'Nightingale' brought calm to beleaguered embassy

June 08, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- For three weeks while frightened Americans crowded into the U.S. Embassy compound in Kuwait following Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion, Mary Bender of Towson had to rediscover her past as a nurse at Maryland General Hospital.

They called her "Nightingale" -- the radio handle she responded to around the clock while the group that swelled to 200 waited to be evacuated. She treated everything from cuts and athlete's foot to serious illnesses.

Mrs. Bender, wife of embassy security officer Michael C. Bender, was among a group of Foreign Service officers, spouses and private citizens honored by the State Department yesterday for individual and collective acts of strength and ingenuity in defiance of Iraqi intimidation.

Her framed citation reads: "In recognition of your selfless, courageous and compassionate service Aug. 2, 1990, to Aug. 24, 1990, as nurse to all who sought sanctuary on the compound of the American Embassy in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and to employees and dependents evacuated by road to Baghdad."

But it was her no-nonsense professionalism that was recalled in an explanation of the award.

"Working with minimal supplies and in the high-stress conditions of an ongoing invasion, Mary ministered not only to the physical ills of the community but to their psychological and emotional needs as well."

A 1973 nursing school graduate who worked at Maryland General, Mrs. Bender hadn't worked as a nurse for years when she volunteered her services in the absence of a nurse at the embassy. But her experience in the hospital's intensive care unit served her well as she exerted a calming influence inside the anxious embassy, which was ringed by Iraqi troops and was within earshot of gunfire.

It also came in handy when a private citizen, who suffered a heart attack just before the invasion, was spirited into the compound just ahead of Iraqi authorities. He survived and later was evacuated.

The State Department explanation also cites a "senior staff member with a life-threatening illness," not otherwise identified, who "was provided the requisite medications, full confidentiality and a firm hand as he worked successfully to regain control of the condition."

Early on, Mrs. Bender surveyed all those in the compound to find out what medical problems they had, and then she worked with an embassy staff member to compile a list of prescription and over-the-counter medicines that would be needed.

Although a doctor joined the compound before Mrs. Bender was evacuated, she at times had to reach beyond the purview of nursing to prescribe medication.

Her days usually started at 6, when she would awake in the Marine guards' house where she was staying with her husband and son, Timothy, now 9, and make her rounds of the compound.

"I'd go through and ask how they were," she said.

They usually ended at 10 p.m.

"But several times I was awakened in the middle of the night" for emergencies, she recalled yesterday.

Besides actual nursing, usually performed at the embassy's medical office, she became a member of Ambassador Nathaniel Howell's "country team" of advisers.

Through the siege, one constant was a "fear of the Iraqis invading the compound," she said. "We could hear the gunshots, see the mortar rounds."

But with the shared stress, "We were like a family. You'd be surprised how close we were. Everyone really coped."

Saluting Mrs. Bender and others who occupied the Kuwait City and Baghdad embassies during that period, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger compared them to the troops who will be honored in today's parade through the capital.

But those in the embassies "could imagine a parade in their honor only if it was about to come over the wall," Mr. Eagleburger said.

No one could blame them if they panicked, Mr. Eagleburger said. Instead, they remained defiant -- jogging, planting and digging a well. In an "epic test of wills, the international community saw the example of American will in action," he said.

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