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Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories
By Min Warburton (reviewer)
Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories
by Donna A. Lowery
"In 2003, the faculty of a high school … invited veterans to come to an event with their military mementos and pictures," writes Kathleen Kennedy, one of the many contributors to Donna Lowery's history of women who served in Vietnam. "I sat with other veterans," she says, "with my combat boots and picture in front of me, talking to students, when the teacher in charge interrupted and called me a fraud. He was so angry with me and told me to leave, but I did not … About 20 minutes later the teacher came back and apologized for having become so angry. He informed me that Vietnam history had already been written and there was no mention of any uniformed armed forces women having been in Vietnam, only nurses."
Kathleen "Kathy" Kennedy (Fontana)
In-country: April 29, 1968–April 28, 1969
Rank: Specialist 5, US Army
Duty: USARV, G5
Anne Marie Doering was the first woman officer in Vietnam. She retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Having enlisted in March of 1943, she went to Vietnam in 1962, one of three military women in-country. She entered Vietnam as a Major in the Army and served for a year in Saigon with MACV, as a Combat Intelligence Officer. At that time, the US presence in Vietnam totaled only 5,000 US service members. The other two women were nurses.
There are many books on the women who served as nurses. This book focuses on the military women whose stories have been omitted from history. Women served in Vietnam from 1962 until 1973 and represented four branches of the military: Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Every woman is listed chronologically by name, branch, time in-country, rank when in-country, and duty. Some were there a year; many extended or went back. Some were in Vietnam for as long as three years.
Mary A. Marsh
Retired as Brigadier General
In-country: April 1968–April 1969
Rank: Captain, US Air Force
Duty: MACV Detachment 10, Air Force Advisory Group, USAF WAF Staff Advisor to the Vietnam Women's Armed Forces Corps
Lowery's book is a team effort. Her team comprised fifteen women who served in Vietnam, four women who served in other locations, and one civilian member. Determined that no woman be left behind, women contacted women who contacted other women. Records, archives, and museums were searched. At the time of publication, Lowery and her team were not able to access many of the records they needed—lost, buried, warehoused—to this day no one is quite sure. Their search for the women, dead or alive, was exhaustive. It continues.
Chapters 4-12 are a year-by-year listing of every military woman known to have served in Vietnam. If a photograph was available, it is included. Some had served in WWII and/or Korea prior to Vietnam. Some enlisted with the sole intention of going to Vietnam. Many enlisted right out of high school. Unlike males who were being drafted, every one of these women chose to serve. They served as clerk-typists, stenographers, intelligence analysts, translators, communications technicians, dental technicians, in finance, supply specialists, doctors, medical records clerks, lab technicians, dietitians and, physical therapists. Many contributed stories and anecdotes, memories both good and bad. In the chapter, The Consequences of War, there are stories of PTSD and health issues resulting from Agent Orange (both on them and their children—if they were able to have them). In their time in Vietnam, many women experienced the males they worked with as supportive and protective. Others share stories of abuse, harassment, and rape. Nearly all speak of friendships made with the other women whom they think of as their sisters. Most said they were grateful to have served in Vietnam; others remain conflicted.
Arriving in Vietnam: Often a woman was the only female soldier aboard the plane, usually a C-130. Many women describe wondering if those guys made it home again. Nearly all describe deplaning to sweltering heat and a vile stench, thinking "What have I done!" Some spent their first nights alone, many spent their first nights experiencing "Incoming." Per orders, they arrived in skirts. None were given weapons training—some managed to get it anyway. "I was so glad I insisted on being qualified on both the M-1 and .38 before I left for Vietnam." Women didn't get weapons training during basic or Officer Training School but had classes in make-up. Within twenty-four hours, nearly every woman had an encounter with rats, cockroaches, geckoes—very big cockroaches—very, very big rats.
In-country: Army women were first billeted at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Tent City B. In 1967, they were moved to Long Binh, into wooden two-story barracks. The Air Force, Marine, and Navy women who came later were billeted in "hotels" in Saigon. Working days were 12-14 hours, seven days a week with a rare day off. A favorite restaurant was Loon Foon. Many became involved with the orphanages—some because they were medical personnel, others because it was a choice they made. Some adopted children. Dogs were also adopted: "…it cost me my whole paycheck to send him back home, but … I was not going to leave him behind. I was afraid the Vietnamese would eat him." The Saigon Zoo was popular. Drinking was a way to relax, and as the war went on, for many a way to become numb and to survive. The 1968 TET Offensive changed the war for everyone, and for women, wearing fatigues and combat boots became the norm. Mama-sans — the maids or housekeepers—were not always to be trusted. "When our mama-san didn't show up to do laundry or polish boots … we always seemed to receive incoming rounds from the Vietcong."
Helicopters: Long after the war was over, long after the women were home, they said the sound of the helicopters stayed in their heads.
Photographs reveal that in the earlier years, these young women in uniform arrived with coiffed hair—over time, hair gets shorter and shorter. "One of the first things I did was to cut my hair short, which was done by a Vietnamese barber in the compound."
Rats. More rats. Agent Orange. Stench. Rain. Sleeping under ponchos, soaked. Incoming. Bunkers. Eating at the 24th Evacuation Hospital. Unable to eat at the 24th Evacuation Hospital when witnessing the pain and suffering became unbearable. "The average age of a soldier was 19, my age at the time. I walked past these gurneys and most soldiers would be moaning in pain. … I watched many die. When I came back to the World, I brought these men with me. Every day they flash before my eyes. They were my comrades. Someone needs to remember them."
The bright notes: Bob Hope, Martha Raye, Christmas trees from home. Care packages.
Going Home: Being told not to wear uniforms on flights because of protestors. Feeling good about having served, feeling one had done the right thing only to be turned on and called "Uncle Sam's whore, Baby killer." Years of never being welcomed home, never being honored for service, and then being written out of history. "Oh, you were in Vietnam? So you were a nurse?"
Mary Joan Webb, Staff Sergeant, US Air Force worked in the Office of History for a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander and military historian. "… the first thing he told me was he did not approve of women in the military and certainly not in Vietnam …later [he] told me I had changed his mind about women in the military."
Chapter 18 includes short histories of women's service in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. "…the Women's Army Corps was called upon to shore up the Army as it transitioned to an all-volunteer force when the draft was discontinued in 1973. The number of women serving increased exponentially from 10,000 in 1968, … to 53,000 by the end of the WAC era in 1984. Much was proven by Army women by their service in Vietnam. They were courageous, professional and dedicated. These women did what was asked of them with pride and selfless service. …The women who serve today in the Army owe a great debt of gratitude to these Vietnam veterans; they helped ensure quality and opportunity for future service women."
Written history is full of gaps. Lowery's book, Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories, fills an enormous gap. Kathleen Kennedy speaks for every woman who served when she says, "We were really there!"
Min Warburton, Annapolis MD. Writer, researcher, artist, and spouse of a retired military chaplain, Victor McInnis, US Navy.