April 9, 2000

Quiet Tribute Paid to Women Vets
By Zenaida A. Gonzalez

Genevieve Hamm, foreground, and Grace Vendelin of the American Gold Star Mothers carry flowers that will be laid near the names of women who died in the Vietnam War at the Moving Wall Memorial in Wickham Park. (Image Copyright © 2000, Craig Bailey)

MELBOURNE, Fla. - Hundreds filled Wickham Park on Saturday to listen to a band and watch the opening ceremony for the Florida Vietnam Veterans Reunion.

The ceremony, with its flags and salutes, was a stark contrast to the quiet remembrance earlier in the day that honored women who died in the conflict.

The women's ceremony was missing from the reunion's official program and it wasn't on the group's official Web site. The 25 women who attended the ceremony at the Moving Wall veterans memorial heard about it through a network of women vets on the Internet.

The omission didn't surprise Kammy McCleery, a "Donut Dolly'' - women who did anything from administrative work to giving moral support to the troops with the American Red Cross - in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. She flew in from Kentucky to attend the reunion.

McCleery said she vividly remembered being reprimanded by vets who told her she had been "just a cheerleader'' and not to dare call herself a vet despite supporting GIs in camps on the front line.

When one Army veteran in the audience heard this, he gave her a hug. It was a long hug, and they both cried.

Kammy McCleery of Lexington, Kentucky, left, and Emily Strange of Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, embrace during Saturday’s ceremony at Wickham Park, recognizing women’s contributions during the Vietnam War.  (Copyright 2000 Craig Bailey)

Stephen Maxner, an oral historian with the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said it's been only in the past five to six years that women have started to be recognized for their contributions to the war.

"I think, like the men, it wasn't a good thing for women to talk about in society,'' Maxner said. "It wasn't accepted, but that's changing. More women are sharing their experience, and that's a first step.''

The Pentagon estimates 1,234 women served in the war but doesn't have exact figures. Several women's groups say the number, including civilians who helped support the military, was closer to 3,000.

Ann Kelsey, an Army Special Services librarian who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, said she had a hard time telling people what she did when she returned to the United States.

"Like other Vietnam veterans, women didn't want to talk about the experience,'' Kelsey said. "It wasn't something that was popular here, and those who did speak were often shunned.''

That trend is changing, and while women aren't comparing themselves to vets who carried machine guns and fought in the jungles of Vietnam, they are starting to talk about what they saw.

That's why Kelsey traveled from New Jersey to attend the reunion, which for the first time allowed women to set up an exhibit at the site.

Cheri Hawes, a Satellite Beach resident, used the event to speak in public for the first time about her experiences as an Army nurse at a tent hospital from 1970 to 1971.

"I'm going to tell you about my first day on the job,'' she told a small audience Friday. "They handed me a dead baby and told me to find its mother. They told me to round up enough money to pay for a cart so the women could take it home.''

Six hours later, she was deciding which of three injured men would live or die. They all needed immediate help.

"Our priority was to help those who we knew we could save and send back out into the field,'' Hawes said.

Those who weren't going to make it were assigned a nurse so they wouldn't die alone.

Later that same night, she and another nurse had to go outside the tent and record the names of all the dead soldiers.

"It was the worst duty,'' she said. "We had to make sure we matched up body parts because we knew how important it was for the families back home. And you have to understand, these weren't just bodies, these were boys, 19 or 20. The average age among the nurses was 23.''

Hawes kept her composure while she spoke, but when she sat down, her control flowed away among the tears. She wept.

Many women shared their memories at the women's exhibit, and several came to listen despite the fact it was at the rear of the park, behind the food and vendors.

These women had gripping stories from perspectives as varied as a wife waiting for her GI to come home, to a woman who found a family among the fighting.

Stay-at-home wife

Alix M. Hall of Melbourne Village didn't live the war in Vietnam but has lived with it since her husband and father returned from the war.

She became a Veterans Affairs nurse in the psychiatric ward and worked with several hundred men who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"I live with it every day,'' she said. "My daughter has nightmares because she saw her dad go into a PTSD episode and attack me thinking I was a VC, so you see it affects me.''

Baby rescue

Linda "Scooter'' Watson of Tampa was in the Women's Army Corps and transported orphans from Saigon to the United States as part of Operation Baby Lift in 1975.

