NamNews, 1-01 Pages 39-42 11 Nov 1987
Submitted by: Thom Patten, San Jose Vet Center, San Jose, California
They came from the heartland. They came from the coasts. They came to answer their nations call. They grew up with those values - Duty, Honor, Country. And, when the time came, they readily volunteered. Thrust into an impossible situation, they became sickened by the pointless waste that was paraded before them day after day, eventually numbing themselves emotionally just to survive. And, upon their return, they did not hear the words "Welcome home". Instead, they found a country that was ill prepared and, in some cases, unwilling to acknowledge their accomplishments or address their needs. These were not the combat soldiers of Southeast Asia. These were the women who served in Vietnam.
Fran McDaniel was 24 when she served her first tour in Vietnam. "I grew up hearing stories about World War II", Fran says of her childhood in Virginia, "I wanted to do something significant." Although she loved her mother, she wanted nothing to do with the drudgery of being a housewife. Wrapped in patriotism and longing for adventure, Fran McDaniel joined the Army. Within 5 months 2nd Lieutenant Fran McDaniel was in Vietnam. The year was 1966.
The first two months of Fran's were relatively uneventful as her group went about setting up a mobile field hospital.
There were casualties, but not in overwhelming numbers. Once the hospital was set up, the casualties started coming in. "Marines, Navy, the Big Red One, I think, I don't know...I blocked things out." That was how Fran dealt with the casualties. She didn't want to know the identities of the incoming wounded. She referred to them as "the chest wound", or "the abdomen wound".
"I had to do that in the O.R.", she continued, "I didn't have to know...I didn't want to know." She even went so far as to not visit the post-op areas. "I didn't want to see those guys whose
legs I just took off the table." With the heavy use of mine warfare in Vietnam, came an inordinate amount of leg amputations.
Explained Fran, "We did a lot of heavy surgery...vascular, big abdomen operations...but all the legs...it seemed like that's all I did. Fran dealt with Vietnam much the same as other Vietnam Vets-she blocked it out. So effective are her blocking mechanisms, that she struggles to remember the units with which she served. "With two tours", she explains, "it all runs together." Fran has no problem remembering the positive aspects of her time in Vietnam. She fondly recalls the camaraderie of her group. She still misses the attention she received as "Queen for a Year", a term describing the treatment the nurses received.
Still, she deals with the horror, Fran continued to block. She admits to "drinking more over there", but maintains it was part of a "Purposeful Fog". And, even though the hospital was flattened three times, and at one point almost overrun, Fran denies any lingering effects. "I guess I just blocked that, too."
Upon her return to the states, Fran McDaniel continued to block Vietnam. "It was like I'd never been there...like it was someone else. Remaining in the Army, she was insulated from any negative reaction in the community. She did a two year "dream assignment" in Germany, but eventually wound up back in Vietnam.
The Vietnam of 1971 was a different war from Vietnam 1966. "Most everybody didn't want to be there", Fran remembers, "I had more guys in the hospital for drug addiction that we did for wounds." Now a supervisor, Fran had difficulty getting her people to do the things that needed to be done. And the casualties continued. She recalls the aftermath of a firefight when a truckload of dead South Vietnamese soldiers were brought to the hospital in Pleiku. "They piled the bodies up outside...piles and piles of bodies." For all the blocking, Fran still carries two images with her- " three big piles of bodies" and "hundreds and hundreds of legs".
A few years ago, at the request of a friend, Fran joined a Vet Center's Women's Vet Group. She admits to being resistant. She felt that the others were just "cry-babies" wanting to blame all their problems on Vietnam. She has since changed her mind. "hey, I've got some problems here myself. I realized I had these images I was carrying around here, that every time I tried to talk about them I just blocked them out." About the earlier group, Fran says they are "probably better off than me. They got it off their chests eight or nine years before I did. I just didn't think I had that much to say about it."
To this day, Fran still tip-toes through the emotional mine-fields of Vietnam. She refuses to read Linda VanDevanter's "Home Before Morning". "I won't read it...I don't want to read it. I don't want to see all that stuff", she explains fidgeting nervously, "because I just might lose it. I know that I probably do need to read it and I think that someday I will." For Fran McDaniel, the Vietnam War has not ended.
Linda McClenahan is a minority within a minority. She is
a non-nurse Vietnam veteran. Born to Midwestern parents, raised with Midwestern values,
and educated in Catholic schools, Linda readily admits her patriotism. Her soft demeanor
belies the fire within. "I always had the attitude that freedom is a two-edged sword.
