movie “The Caine Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart and the television show “The Lineup” during the 1950s.
“I’m a curious person, and given the opportunity to do just about anything that’s a little bit out of the ordinary, I’ll try,” Nickel said. “I was curious.”
“There were a lot of people who were expressing their thoughts and feelings about this Vietnam business, and I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know much about it. I was kind of naive and kind of immature. I wanted to go and see what was going on.”
Nickel’s group was based in Saigon and traveled around the country with an escort officer.
“They made arrangements in airplanes, helicopters, all sorts of vehicles for us to go to places,” Nickel said.
“It might be that you were meeting a group of people out in the middle of nowhere, or it might be that you were having dinner in some place where the army had set up.”
The group also visited hospitals where they saw many men with very serious injuries.
“I walked up to this young man and said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ He said, ‘How would you feel if they just cut your arm off?’” Nickel said.
Nickel said she was scared at times. Her group was shot at, a helicopter she was riding in almost crashed, and her group had to leave areas quickly because of enemy activity.
“We liked to ride behind the gunners (on helicopters),” Nickel said. “In retrospect that wasn’t a very good place to be because that’s where they’d shoot first because they’d try to take out the gunner. I don’t know why, but that’s where we liked to ride.”
Nickel said she encountered some troops who were angry that she and her group were there.
“I never quite got a clear answer, but I’ve come to the conclusion that going to Vietnam was a horrible, horrible situation for many, many people and horrible things happened over there and these men were risking their lives for someone like me and here I am, I flit off the plane or the helicopter and say, ‘Hi!’ It was dissonant,” Nickel said.
There were also troops who were happy to see them, she said. Nickel even exchanged letters with some of the men she met in Vietnam.
“A couple of times, I would get a letter from the young man’s superior officer who would say, ‘I regret to tell you that so and so has been killed in action.’ It was an upsetting thing,” Nickel said.
Despite the difficult things she encountered while in Vietnam and the pain she felt afterward, Nickel said she doesn’t regret the trip.
“I wasn’t and still am not a very political person,” Nickel said. “But that trip opened my eyes and made me realize that life was very short and you couldn’t live it as a compromise.
“I was living in all this luxury and to me this kind of meaningless lifestyle. I came home from Vietnam and went to bed for a week and left.”
Nickel went to Maryland where her family lived. She began protesting the war.
“I lived in this beautiful house in Beverly Hills, I had a maid,” Nickel said. “There didn’t seem to be any real point to my life. I went home to examine things.”
She eventually divorced her husband and moved to Vermont where she became a hippie, she said.
Later, she traveled to Nebraska to visit friends. She decided the area seemed like a nice place to live and moved to Kearney where she attended Kearney State College.
Nickel was a member of the first graduating class of nurses from KSC in 1980.
She later married and raised her children in Kearney. Nickel, 64, is now a professor at University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing Kearney Division.