Women Vietnam Veterans

Springtime on the National Mall in Washington DC where crowds of people are out in the sunshine beneath the pink cherry and white pear blossoms. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as ‘The Wall’, a steady stream of tourists, relatives, loved ones and the occasional veteran, his head bowed respectfully, file along the curve of black granite etched with the names of 58,195 men and women who died in the Vietnam War.

Three women onlookers, now into their seventies, are mirrored in the Wall’s polished surface. Two are unassuming, dressed in slacks and sweaters, searching for names of the fallen whom they might know. Only the third woman, wearing a black leather vest adorned with badges and patches, attracts curiosity. For her badges say we were there. We served. And yes, we too, are veterans.

Lieutenant Colonel Ruth Dewton, Colonel Jeanne Moran Gourley and Staff Sergeant Claire Brisebois Starnes (all retired) belong to an estimated 1,200 women who served in Vietnam, not as nurses, but as line and staff officers and enlisted personnel in the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Hollywood and a plethora of novels have us believe that only men and nurses served in Vietnam. Even the US government has no accurate records of how many women served in one of history’s most controversial wars.

‘’I’ve met so many people who said, ‘we never knew!’ Yet we had women all over the place. We served our country, for good or bad, and all we did was our job,’’ says Claire, wearer of the Vietnam Veteran vest and who has spent 17 years tracking down the women who served in non-nurse roles in Vietnam for the new book Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories. After half a century of silence, these forgotten women are remembered in this monumental anthology. It is long, heavy, etched with their names, but necessary. It is the women’s Wall.

Claire has kindly agreed to meet me here in DC, interrupting the book tour that has taken her 93,848 miles up and down the East Coast, South, Southwest and South Pacific Coast of America, and away from home for four months. It is perhaps her most important tour of duty yet, reaching out to more Vietnam veterans because time is running out; the oldest woman veteran is 93. ‘’We are dying. Every day or so I hear another one has gone. Vietnam Veterans are dying at a 30 per cent faster rate than any other veterans of wars, for many reasons, from exposure to Agent Orange, cancers and old age. We have had suicides too.’’

What became known as the ‘Vietnam War’ was fought between the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern ally, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. American troop numbers began increasing in Vietnam in March 1962 and a bloody, protracted war raged through to the early Seventies. Back home a political war raged. It was a time of mass peace protests, the rise of the civil rights movement and Dr Martin Luther King, and the assassination of a president. Man landed on the moon. As the body count grew, Elvis married Priscilla, Janis Joplin overdosed and John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in bed. The Doors created Light My Fire and Simon and Garfunkel sang about a Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

The first women to be assigned to Vietnam were from the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) when Major Anne Doering joined over 5,000 American male soldiers in 1962. They were soon joined in 1965 by women from the US Marine Corps, the Navy and Air Force. At first, women were assigned to clerical posts then later to nearly all non-combat positions throughout Vietnam, working 12 to 14 hours a day as clerk-typists, stenographers, intelligence analysts, translators, communications technicians, supply specialists, doctors, medical records clerks, laboratory technicians, dieticians, physical therapists and photographers.

Jeanne, a First Lieutenant US Air Force in the Biomedical Services Corps served in United States Air Force hospitals as a dietician. Her task was to provide good nutrition to soldiers to aid the healing, acutely aware that good food could not heal mental anguish. Ruth was a Major in the US Army Medical Specialist Corps, serving as a physical therapist in a Saigon hospital.

Aged upwards of 19, including older women who had served during the Second World War and the Korean War, the women were originally sent into jungle heat and humidity in nylon stockings, skirts and high heels. Pretty soon they were issued with nondescript jungle fatigues. They were sent unarmed to supposedly non-combat zones, yet everywhere in Vietnam was potentially a combat zone, exposed to daily rocket attacks and the threat of Viet Cong incursions. Nevertheless, women proved they could serve and perform in a combat zone alongside their male colleagues, paving the way for future roles for women in the armed forces.

‘’We went over there in heels and skirts. No weapons or weapons training. No anything!’’ said Brigadier Evelyn ‘Pat’ Foote who earlier sat for an hour on a park bench with me, before dashing off to her car and a busy day ahead. Pat went to Vietnam in 1967 as a US Army public affairs officer handling more than 600 foreign correspondents in the field. ‘’Yes we came under direct attack. I had my ‘M16 purse’ – that’s what I called my purse – because I could have walloped someone with it.’’