She vividly remembers the armed guards escorting her and the children to and from the plane. She remembers the crying children placed in cardboard boxes underneath the plane seats to make room for as many children as possible. She remembers hearing what she thought was thunder while the plane took off.

"It wasn't thunder,'' she said. "It was bombs.''

The Army mom

Cathy Oatman of St. Petersburg was among the lucky ones. She served as a data controller with the Army in Saigon from 1969 to 1972. She doesn't say much about the war except that what spared her from so much agony was her children.

Oatman, then 32, adopted two Vietnamese children - Kevin and Kami - and brought them to the United States with her in 1972.

"I think they saved me,'' Oatman said. "I focused on getting them the hell out of there and not the war.''

She talks about her first moments in Saigon.

"I remember getting off the plane and seeing all these guards with huge guns and thinking, "What have I gotten myself into,' '' she said in a moment lost in her memories.

She talks about crossing enemy lines to seek the approval of a Catholic bishop to take the children from an orphanage. Even with all the hardships, she said she is grateful for one thing - her kids.

"Kevin and Kami saved me,'' she said.

'It's healing'

Watson, who helped babies escape Vietnam, has amassed a collection of women's memorabilia from the war.

She travels Florida setting up an educational display so children and adults can understand the role women have had in the military. Her collection includes uniforms and medals not only from the Vietnam War but as far back as the Revolutionary war.

"It's healing,'' she said. "And it educates others about what women before did and what women in Vietnam did. They paved the way for others, like those who participated in Operation Desert Storm.''

Next generation

Master Sgt. Paula Byrne, stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, said she was glad women finally were being recognized.

"This is long overdue,'' she said, looking at Watson's display. "It's important to recognize women's contributions, because like most things we want, it's a long, uphill battle. But if we endure, we'll get there.''

Byrne has spent 20 years in the service, is married and has children. She will retire soon and said she feels confident the military, like the rest of society, is learning to recognize women and their valuable role.

She points to the recently appointed first female three-star general.

"I hope that more opportunities in the high-visibility areas become available to women who want them,'' she said. "I'm confident they will.''

Elaine James traveled from the Midwest to lay a red carnation at the foot of "The Wall'' in memory of some of the women who died.

She served as an assistant to the Chief of Army Intelligence from 1970 to 1971.

"A lot of people don't even know women served and died in Vietnam,'' she said wiping away a tear. "We paid part of the price for the freedom of this country. People need to remember that.''

Although some Vietnam veterans at the reunion resented the women and either refused to talk about them or say anything that could be printed in the newspaper, others were more accepting.

Stephen Douglas Lipscomb, a veteran who lives in Vero Beach, said women need to be honored for their sacrifices as much as men.

"It is about time women get some recognition and respect for what they did,'' Lipscomb said. "Just to see some of the things they say. They paid dearly. Everyone involved in the war paid dearly.''

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My Vietnam Related Websites:
button Women in Vietnam ~ Read about ALL the women who served . . .
The Irish on the Wall ~ An effort to locate the Irish who died in Vietnam
button Tim O'Brien's Home Page ~ National Book Award Winner and Americal Vet

button Emily's Poetry ~ By a Red Cross Donut Dolly
button All About Vietnam    ~ An annotated bibliography of books about Vietnam for sale thru Amazon Worldwide!
button Photos from a Holts' Military History Tour ~ My trip to Vietnam, February 1998

My Other Websites:
Maybe Later . . . ~ My Creative Nonfiction
Irish in Korea ~ Irish men and women who gave their lives in the Korean War
Literature of the Korean War ~ Don't let the literature be forgotten
Samuel Pepys ~ One of my favorite authors
Chicago Theatre Z - A ~ This is the best theater town in the country!
Soccer Literature ~ I'm a fan and I read
O'Leary Lantern ~ Fire! Fire! Fire!
Gil Thorp ~ THE Coach (apologies to The General!)
Poetry of the First World War ~ Owen, Hardy and others
Chi-COW-go ~ Cowz plus Commentary (this used to be a cow town)
Graham Fulton, Scottish Poet ~ Charles Manson Auditions for the Monkees

Other Important Websites:
The Truth About Caroline ~ a  really good Young Adult book by my niece, Stacey
M. Lane Grosh
Remember Oklahoma City
The Civil Service and Military will NEVER forget!

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