The American Women During The Vietnam War
a. Scope of the Study
Vietnam was one of the most horrific battlefields an American soldier ever went through. It was during this war where US Servicemen experienced a defeat they could never accept and in which a lot of lives were lost. The situation of the soldiers stationed in Vietnam was very despicable; aside from the fact that they were thousand miles away from their families, they are in an unknown land where the enemy knew more about the terrains and the jungles where they are fighting on, thereby giving them advantage over the foreign, uninformed military personnel from America.
Aside from these men, there were women who also experienced this savage effect of the war. Women, who stayed side by side with men, women who treated wounded soldiers on the field, on washed down buildings known as hospitals, women who helped not just the American soldiers but also the poor Vietnamese people torn in the war.
Women, who were a part of an efficient and effective media reporting every detail in a faraway land of Vietnam to America; and women, who cooked hot meals, served clean uniforms, and brought a smile to every lonely soldier entrapped in the land called Vietnam.
Therefore, it is the objective of this paper, to introduce once again these women and the important roles that they played during the Vietnam War. How they got in the military and how they got involved in the war. In addition to this, we would also try to find out what had happened to them after the war, what are their experiences? Will they ever want to go back again?
II. Brief History of the Vietnam War
The war in Vietnam was originally only a conflict between two opposing parties attempting to take over present-day Vietnam. North Vietnam was represented by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Nationalist Front for the Liberation of Vietnam or the Viet Cong, aiming to unite the whole country under a communist government. North Vietnam sustains a communist government under Ho Chi Minh. Rival party Republic of Vietnam (RVN) represents South Vietnam, which was a democratic government under Ngo Dinh Diem. This coalition was heavily supported by the United States of America. However, this war was only a branching of the conflict between USA and the Soviet Union from the Cold War. Soviet Union backed up the Viet Cong against the Americans.
The war started around 1959 when guerillas from the North subsequently attack the South. American troops were dispatched to help beginning of 1965 and the service ended with the famous Fall of Saigon. America officially joined in the battle when in August of 1964, a US Warship was assaulted by Northern Guerilla forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. After which, President Lyndon Johnson, with the permission of American Congress, sent troops to Vietnam without the intent of declaring war. However, they started bombing targets in Vietnam and annihilated most of the North Vietnam troops in Chu Lai and La Drang Valley.
The Northern forces, getting wiser from their defeats, used the terrain of Vietnam to their advantage. They did not engage in large battlefield tactical offensives but rather deployed smaller units to specifically target US troops in the jungle of South Vietnam. This strategy was later on called the Tet Offensive, an approach that lead the Northern forces to victory with the withdrawal of the US army troops. President Johnson who was shamed for this defeat did not run for another term and Richard Nixon was elected President. However, during these times, there were a lot of propagandas about the US and the situation in Vietnam that distrusts started to stem in that the proposal to take over South Vietnam so US can directly eradicate the Viet Cong units was not fulfilled. During this time scandals shrouded the US such as US troops mass murdered civilians in My Lai, the assault of Cambodia and finally the release of valuable information from the Pentagon in 1971.
This withdrawal of the US army troops became a big problem for the Southern forces, since they relied heavily on US army support to fight combatants from the Northern side. They get battered in every clash and soon enough, the Southern forces were beat up as dogs. Until a treaty signed in Paris on January 27, 1974 was thought to bring peace between the two factions and total desertion of American troops of Vietnam. However, the Viet Cong attacked southern Vietnam again and captured the city of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
After the war, a comprehensive counting of casualties on all sides resulted in more than fifty-eight thousand American soldiers killed, one hundred fifty-three thousand wounded, and still one thousand nine hundred forty eight soldiers missing in action. While an estimated two hundred thirty thousand killed in South Vietnam and one million one hundred thousand killed in the Viet Cong units.
III. Vietnam – The Country
To better give an understanding of what Americans went through in Vietnam, it is best to describe the country they were trapped in for more than a decade.
Vietnam is mainly composed of hills and densely forested mountains enclosing valleys in not more than 20 percent of the land area of the country. Forests compose seventy five percent of the country. Most of these forests are uncharted territory for most American soldiers that was why they can not create an offensive against the Tet strategy of the Viet Cong Units. There are highlands located on the north side of Vietnam and coastal lowlands, and mountains with high plateaus are found in southern Vietnam.
