Vietnam war the role women were playing

The Vietnam War is one of the most debated topics of the twentieth century—this is reflected in the endless amount of books, articles, documentaries, and Hollywood productions that have emerged about the topic.   Much of the historiography of the conflict, as well as mainstream popular literature on the war, all share a disturbing omission—very few include any thoughtful reflection whatsoever on the role that American women served in Vietnam.  There are very few works devoted to this important part of women’s history, and the ones that exist are primary sources—mostly collections of personal narratives of those women who served.  Hardly any scholarly work done on the topic- most secondary sources that are available are not by professional historians. Scholarly articles were practically non-existent in history journals—most appeared in nursing journals and focused more on the medical aspects. Most general books and texts on the Vietnam War (including Moss’ Vietnam, An American Ordeal, Fourth Edition) gloss over, if not skip entirely, the role of women in Vietnam.why have historians not chose to look at this topic in greater detail, especially since there have been multiple studies on women in the other American wars? There are a few possible explanations as to why there is such a lack of scholarly study of this historically-important group of American women. Many of the official military and Department of Defense records are scarce, spotty, and incomplete. It is still unclear how man American women, military and nonmilitary, served in Vietnam.   Statistics on civilian women who served in Vietnam are even harder to gather.

Another possible reason these women have been ignored is that they were a comparatively small number and many Americans simply do not realize that women played an active role in the U.S. war effort.  The women that most Americans remember from this era fell into two archetypes—the wives and other family members waiting for their soldiers to return, or the “hippie” women anti-war protestors who tried to persuade men from going to war.

Regardless of this seeming forgetfulness on account of the American public, women did serve their country in many capacities during the war. They, like the men in uniform who were doing the fighting, came under much of the same enemy fire and risked their lives.  These women be divided up into the military personnel and the non-military civilian women who were involved in various ways. The majority of military women were in the Army Nursing Corps, while the remainder of these women were either enlisted or officers in each branch of the military serving as clerks, photographers, cartographers, air-traffic controllers— all non- combat positions.  The non-military American women served as journalists, Red Cross workers, missionaries, teachers, entertainers, and government workers in many agencies that existed in conjunction with the military effort in Vietnam.

Unlike the men who served in the U.S. military during the war, all women in Vietnam were volunteers since they were not subject to the draft. In a war that became less and less popular as the years went by, American women still were motivated to join the effort in Vietnam.  Their motivations were many and diverse.  Many women who joined the military or other government agencies to go to Vietnam felt compelled by a certain patriotic duty. Since their brothers, boyfriends, and husbands were being called to duty, many felt obliged to serve their country as well.  Other women went to Vietnam for a sense of adventure. One Army nurse, Judy H. Elbring said in her memoirs: “I went to nursing school so I could go to Vietnam. I needed a job that could get me into the war… The stories I had heard my father tell made it sound very exciting.”  Still others wanted to escape protective parents or the prospects of an “ordinary” future as homemaker and wife.

Many women saw the war as an opportunity for personal advancement in their professional career. Many nurses felt if they could withstand the tests of the war, they could handle any of their responsibilities or trying situations back home.  Perhaps this applies to most of the American women who joined the military who entered the Army Nursing Corps, a program that financed the final years of a nursing education in return for a term of service.  In order to enroll, a woman had to meet an age requirement of twenty-one years.  Most of these women enrolled in the program fully knowing that they would be given an assignment in Vietnam after graduation from nursing school.

While the overwhelming majority of women who served in the military were nurses, there were still others who were assigned to a variety of non-combat, non-medical jobs.  They served as personnel on naval vessels, headquarters offices, and on bases as photographers, clerks, air-traffic controllers, cartographers, intelligence personnel, and other numerous non-medical positions. Many of these women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), but some served in the other branches of the military.

There was an even greater number of civilian women than military women who in Vietnam.  While an estimated 7,000-12,000 women served in the military, the number of civilian women in Vietnam appears to be over 20,000 during the course of the war.   These civilians worked in government agencies, the Red Cross, the Peace Corps, various volunteer groups, the Armed Forces Radio and Television networks, and the United Service Organization.  Others worked as teachers and missionaries to the people of South Vietnam.  Some of these women traveled in and out of Vietnam at various intervals during the war, while others had a more permanent presence in the war effort.