With the good things of freedom you also have the responsibility. And though I'm a
Minnesotan by birth, I suppose that I have a little of that Missouri attitude - show
me". After High School, Linda decided to join the service. When the Air Force
couldn't guarantee her more than a clerical position, she decided to join the Army.
"I wanted to do something that mattered," Linda explains. "The day I talked
to these people I knew I was going to volunteer for Vietnam. I wanted to know what was
going on." Linda graduated with honors from both Basic training and AIT, and was WAC
of the Month at Ft. Richie, MD.
Her specialty was fixed station communications. She was told that the waiting list for non-nurse assignments in Vietnam was "years". While on leave, she enlisted the help of a family friend who was an assignment officer in Oakland. Within three weeks, Linda McClenahan had her orders for Vietnam. Within hours of her arrival, Linda got her first taste of what she had volunteered for.
"The first thing that happened is we (US Air Force) started filing out. About fifteen minutes later we were lying flat on the ground, just really glad I'm a 32 no-cup, laying just as flat as I could get and that stuff's commin' in explodin' all over the place. That was the moment I realized `My God, I could get killed over here'. And I said to the Captain, `I don't understand this...aren't we behind the lines here?' and the Captain said, `Lady, this is Vietnam...there is no behind-the-lines here.'" Enroute to her assignment, Linda had her first contact with casualties. It was the result of an earlier attack. They were children. Within hours, she was already thinking to herself, "It's not supposed to be like this." While I was looking at this...and I don't know what kind of look I had on my face, but this Captain, in his second tour, grabbed me by the arm and pointed to the kids and said, "Young lady, if you're going to survive over here, you'd better get used to that." Linda's voice softened, "How do you get used to that?"
The WAC detachment in Long Binh did not have a mess hall of it's own. They shared a mess with the 24th Evacuation Hospital. The walk to the mess hall took Linda right past the triage area for the 24th Evac. After only five days in-country, Linda saw her first chopper load of casualties. "It was amazing what the human body can withstand and still be alive. I was walking with some old timers...they went on to the mess hall...I went back to the WAC detachment...I didn't feel much like eating." Six months later, Linda would be able to complete the walk to the mess hall, numb to the horror.
"It was one of those odd-ball guilts...it made perfect sense, and you still felt guilty that it didn't bother you anymore." The constant contact with the dead and injured would come back to haunt Linda many years later.
Linda soon discovered that she had yet another identity, that of "Round-Eye", a term referring to any American woman in Vietnam. "You started hearing, `Wow, I haven't seen a round-eye in fill-in-the-blank months", Linda says with a chuckle, "Guys would jump off trucks. Some of the women had trouble with that ...I didn't. I had the attitude that I wasn't a nurse and I wasn't saving lives...and the guys got a big kick out of it." At first, she enjoyed the attention, but after a while it got tiring. Still, she took the time to care. "It was different with the women officers, because they had to play muckity-muck games...they'd be transported to this party with this colonel, or that major...we were down with the real guys...grunts and dust-off pilots. We were treated better by the real field grunts who were in on the stand-down that we were by the guys in the safe areas. Any sexual harassment came from the guys in the safe areas. The grunts just wanted to dance and talk about anything...their cars, their sports teams, home. Most of the guys were very glad we were willing to just spend the time...we were willing to share the hell-hole with them. They wouldn't do anything to mess that up. You'd work 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week, and then go out there for three or four hours...it was tiring. But", she added with an affectionate smile, "I wouldn't change that. I wish I'd done more."
Slowly, Linda's attitude began to shift concerning America's involvement in Vietnam. There were discrepancies between the number of casualties reported in the CommCenter, and what were being reported in the Stars and Stripes. There were also reports she was processing about units taking hills, holding them for a short time, and then being ordered off the hill. "Two months later we got guys dyin' on that same stupid hill." Linda found herself struggling with the same issue as her male counterparts-what were we doing in Vietnam and why were we there? "It just seems to me that you've got to make sure that the cause is worth the sacrifice...and I don't think we did that in Vietnam. Still, Linda served with distinction, being awarded an Army Commendation Medal for her service.
"Somehow, I thought things would be different", Linda reflects about her return home. "I felt like I did a really good job in a tough situation, and I was proud." But instead of a warm welcome, Linda fell victim to ridicule and sexual innuendo.
