The War Was Pain and Fear


NamNews, 2-01, Pages 40-43, 4 Jan 1988
By: Joan Arrington Craigwell and Ellen Hoffman Young
Submitted by the San Jose Vet Center

The estimated 8,000 to 10,000 American women who went to Vietnam have a special perspective on the suffering that occurred in that war. Most of their stories remain untold. In San Diego, the Federal Outreach Program for Vietnam Veterans (the Vet Center) has no way of knowing how many women Vietnam veterans reside here.

The Department of Defense has acknowledged its own embarrassing lack of statistics. It does recognize that significant numbers of women served admirably in all branches of service as professional nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, air traffic controllers, aerial reconnaissance photographers, intelligence and language specialists, legal officers, and in security and administrative positions.

Civilian women also served in Vietnam in the Red Cross, USO, the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as in other government agencies. Other women worked there as journalists, flight attendants, and in various church and humanitarian organizations.

Where are these women today? Could they possibly be your wife, your nurse, co-worker, your supervisor, your physician or your next door neighbor? Could you find them if you looked? These women have camouflaged themselves, an easy task in our society. All they have to do is keep quiet.

It is a fact that women served in Vietnam. More importantly, they witnessed first-hand on a regular basis the tragic consequences of the Vietnam conflict: mangled bodies, horrible head, abdominal, chest, and face wounds, as well as the endless colostomies, disfigured faces, amputations, burns from napalm and white phosphorous; and the unending cries of 19-year-olds, begging God to let them live just a little longer.

Every day, for 12 hours a day or more, for six days a week or more, for a whole year of duty, the medical personnel who were assigned hospital ships, air evacuation centers or hospitals dealt with the bits and pieces of war-ravaged bodies.

War is traditionally men's arena, and it shocks people to think that women were there also. In other wars, nurses were in hospitals, but they were in the "rear" where they were safe. In Vietnam there was no "rear", and no one was safe.

Eight women serving in the American military were killed in Vietnam. Their names are on the "Wall", the memorial to Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C. Some Red Cross workers also died, but because they weren't military their names are not inscribed. Forty-five American women died in the crash of the C-5A that went down during "Operation Baby Lift" in April 1975.

The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project plans to dedicate a statue of women veterans near the "Wall" in Washington in November of 1988.

Stanley Karnow writes in his book, VIETNAM, "Many (Vietnam) veterans feel themselves to be members of a dislocated generation, their place in society uncomfortable, undefined and almost embarrassing, as if the nation has projected onto them its own sense of guilt or shame or humiliation for the war."

Women vets have had the added stigma of being misunderstood as to what their roles were. If they showed compassion, there were men who assumed it was because they wanted sex. If they controlled their emotions, there were men who assumed they were unfeeling.

They occasionally were looked upon as weird, doughnut dollies, or as prostitutes, both by the men in Vietnam who didn't know better, and by the population at large when they returned. It is no wonder that so few of their stories have been told. Our country needs to hear all the stories. Otherwise, how will we heal? We cannot assimilate the war experience if we don't know what it was all about, and what happened there. There were many aspects of the war, and each person there had his or her own particular experience. Of the women there, nurses saw the dark side, probably more than any other group that participated in the war. For them, the war was about pain, suffering,
mutilation, carnage, and blows to the spirit that were so profound that they still cause pain 20 years later.

Two books just out about women in Vietnam are IN THE COMBAT ZONE, by Kathryn Marshall, and NURSES IN VIETNAM, THE FORGOTTEN VETERANS, edited by Dan Freedman and Jacqueline Rhodes. Both of these books are remarkable in that there is no one position on the war taken by the women who went. However, each person interviewed felt the impact of her time in Vietnam more strongly than any other event in her life.

Why have women themselves remained so constrained and controlled about telling their experiences in Vietnam? Many women who served in Vietnam do not acknowledge themselves as veterans. Many fear this recognition will stir up unwanted memories or unfounded confusion about their role there.

Until recently, veterans organizations would not permit women full membership, thus adding further invalidation and stigma for being a woman and serving in a combat zone.

The data reported by researchers Jenny A. Schnaier (1982), Julia Stroud (1983), and others, indicate that the same emotional problems by the male combatant upon coming home, such as alienation, depression and emotional numbing also were experienced by women.

Many women veterans suffering anger, rage, sleep disturbances, and alcohol or drug abuse do not understand that these symptoms may well be related to their war experiences. These are frequently symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an adverse reaction that afflicts many combat veterans. Some nurses imagine that acknowledging these feelings somehow would impugn their professionalism.

Some women are reluctant to admit they were in Vietnam for fear of even more misunderstanding from their families, friends, and colleagues. In addition, in spite of many nurses who have made outstanding contributions in the field of nursing, large numbers gave up the profession entirely; the vivid memories of the war were just too painful and they experienced "burn-out" in their chosen field.

Although many women veterans of Vietnam choose to remain anonymous, much was gained from the horrific experiences. Many of these nurses became highly skilled and self-reliant. They realized a sense of independence and strength. Certainly, they learned what suffering is and were deeply moved by it.

Women served alongside men in that sink-pit of war. For the country to heal, these women need to reveal the full depth of their experiences, first to themselves and then to the rest of us. It's time for women's experiences and contributions to be recognized and acknowledged as an important part of the history of the Vietnam conflict.