Obviously, the experiences of the American women in Vietnam varied according to their type of service.  While their daily experiences were different, all women who served were met with the sobering realities of danger and death on a daily basis.  Whether they were nurses, journalists, or radio personalities, all women were aware of the very real possibility that they were in harm’s way.

The initial experience of arriving in Vietnam brought on a variety of emotions.  Women in the military were almost always expected to wear their military dress on arrival to their station in Vietnam, which included a prim handbag and high-heels.  An army nurse landing in Vietnam for the first time realized the impracticality of this regulation—“We were not far off the coast when the captain announced they were mortaring the airfield… The plane made a steep landing… We ran out and the troops going home ran in… We were told to follow the person in front of us into a bunker… Unfortunately, I had high heels on. Did you ever try to run in them?”

Once the initial experience of arrival was over, women began to adjust to their situations and to adapt their professions to the unique circumstances that the war presented. Nurses, journalists, WACs, civilian workers like those in the Red Cross, and women entertainers, all had unique daily experience that deserve discussion.

 

Nurses were stationed throughout South Vietnam on various bases, camps, and even hospital ships off the coast.  Eighty percent of military nurses were in the Army Nurse Corps, while the remainder were in the other branches.  When a nurse arrived in Vietnam, she was considered in-training for the first three months, and a veteran after sixth months of service.  For many of these young women, this was their first professional job out of nursing school.  The average age range of these women was twenty-one to twenty-three, while older and experienced nurses were in shorter supply.

Nurses in Vietnam quickly became accustomed to the fact that they were involved in a war without traditional geographic fronts, thus there was always a danger of enemy attack.  While this was one of the major disadvantages that the Army nurses of previous wars had not dealt with, there were certain advantages of the war in Vietnam.  New medical technology that was available for use on a daily basis had improved dramatically even from the Korean War. Also, the ability and speed of helicopters to airlift the wounded allowed many to be spared who would have died on the battlefield in previous wars.

Caring for these wounded was the primary daily responsibility of the nurses.  They assisted surgeons in the operating rooms, performed triage responsibilities, worked in post-op wards, administered medications, dealt with the various diseases of the tropical climate, and comforted the dying—all on an almost daily basis.  Their duties were often met with troubling moral decisions. They made tough choices about how to decide whether a wounded patient would be prioritized for surgery during triage.  They also felt confused and troubled at the thought of caring for suspected enemy soldiers who were brought in along with the wounded.   Another moral dilemma that sometimes faced the nurses was whether to treat patients who had obviously been abusing drugs—with some nurses refusing to do this.

In the midst of the trauma and human destruction that these women witnessed during their twelve-hour workdays, nurses in the Vietnam War developed a camaraderie that allowed them to survive even the worst situations.  Many developed friendships and shared their stories of home with each other.  The lived together, ate together, celebrated holidays, and often wept together when the emotional strain of the war began to be too much to bear.  Nurses who had been in Vietnam helped new arrivals, and those left behind cheered when their fellow nurses were sent home.   All the while, most nurses maintained morale, even as the morale of the soldiers around them was in decline.

Journalists made up a much smaller element of the overall population of American women serving in Vietnam.  One estimate holds that only seventy-six women served in the American press corps during the war.  Unlike the women nurses who were overwhelmingly patriotic and supportive of the war effort, there was a much greater spectrum of political sensibilities among the women journalists.  Some were pro-war, some anti-war. Many of them stuck close to the urban centers like Saigon, but some went on assignment into the fields with troops.   One woman journalist, Denby Fawcett, followed directly behind a point man through the jungle as she watched him pick off a Vietcong soldier hiding on one side. “I wanted to see what it would be like to be so vulnerable,” she said in a later interview.   These women, like their male counterparts, were obviously willing to enter dangerous situations to get the real story of the war and bring it to the American public.