Claire enlisted in the US Army in 1963 as a skinny 17-year-old who was ordered to eat more bananas to increase her weight. She enlisted in the Signal Corps and by the time she had volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1969 she had become an Administrative Specialist. In Vietnam she first served as a translator before becoming a photojournalist and overseeing the publications section at Military Assistance Command Vietnam Office of Information (MACV Observer). ‘’I went there to see what was going on. I had to go and look for myself. I saw it was not the military running the war, it was politicians running the war.’’

She carried an Army issued Nikon camera and her own Petri camera shooting on Kodak colour slide film, and black and white film. Riding in helicopters to all parts of Vietnam she sat on her flak jacket against the bullets and shrapnel that might have been fired at the undercarriage. Her photos are extreme: firefights in fields of mud and bodies, children at orphanages, high storey buildings blasted apart, Bob Hope entertaining the troops and women WACs at downtime, their hair in rollers.

‘’I had no idea how bad it would be. When I took the pictures, I never let myself feel anything. You had to tune out emotionally. It was only when I got home that I started to realise what I’d seen.’’ The photo that sticks in her mind is a picture of a little girl playing inside a role of barbed wire. ‘’She could have been ripped apart. She seemed so happy at that moment and yet there were craters around. Overall the kids were so resilient, or maybe they didn’t understand the seriousness of it.’’

By March 1973 and the withdrawal of US troops and the remaining WACs, an estimated four million people had died in the Vietnam War. For most returning veterans there was no ‘welcome home’. Being heckled and spat on at the airport was the beginning of their private aftermath. Women especially learned to keep silent about being in ‘Nam. Many just tried to get on with life, careers and families, burying their inward and outwards scars, shame or pride, horror or honour … all mixed up with memories of friendships forged and loves found. Many have died without daring to reveal they served in Vietnam. All believe it changed their lives, for better or worse, but certainly forever.

Claire returned to the US after five tours, and is decorated with the Vietnam Service Medal with Silver Star, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross. She too tried to bury her memories in work, career and children, but eventually sought help in a group therapy session for Vietnam veterans. She was the only female in the room and was verbally abused by male veterans. She tried to explain that in Vietnam there was no safe area, everybody who served was in combat, but they didn’t want to hear. She left feeling ashamed and never again sought help.

In 1997, Claire and fellow veteran Pricilla Landry Wilkewitz attended the dedication of the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA). They each wore a blue vest with the dates of their service written on the back, in the hope of being spotted by other women who had served in Vietnam. One thing led to another and in 1999 they formed the non-profit Vietnam Women Veterans (VWV) Inc. So began the long road tracking down others, the aim being to bring recognition for non-nursing women who served in Vietnam. That same year the group held its first Women Vietnam Veterans Conference in Olympia, Washington. For the first time ever, the women were recognised as Vietnam Veterans and were officially told ‘thank you’ and ‘welcome home’.

‘’When I give my talks to help promote the book I begin with ‘’Hi I’m Claire Brisebois Starnes and I’m a Vietnam War Veteran. I have only been able to say that since 1997. I didn’t dare say it because no one really understood. No one cared, no on was interested and, it hurt too much.’’

As we walk through the National Mall, away from the glare of The Wall, people see Claire’s vest and drift towards us. One woman, in tears, reaches out to her. Another asks, can I hug a vet? A male veteran selling leaflets for sustenance, strokes his throat where shrapnel hit and tells her, ‘’When I came home they called me a babykiller!’’ All thank her for her service. ‘’Thank you for your support,’’ she replies, before leaving The Wall behind perhaps one last time. Ruth and Jeanne go home too, the onlookers still unaware of who they are and what they did. ‘‘This is like war: you laugh, there’s tears, you cry. The two combine and it’s hard to take,’’ says Ruth.


Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories (Donna A. Lowery) 2015 is published by AuthorHouse, Bloomington,Illinois, United States.

Women Vietnam Veterans Inc www.vietnamwomenveterans.us

From Poppies: Women, War, Peace by British photojournalist Lee Karen Stow. An evolving photographic documentary to remember women involved in or affected by war and conflict, and as campaigners for peace. #poppieswomen

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