She admits to setting herself up for some "real nasty situations" with flag burning demonstrators. She was derided by her friends for having brought it on herself by choosing to serve in Vietnam. Her parents just wanted her to leave Vietnam behind. In a class at Berkeley, Linda rose to the defense of another Vietnam vet who was being ridiculed by both class and professor. When she identified herself as a Vietnam vet, a voice from the back of the class asked if she was one of "Uncle Sam's whores". On a visit to the VA a doctor literally asked her if she had made a lot of money "whoring around over there". Attempts to receive gynecological care from the VA resulted in a voucher for "inadequate funds" for a private physician. Isolated, frustrated, and angry, Linda tried to walk away and begin a new life. After changing jobs three times in two years, she settled into the job which she has held since.
Linda thought Vietnam was behind her. There had been temper flare-ups, drinking binges and occasional nightmares, but she never related it to anything. In her sleep, Linda kept seeing the casualties and the body-bags. As the nightmares increased, so did the drinking. "I didn't drink to get drunk," she explains, just until I heard this click. Once I heard the `click', I knew I wouldn't dream. I didn't have to drink anymore." Her difficulties were compounded by a self imposed system of denial. She was convinced that because she wasn't a nurse or a grunt, that she really didn't see anything over there.
After one exceptionally terrifying nightmare, Linda went to a Vet Center and hooked up with Vet Center counselor Rose Sandecki. She's been sober ever since. "Thanks to Rose and my other counselor," she grins, "I can talk about it pretty level actually."
Today, Linda McClenahan faces a new hurdle. After 15 years with a large local firm, Linda has been told that she is being laid off. This Irish fighter shows no sign of defeat. To Linda this is an opportunity. Meanwhile, she'll have her hands full with her pet project. Linda J. McClenahan, Vietnam vet, is the Chairperson for the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
With funding having reached the halfway point, groundbreaking took place last month. Says Linda, "I'm gonna get it built. Well, me and about 200,000 others...but it's gonna get built."
I asked Linda if there was anything that she wanted to be sure to say about the women of Vietnam. She said, "tell `em we were there." She paused for a moment and said, "We're always there, and always forgotten."
When I started this article and those you will read in successive issues of the Nam Vet, I knew very little of the women of Vietnam. Male myopia. In doing the research, I immersed myself in the literature of these veterans in a attempt to not only understand what they went through, but to feel it. For the last few months, I've been traveling back through Vietnam and seeing it through the eyes of these women. It has been a profound journey. I have looked into the hearts and minds of some of the most courageous and cheated veterans of the Vietnam war. I have felt courage born of fear, rejection born of devotion, and pain born of healing. And I have been reminded of something very important. I have been reminded that the story of Vietnam is incomplete without the acknowledgement of the women's contributions. Finally, that any service organization that claims to serve the interests of Vietnam vets, is absolutely negligent unless their agendas include the ongoing needs of this special group of people.
On July 1, 1986, the VA Medical Center in Martinez, California, hired a full-time Gynecologists to it's staff. In addition, the Medical Center now has a Womens Clinic, which provides a wide range of services to the female veteran. Veterans whose needs cannot be met at a local VA facility are referred to the Martinez Center in California. According to the hospital spokesperson, the staff is both proud and excited about their new program. The mental health community is now becoming educated to the post-war issues of the women vets as more and more come forward to tell their story. But, still there is a lot to be done. In our next big edition we will continue our series with an article that deals with the ongoing readjustment problems of those veterans who, in the words of Linda McLenahan, "are always there...and always forgotten." The Women of Vietnam.
A Piece of My Heart - The stories of 26 women who served in Vietnam - Ballantine Books;
Long Time Passing - Myra MacPherson - Signet Books/Doubleday & Company;
Home Before Morning - Linda Van Devanter - Beaufort Books, Inc.
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My Vietnam Related Websites:
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
Tim O'Brien's Home Page ~ National Book Award Winner and Americal Vet
Emily's Poetry ~ By a Red Cross Donut Dolly
Shrapnel in the Heart ~ The most moving book you will read on Vietnam
All About Vietnam ~ An annotated bibliography of books about Vietnam for sale thru Amazon Worldwide!
Battle Dressing ~
Project Hearts and Minds ~ Help put Viet Nam back together
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!
|Page last updated July 18, 2007|