The major product of the country is grain and people spent most of their time tilling their rice fields and growing their own produce. Most of the people who are not thriving in the cities were farmers, mainly getting their livelihood from farming. Most of these folks have not seen any technological advancement as opposed to what people take advantage for in America. They have make-shift bathrooms made out of coconut leaves and latrines dug out from the ground for their toilets. They stay in houses made of dry wood and bamboo and sleep on the floor. Vietnam is a tropical country, it occasionally has monsoon rains and very humid three-fourths of the year. The Southwest Monsoon starting in April up to September brings heavy precipitation to the mountains and very conducive for the agriculture of Vietnam in the south and southwest. While the Northeast Monsoon, beginning from October to March brings heavy downpour to the northwest coast.
It could get as cold as five degree Celsius and as hot as forty one degree Celsius. Due to this temperature that Vietnamese sports a light fabric made to protect their skin from the sun and keep them cool at the same time.
However, in the cities, that’s a different thing. If the country farmers exhibit a quaint, peaceful and simple lifestyle, those people living in the cities behave like any other person living in any other cities in the world. Loud, traffic, noise, and pollution densely occupy the city.
IV. The Women in Vietnam
Just like any other American in Vietnam, these women volunteered to go to Vietnam. Why in the world anyone would want to volunteer to go to Vietnam, you may ask, but there are a lot of reasons that emanated from the interviews with these women. Others went to Vietnam believing in the cause of war; others went there for a career change; others went there as curious wide-eyed fresh graduates from college looking for immediate employment; others to escape boredom in the Americas; and others to genuinely help the poor downtrodden citizens of Vietnam.
a. Who are they?
i. Military Women
Military women are everywhere in Vietnam, from working in the Administrative office, as Lieutenants in the Intelligence divisions, as clerks in offices, as typists and secretaries. Just like the men in the military, they stayed where they are, supported them and helped them with their reports, planned intelligence for them and strategize options for the company to follow. They wear uniforms and have ranks and get saluted at by privately commissioned officers. In short, they were women in uniforms who had respect and the rank just like any other military men. They were distinguished and also awarded medals for the services that they have rendered. As in the article by Noonie Fortin entitled Vietnam Woman Veteran Receives Soldier’s Medal back in 2001;
“Specialist Five, United States Army for heroism not involving actual conflict with an armed enemy: Specialist Karen I. Offutt, Women’s Army Corps, United States Army, as assigned to Headquarters Military Assistance Command Vietnam, J47, distinguished herself by heroic action on 24 January 1070 while in an off-duty status.”
Karen Offut saved several Vietnamese families from a fire in their building without thinking about her own safety. She entered the burning building several times without any protective gear to lead children that had reentered their homes in fear. She continued on helping bringing furniture and livestock to safety even if the firefighting brigade had already arrived.
This courageousness was attested to by the families that she saved and some witnesses who saw the whole thing. However, that’s why it took this long to give her a Soldier’s Medal was the premise that women don’t get awards for heroism, so the request in the years before was denied, and she was only given a Certificate of Achievement, in January 1970. But in April 7, 2001, Karen was reduced to tears to accept the distinguished Soldier’s Medal at Edward Medard Park east of Tampa.
ii. Military Nurses
Military Nurses played a very vital role in the war in Vietnam. They were the ones who restored and nursed the wounded; tended the sick and took care of those who were traumatized from the war. They were the ones who bandaged amputated limbs; they were the ones who gave pain relievers to shouting marines who had been injured from the battle; they were the ones who laid warm hands on chilling bodies of army men and women in the faraway land that is Vietnam. They stayed in army hospitals, in army bunkers, in first aid camps, in navy hospitals, in mini-clinics or wherever they are needed. Just like what Rhona Marie Knox Prescott, stationed in the Third Field Hospital, 616th Clearing Company, 85th Evac, ANC relayed;
“The tent became our surgery. It was beyond primitive; it was beyond the MASH movie and the TV show. It was dirty; it was a non-sterile environment. We didn’t have enough instruments. We didn’t have enough hands. Needless to say we shared things during surgical procedures that were absolutely needed to save lives, but they weren’t sterile. We didn’t have suction, we didn’t have penicillin to irrigate wounds, didn’t have enough blood to transfuse…they put their people there hoping that we could fix them and send them back into the war.”
Faced with the brutality of war first hand, these women nurses learned to be strong and have a tough stomach to take in everything that they see and handle. Although emotions get into them, as most women are easily affected with their surroundings, they build rules to protect themselves from getting too close, from getting too affected, from getting too distressed. As Diana Dwan Pole said in her article No I Lay Me Down to Sleep,
“One of my rules was that nurses were not allowed to cry. The wounded and the dying men in our care need our strength, I told them. We couldn’t indulge in the luxury of our own feelings.”
