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Women Vietnam Veterans
By Ed White (reviewer)
Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories
by Donna Lowery
(Author House, 2015)
This is truly an untold story. There have been books written about women in Vietnam: Sisterhood of War, by Dr. Kim Heikkila, relating about the 6,000 American nurses who served in Vietnam; Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, by Kathryn Atwood, a broad historian's view of the history of female involvement from 1945; and others that focus on the trauma undergone by nurses in hospitals all over Vietnam during the war. Women Vietnam Veterans by author Donna Lowery describes the clerk-typists, stenographers, intelligence analysts, translators, communication technicians, supply specialists, doctors, medical record clerks, lab technicians, dietitians and, physical therapists. Wow! Who knew?
Two women: Precilla Landry Wilkewitz and Claire Brisebois Starnes served inVietnam and formed a non-profit group called Vietnam Women Veterans, Inc. They asked Donna Lowery to compile the research together in a book form. How difficult is that? The women first got together at the gates of the Arlington Cemetery at a dedication of Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA), in 1997. Then, in 1999, in Olympia, WA, they met as Vietnam Women Veterans (VWV). In the long road to publication, the "search and find" process started. Yes, the internet was alive and primitive at that time. They were aided by conferences and received help from many women throughout the world. The Pentagon suggested there were 1,000 women with orders to Vietnam. What an amazing, untold story!
The resulting book, 733 pages, and 21 chapters offer us charts, jargon, history, photos, names with rank and positions, and numerous stories about their experiences. There are multiple sections with names and data telling the story. The effort was huge and continues with sites to contact.
The uniqueness of the book can be found in chapters 4 through 12. They are titled years, i.e., 1962 to 1972. In these chapters by year, we see photographs, when available, of the military women with their names, with nicknames, when they served in-country, their rank, and their duty station. Also included are stories about their service, if they wanted to tell them.
For example, Judy Ann Jacque was a Staff Sergeant serving from January 1968 until February 1969 in G3 Classified Documents. When landed, she was transported in the usual buses with wire around the windows and taken to a compound with barbed wire. That night, a nearby ammo dump was attacked resulting in her taking cover under her bed. Her assignment required 12-hour shifts 7 days a week. Her eating habits consisted of heating canned food cooked on a sterno stove. When she returned home, the military advised her not to wear her uniform in public places.
AND NOW FOR BREAKING NEWS: Why were military women in Vietnam in the first place, you ask? Major Anne Marie Doering arrived in Vietnam in 1962. She was the first WAC (Women's Army Corps) to serve in Vietnam. General William Westmoreland in 1964 approved two positions for WAC Advisors to the Women's Armed Forces Corps. Initially, Westmoreland wanted more administrative staff, but it turned into a request from the South Vietnamese government to assist in the training and organizing of Vietnamese women. A new twist of democracy-building?
What I love is the requirements: "The WAC officer should be a captain or major, fully knowledgeable in all matters pertaining to the operation of a WAC school and the training conducted therein. She should be extremely intelligent, an extrovert and beautiful. The WAC sergeant should have somewhat the same qualities…and should be able to type as well." Goes without saying… Also, apparently, all the military services were asked to contribute women personnel.
Mary Marsh was a Captain in the Air Force in 1968 and retired as a Brigadier General. She also had to be qualified on weapons as a basic requirement. As an advisor, Marsh "assisted" in building the VNAF (Vietnamese National Air Force) Component of the Armed Forces. She traveled all over South Vietnam with the Vietnamese Air Force. She established standard administrative and personnel procedures, designed the uniforms and pushed for them to wear shoes. She was in Vietnam from April 1968 until April 1969.
The last example of women in the Vietnam war is Joan Mae Crawford (Blakeley), who served in Vietnam as a Chief Warrant Officer 3 in the Army. She served in the 1st Signal Brigade, Cryptographic Custodian for the Communications Center. Crawford went through mortar attacks on the compound, enemy fire, and exposure to Agent Orange. After 22 years of service, her decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters.
This review is only the tip of the iceberg of a vast amount of history and information. The book includes conference photos of reunions, songs and poems, service info on where to get more further personal history, and of course the consequences of war on women. Yes, they were not recognized by the Veterans Administration for benefits. The stories and the interviews of the women make this book critical in understanding their involvement and our debt to them.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP, and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam War at Triton College in Illinois.