In Honor of Veterans Day: Women Vietnam Veterans
edited: Thursday, November 14, 2002
By Jan Hornung
Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2002
Become a Fan
As printed in newspapers Nov. 11, 2002.
“I WAS 21 YEARS OLD when I went to Vietnam. I volunteered to go because I had the feeling that I wanted to do something significant with my life,” said Chris McGinley Schneider, former Army nurse, 95th Evacuation Hospital, Da Nang, Vietnam, 1970-1971.
Throughout wartime history, women have participated in America’s conflicts in a variety of roles. From nurses to pilots and journalists to spies, women have served when their country called.
During the Civil War, nearly 250 women, disguised as men, fought for the Confederate Army. The Army Nurse Corps and the Navy Nurse Corps sent women overseas in World War I, WW II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In World War II, more than 1,000 American women flew every airplane in America’s military inventory as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, WASP.
Uncle Sam sent 40,000 women to Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, the largest deployment of women in United States’ history. Most Americans supported the women who served in Desert Storm. During the Vietnam War, however, many had the attitude that “nice girls did not go to war,” said Janis Nark, U.S. Army, lieutenant colonel, retired. Nark served as a nurse, Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, 1970-1971, and again during Desert Storm.
From 1965 to 1973, of the nearly 2,600,000 U.S. military personnel who served in Vietnam, approximately 7,000 of those were “nice girls” who were in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Eighty per cent of the military women in Vietnam were nurses; others were physical therapists, occupational therapists, air traffic controllers, aerial reconnaissance photographers, intelligence and language specialists, legal officers, and in security and administrative positions.
“I remember trying to always be friendly, trying to appear happy even when I wasn’t, cheering them up, wiping their tears, being a sister to some and a mother to others, caring so much that it sometimes hurt so badly, writing letters home for guys who couldn’t use their hands or couldn’t see, playing my guitar and singing with the patients on the wards, getting off base with those who could leave, and praying with those who asked me to do so,” said Judy Blackman Kigin, Army physical therapist, 106th Hospital, Japan, 1967, Vietnam War.
“Our battlegrounds were the Emergency Room, Operating Room, Post-Op, Intensive Care Unit, and Surgical Wards. We served our country with courage, honor, and pride,” said Judith Baker Williams, Army nurse, 67th Evacuation Hospital, Qui Nhon, Vietnam, 1968-1969. “We were the youngest and most inexperienced nurses to ever be sent into a war zone, but nothing could have prepared us for what we saw and had to deal with. But we met the challenge; the survival rate for the seriously wounded was 83%, the highest survival rate of any war.”
More than 153,000 men required hospitalization for injuries while serving in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. Another 150,000 plus required no hospitalization for their injuries but still required treatment. The nurses, as well as the women in other organizations such as the American Red Cross, were there for them all.
“The value of women in supportive roles during Vietnam is not well known. The fact is that for over a decade, approximately 11,000 (military and civilian) American women served in Vietnam. Although these women were not in combat directly, there was no safe place in Vietnam,” said David Hackworth, U.S. Army, colonel, retired.
Civilian women served in Vietnam in the American Red Cross, the USO, the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other government agencies. Other women went to Vietnam as journalists, flight attendants, and for various churches and other humanitarian organizations. Women also went to Vietnam with the Special Services, which had several divisions related to morale and recreation. They operated and provided service clubs, libraries, arts and crafts, entertainment, sports, movies, and administered the Rest and Recreation program.
From 1962 to 1974, the United States sent paid volunteers from the American Red Cross to assist the military personnel in Vietnam. The young women of the American Red Cross served in the hospitals, arranged emergency leave for soldiers, passed on information to the soldiers from home, and provided recreational activities.
“It was such an intense time, such a challenge, and the single most defining time of my life. I’ve seen things I don’t care to remember, but can’t forget. I remember it all—the sights, sounds, smells, fear, music, laughter, camaraderie, rocket attacks, the shrapnel in my bed, blood and death. It took all my ingenuity, creativity and courage,” said Patty Bright Fortenberry, American Red Cross (Donut Dolly), Vietnam, 1967-1968.
More than 58,000 American men, nearly five dozen military and civilian American women, approximately 500 Australians, and 39 New Zealanders did not come home alive from Vietnam.
“If asked would I do it all again, I know what my answer would be. My year in Vietnam will always be one of the most significant times in my life because my experiences there taught me what a big difference one person can make in the lives of others,” said Schneider.
In honor of Veterans Day and every day, Thank You to the veterans of all wars, the men and the women.
Jan Hornung is a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot and the author of four books, her latest is a collection of stories, poems, and pictures by and about the women who served in Vietnam: Angels in Vietnam: Women Who Served (www.geocities.com/vietnamfront), available at Barnes and Noble online.