So, without these women, there would be no survivors from war. America would continue to draft young men and send them to Vietnam to supply men into the battlefield. For if without these nurses, the wounded would have never healed; the dying would have never lived.
iii. USAID and Red Cross Women
There were non government groups that sent aid to Vietnam during these turmoil times, the Red Cross and the USAID. They sent men and women to perform humanitarian duties for the US service men and the citizens of Vietnam. The Red Cross service was divided into three groups, the SMH or Service to Military Hospitals, wherein they worked directly with patients in the hospitals, doing both social welfare and amusement therapy. The SMI or the Service to Military Installation, where they worked as correspondents between the soldiers and their families back home and fixed their papers for them in cases of emergency leaves, births and deaths. The third one is the SRAO or the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas, or simply known as the Donut Dollies. Their job mainly was to bring a smile to every living soul, or as they say it, “a touch of home in a combat zone.”
As Sharon Cummings said in her Year in Nam,
“The question asked most often of us was, “Why are you here?” My usual reply was, “Because you are.” No matter how tired we might get, there was always another smile and a wave for the guys.”
These Donut Dollies brought smiles and cheers to men wherever they may be. They learned to be cheerful amidst the roaring of guns and canons around them; they had to spread the joy of Thanksgiving and Christmas through playing games with the boys, making everyone laugh and forget the atrocities of war, even for just a while. They are the life and shining hope for the army men and women trapped in Vietnam, their presence emulate the optimism of coming home after a bad day in Vietnam.
iv. Special Services
Special services were under the Department of Defense, which includes all civilian personnel working for the Army. It usually involves activities aimed at increasing military morale, amusement and other diversions for the army to enjoy while off-duty. They put up service clubs, reading stations, arts and craft, sports, entertainment and film showing. Mainly, these women were civilians and did not have proper war training or experience to get them through in case of any mishap. Therefore, they know that they are putting themselves in danger by volunteering for this position.
As Ann Kelsey, worked as a Special Service Librarian, recounts in her online article when she answered some questions from a bunch of high school students,
“No one, in Vietnam, regardless of what her or his job was, was always safe. There were no clear front lines in Vietnam, so even those who were in so-called rear areas were attacked. I was personally shot (at) once, and went through several rocket and mortar attacks. I didn’t think about it very much, but I, like everyone else, was in danger all the time. That is, unfortunately, part of being in a place where people are killing each other.”
Ms. Kelsey also states that the purpose of the morale and recreation program was to bring a little bit of home to the soldiers. One thing that attracted the soldiers to go into these libraries was to get away from the heat, since most of the libraries were aid-conditioned so the books wouldn’t form molds. In this way, they can relax and be comfortable with a hot meal, dry socks and cold drinks.
In another note, since these women who worked for the special services did not encounter battlefield actions, they were not regarded as war veterans, alongside with all the other volunteer women who worked as hard as their compatriots in serving the country’s pledge. If without them, who would take care of those young soldiers who were so young they were not even allowed to buy a drink in the US. As Nancymay Healy recounted,
“We were the young women who listened to the soldiers and talked with them. We sympathized when they got bad news from home, and rejoiced when they brought pictures of their newborns and other family members…We ate in their mess tents and halls, went to their chapels and were as homesick as they were. We were all mostly a bunch of kids away from home.”
Therefore, they served and worked just like the men did, ran for their lives away from bombings, dove on the ground when there are mortars – the difference was they just don’t have the guns to protect themselves, and kill the enemy. You don’t need to kill the enemy to be a war veteran. Being there was already an unforgettable experience that is enough to last for the rest of your life.
v. News Correspondents
During those times, being a reporter was already tough, even more being a woman reporter. In addition to this difficulty, imagine a woman journalist trudging the jungles of Vietnam for a story. Since the Vietnam War was an open document to the world, it was not hard for any reporter to get any accreditation in reporting the events that were going on in that time. However, just like any other bigot laden industry, nobody believed that women could handle the pressure and the stench of being a war correspondent. However, they were proved wrong by many female journalists who braved the rice fields of Vietnam to report to the world the real happenings. As an article by Christina Rouvalis state in her article Women Covering the War;
“Kazickas, a researcher for Look magazine, had been told by her boss that there was no way she would be sent to cover the war in Vietnam.”
But Jurate Kazickas wasn’t about to stop there, like any other determined woman, she bought a one-way plane ticket to Saigon from her own pocket, and joined the courageous group of women who altered the traditional reporting.
