Women who served in Vietnam

When I went on the cruise last yet, there was a surprising number of women veterans.  It included a nurse who had retired as a colonel, and she’d served in both Vietnam and Desert Storm.

The women who came home from that war was largely force to pretend like they hadn’t been to a war and nothing had happened to them.  Unfortunately, some of the worst came from the male veterans:

[Starnes] 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.

I remember when the Women’s Memorial was created, and when the women’s statue was added to The Wall’s site.  The male veterans were terrible, protesting angrily that the women shouldn’t be honored because they didn’t do anything.  Complete disconnect. 

They were unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.  They were unable to see that the horrors they were living with, the women were also living with. 

War is not gender neutral.

Books About Women at War

This list of 25 books about women at war was posted to the women veteran’s list.  I remember coming back from Desert Storm and reading everything on war I could lay my hands on.  I wanted stories about women at war, and the best I could do was stories about men at war.

For this list, I was surprised both at what I didn’t know about and what got left off the list.  So I’m thinking of doing a list myself.  If you know of any titles, post them in the comments.

Meanwhile, here’s a few more:

A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of 26 Women Who Served in Vietnam.  This is the only one of two books I read that was about women following the war.  This book was used as the basis for the TV series China Beach.  I read this one over and over and over until I couldn’t read it any more.  It’s now available as an ebook.

Visions of War, Dreams of Peace: Writings of the Women in the Vietnam War.  This book came out in 1991, so right about the time I came back.  It contains poetry about Vietnam.

Women in Vietnam: The Oral History.  Getting the link on Amazon for this one turned up a lot more books.  I have this one in my collection, but I haven’t read it.

Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories.  This is a new release for 2015 that showed up for the search for the one above.  Spiffy cover.

Side-by-Side: Photographic History of American Women in War.  A coffee table book with photos of women in war through history.  I was given a copy by the author.

I’m a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story.  The media made her into a big hero and then threw her away when the true story came out.  The result is that this book got a lot of bad reviews not because it was a good book or a bad book, but because of the politics.  It is a frightening story of when things go really wrong for a soldier.

She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story: This one’s from Desert Storm, and the other book I read following the war (because that’s all there was).  This is about an officer who was captured during the war.

These last two books are one of the reasons I wrote Soldier, Storyteller the way I did, and also ePublished it.  The story about the war experience in both books was too short for a hardback coming out of New York.  The result was about half the books are on the soldier’s life before the war.  I remember reading Rhonda’s book, and every other chapter was why she became an officer.  I was skipping those chapters because I felt like they were filling space.

When I did mine, it was automatic to epublish it because then I could tell the story I wanted without having to fill in extra to make up for the costs.


Combat Doesn’t Respect Anything

I find a lot of veteran articles and videos posted on Facebook–curiously, not by the veterans.  This one is on a woman who served during the Vietnam War and shows some of the unrealistic expectations the military had when they say “Women are not allowed in combat.”

The problem is that combat doesn’t respect that declaration.

Desert Storm: Female Prisoner of War

What little news I did get came from a small AM/FM radio that was Irwin Allen yellow (TV producer Irwin Allen liked the color yellow and on his TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, it had a very yellow Flying Sub). As the war progressed, the radio stations tried to establish music for it. Music became a big part of the Vietnam War, so the stations tried songs from that time for us. One of the ones I remember hearing was Janis Joplin.

But the music didn’t seem to stick much.

I’d sit in the back of the cargo container looking out at the horizon where the war was and wondering when it was going to come my way. Around January 30 or after, I heard some news on the radio that sent a chill through me.

A woman soldier had been captured.

She was lower enlisted soldier, like me. She’d been in a truck with another soldier, delivering equipment, when she was captured.

I’d been in some of the convoys. The same thing could have happened to me.

And still could. I thought about that a lot as I watched the horizon where the front line was.

Desert Storm War Memorial

I ran across this article today on a proposed Desert Storm Memorial in Washington, DC.  Right now, they’re trying to find land in the area.  For some reason, I haven’t heard of this before, even though they clearly had some events here in Washington, DC.  But I also don’t look around for veteran’s events.

Would I visit the memorial once it’s completed?

I have mixed feelings here.  The Wall, which was for the Vietnam War, had a healing quality because the war became so controversial that the returning veterans had not been welcomed back.  The Wall said recognized what they did was important, so it was more than just honoring the dead — it was healing a scar.

I’ve been to it about twice, to the World War I memorial once (they’re trying to raise money for a national one), the World War II memorial twice, and the Korea one twice.

I think a lot of the memorials since have been trying to capture what The Wall did, and I don’t think they can.  That was a very different time in history, and it came at the right time when people needed it.  People were not just damaged by the war, but by the treatment of society after war.

So if I’m still in the area when it finally gets built, I’ll probably visit it once for the initial visit, and then, like the other memorials, wander by because I happen to be in the area.

Here’s the official site for the memorial if you want to donate money.