Still another unique group of civilian women who served were those in the various volunteer organizations, especially the Red Cross.  Volunteer workers provided a variety of important functions.  The women of the Red Cross were an important lifeline to home in case any soldier had a family emergency back home. They also created the Recreational Activites Overseas (SRAO) program in which women participated to increase morale among the troops. These young women were nicknamed the “Donut Dollies” because they would bring donuts, Kool-Aid, and other small reminders of home to the troops.   They put on shows, led sing-alongs, and brought games to the troops as they were lifted from base to base.  These recreational activities were often a major boost, and they offered comfort and a woman to chat with for soldiers missing the women they left at home.

While most of these women—the nurses, the journalists, the entertainers, the volunteers—were experiencing gender discrimination during the war, the feminist movement had not yet taken great hold among American women and especially among the ranks of the women in Vietnam.  In a few sad cases, American women in Vietnam were the targets of assault and rape, simply because they were females outnumbered by their fellow male soldiers.  Their resolve to make a difference helped them to overcome these obstacles of discrimination and negative female stereotypes and allowed them to continue their service.

For many, the end of this service was a bittersweet time.  Women, especially in the military, became disillusioned at the thought of returning to society back on the home front.  At the end of one’s tour, a military nurse or other woman personnel would return home individually, with no grand welcome awaiting them. Many of these women—if not most of them—had experienced the terrors and trauma of the war, and had to find a way to cope with these extremely unpleasant memories while finding their place back in a normal life.  Many felt the best way to deal with this was to disappear into isolation, and found it difficult to speak to family, friends, and even male veterans about their experiences.  Many were met with difficulties when seeking help from the Veteran’s Association, leaving them no other option than to internalize their emotions. Many women, as a result, developed marked cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An obstacle unique to only women veterans was that members of the medical community were not willing at first to accept that women could develop this disorder, since men were the only ones involved in the combat and killing.  Eventually this position was reversed, but in the mean time many women had to suffer silently without the treatment options available to their male counterparts.

Many civilian women “veterans” also experienced this same fear and disillusionment as did those who served in the military, because they also came under enemy fire during their various operations.  A famed Armed Forces Radio personality, actress Chris Noel, was shunned by Hollywood on her return from the war. She, like many other women, turned to alcohol and drugs as a result of her inability to cope with her post-traumatic disorder following her frightening personal experiences during her service in Vietnam.A few women returned home not only with the emotional baggage of war, but with wounds, injuries, and the loss of friends and colleagues.  Eight American military women died during the war.  An estimated nearly fifty civilian women died during the war—thirty-seven of these deaths occurred when a transport plane carrying Vietnamese children to be adopted in the U.S. crashed near Saigon on April 4, 1975. The names of the eight military women are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, and many believe that the names of the civilian women should be as well.

These American women who served, and sometimes died, have been portrayed as completely marginal, if existent at all, in remembrances of the Vietnam War among the American people. It is difficult to understand why both the spectators at home and the male participants of the war seemed to ignore the fact that American women were on the ground making a real difference for the U.S—whether they were helping to save lives in the hospital wards, bring comfort to tired and homesick soldiers, or performing the everyday clerical tasks that kept the war effort going.  Until these women gain recognition for their part in the overall story of the war, there will remain a group of brave volunteers forgotten, and an important piece of American women’s history missing.

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Moss, George. Vietnam: An American Ordeal. p.310-312. *Moss devotes only two paragraphs to the role of women in the war, while the description on the back cover of his book touts the “expanded treatment of the role of women in the U.S. military serving in Vietnam”.

 

Jones, Catherine. “American Women in Vietnam”, http://www.afsc.org/youthmil/html/news/dec99/womenviet_print.htm (website)

Norman, p. 19.Jones, “American Women in Vietnam”, http://www.afsc.org/youthmil/html/news/dec99/womenviet_print.htm (website)

 

Interview with Denby Fawcett, Emerson, Gloria ed. War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. (New York, NY: Random House Publishers, 2002.)

Marshall, p.8.Steinman, p.27. Interview with Chris Noel- Steinman, p. 192.Steinman, p. 25-26.

 


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