However, access to the front lines of combat was not easy for them. They were regarded as easy casualties and burden in case of an attack. They were not allowed to stay overnight in camps and they have to drive back to the city where they are staying. This directive was issued by Gen. William Westmoreland after an incident with one female reported whom he met in one of his camps. Although he only wanted the safety of these women, it would mean longer travel and it would be impossible to travel from the front line and to Saigon and back on the same day. However, a group of women lobbied for their access and it was granted. Being a woman reporter had its advantage; men preferred talking to a woman journalist who was a rare sight in those days and getting a better chance of hitching a helicopter ride. People tend to divulge more information to women, because women were less threatening and generally compassionate and more empathetic of what the person went through. Therefore, through these women journalists, the real stories behind the war were recognized.
b. What happened to them now? Where are they now?
These women had mixed feelings when their tours of duty in Vietnam had ended. Others were reluctant to go back to the Americas since the Vietnam War has been raising eyebrows among American men and women, and they would be ridiculed for participating in a senseless war. Others stayed behind to continue their work and the home that they helped built for years, while others braved the American disdain and proudly raised their heads as Vietnam Veterans, and others still, up to this day, still remain silent, afraid to recount the horrific experience that is Vietnam; rather, afraid that their treasured memories in Vietnam be tarnished had people known that have one. These courageous women who had lived to narrate their stories, and some of whom were quoted in this paper, from their own writings, from their own journals, and from their own reflections; became an instrument to give due regard to women who had served in the Vietnam War.
As others held on to memories, others developed a part of themselves they never knew they had. Others developed strength of character, courage and assertiveness. Others found their caring and motherly side through tending the wounded, while others found the shiny part of life even through a storm. Cathleen Cordova, who served in Vietnam under the Army Special Services, recounted an incident in her article Orange Flames, wherein she struck a police officer who was trying to stop her from giving wreaths to the Vietnam Memorial. The anger that she felt, as if she was back again in Vietnam, she stepped away from her body and watched this woman who used the wreath as weapon to hit the policeman. She is now a thirteen-year veteran officer working for the Investigations Divisions of the Pleasanton Police Department. Maybe, she can never really turn her back on working with the government.
Not every personnel deployed in Vietnam loved the experience, others had trauma and emotional scarring from seeing death so close, from losing people they got close to in just a minute, from the constant barrage of mortars and grenades exploding like fireworks, and by being barely alive when perhaps just an inch more to the right and their brains could have splattered their rooms.
As relayed by Ann Kelsey again,
“The worst part was realizing that the war I had patriotically supported at home was not what I though it was. My support for the soldiers never wavered, but my support for my government’s actions in Vietnam collapsed.”
Therefore, the role of American women in Vietnam can not be disregarded. They are as much a part of that war just like any other men. Without them, the soldiers could not have survived the war, and without them, the war could have been more savaged and the men would have come out of it more battered and traumatized. These women served with their hearts, their lives and with their minds. They are the stronghold of America at that time, and still now.
VI. Works Cited
Cordova, Cathleen. Orange Flames. http://grunt.space.swri.edu/oflames.htm
Fortin, Noonie. Vietnam Woman Veteran Receives Soldier’s Medal. 2001. http://members.aol.com/spur317g/hero.htm
Gruhzit-Hoyt, Olga. A Time Remembered: American Women in the Vietnam War. Presidio Press, Novato, CA., 1999.
Healy, Nancymay S. Another Kind of Veteran but a Veteran Nonetheless. Burlington County Times, Edgewater, NJ. May 30, 1993.
Hickman, Kennedy. Vietnam 101: A short Introduction. About.Com, The New York Times Company Website, 2007. Accessed November 23, 2007. http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/vietnamwar/p/VietnamBrief.htm
Kelsey, Ann. Answers Questions from a High school Class in 1998. http://www.illyria.com/women/vnwhighschool2.html
Prescott, Rhona Marie Knox. Experiencing War; Stories from the Veterans History. May 29, 2007. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-stories/loc.natlib.afc2001001.01146/
Rouvalis, Christina & Schackner, Bill. Women Covering the War. Post-gazette.com Website. March 30, 2000. Accessed November 23, 2007. http://www.post-gazette.com/magazine/20000330namwomen2.asp
Wilson, Barbara A. Vietnam Southeast Asia: 1964-1973. Capt Barb’s Women Veterans Website, 1996. Accessed November 24, 2007. http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/femvetsnam.html
A Country Study: Vietnam. Library of Congress. Federal Research Division Congress. DS5566.3.V54 1989.
Cite this The American Women During The Vietnam War
The American Women During The Vietnam War. (2016, Jun 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-american-women-during-the-vietnam-war/