Desert Storm: Ribbons and Medals, another benefit of war

Another benefit of war that looked cool and neat from the outside were the medals and ribbons that we would wear on our dress uniforms.  They always looked somehow mysterious and special, like “How did you get that?  What do they mean?”  Like maybe it was part of a secret club or something.  When I was a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fan, a fellow fan took a photo of the officers in their dress uniforms and identified all the ribbons.  Turned out the prop man just slapped them on.  Someone else did it for the TV show JAG.

Outside the military, people think of them almost as colorful prizes.  How many times have you heard the phrase “He won the Bronze Star”?  You win a prize in a contest.  That’s not what happens with medals.  A fellow soldier told me the following story after I returned from Desert Storm.  I’m guessing it was a Vietnam Veteran, since that would have been about the right timing.

There was an inspection going on in the barracks.  A General was doing the inspection, which is a pretty senior rank.  He comes to all the rooms, and then finds one that’s just a mess.  The bed’s not made up, and everything isn’t the usual dress right dress.  The soldier himself looks on the sloppy side.

The General starts going at the soldier.  Wordlessly, the soldier opens a wall locker and takes a Medal of Honor off the top shelf. Tosses it on the bed.

The General falls silent, salutes the soldier, pivots and walks out.

Soldiers earn the Medal of Honor because they went fall beyond the call of duty and saved other lives.  Most of the time they don’t live to receive the medal.

*  *  *

After my company came back, the army slowly began transferring people out.  Because I was waiting for an assignment in Washington, DC, I was literally the last person from the Desert Storm deployment to leave.  I had a lot of ribbons on my rack — five just from the war, plus the unit citation we were awarded as well.

The new privates were transferring in and they would look at these with envy, just like I did before I knew what the cost was.  The ribbons look pretty and war changes you forever.

Visiting a war memorial the first time after war

Sometimes, immediately following war, little things can have an unexpectedly profound effect. Pretty much everywhere now that I go, there’s a veteran’s memorial of some kind. Even when I take a drive trip down to Richmond, Virginia, I can find a small war memorial at a rest stop.

But in 1991, that wasn’t the case. People were just peeling away the layers of the onion about the Vietnam War. Shows like Magnum PI, The A Team, and Airwolf explored veterans after the war, and China Beach and Tour of Duty explored the war itself.

In 1982, the Vietnam Memorial, or “The Wall,” in Washington, DC was completed.  Washington State followed that up with their own memorial, completed in 1987.

So I’d actually never been to one before Desert Storm.

Nor did I plan to go to one. It was purely accidental, but maybe fate has some things happen for when they do and for a reason.

Washington State Vietnam Memorial

Olympia, the Capitol of Washington, was about twenty miles from Fort Lewis. I could say I liked the city and the sites, but the truth was that it was far enough away from the military that I could escape.

The state Capitol is located on a patch of land called a “campus.” The first time I went there I thought it was a school, but I suppose it’s no stranger than a “mall,” which is what the area around the U.S. Capitol is called.

I was just sort of wandering, and I followed the sidewalk to see where it would take me. This black wall came into view. Though I’d never seen The Wall at Washington, DC, I knew immediately this was a war memorial similar to that. This wall had a designed crack on the left side and was surprisingly small.

As I crossed an invisible boundary, it felt like a thousand voices whispered to me at once, “Welcome.” Then they fell silent, but their presence still made the air shiver.

And I looked at the wall, at the names listed, and my eyes went right to one name that jumped out at me.

It was a woman.

I left the memorial feeling both connected to my brothers and sisters at arms, and shaken because it was a very visual reminder. It could have happened to me.

Over 40,000 women were deployed to Desert Storm.  Fifteen didn’t come home.

Women Coming Home From War

Coming home from war is a profound experience.  I remember when I came home from Desert Storm — March 1991 — and it was like I was in shock.  Except it wasn’t either.  My reality was so different from when I left in October, 1990.  It hardly seemed like the six months it was.  It was almost like I’d beamed down in a different time and place.

And there really wasn’t much for me, as a woman who went to war.  China Beach, a TV show about women during the Vietnam War, had just been cancelled and had gone into reruns.

I devoured all of the episodes and read the only book then available on women veterans, also Vietnam.  But the months following were very hard.   I wanted something for me, and it seemed like if it didn’t deal with the male soldiers, it was viewed as unimportant.

At first, I thought about venting in my writing.  I’d gone over as a writer already, and here was this skill I could use.  Yet, I couldn’t write non-fiction articles about my experiences because I was still in the service, and even setting something in a fantasy world didn’t get at the problem.  It was like I couldn’t get the words do what I wanted them to.

I’d periodically revisit it, both as a possible non-fiction book or a novel, but it never went anywhere.  For fiction, I couldn’t separate myself from the experiences.  I kept wanting to write about specific events, rather than how events like them might shape a character.  I heard that most of the war books start coming out after 20 years because time is really needed for that distance.  Twenty-two years after the war, I think that’s true.  It’s taken me that long to be able to write stories about being in a war.  Not stories about my experiences, but take the perspective of a woman soldier or woman veteran and use that to shape a story like in The Sea Listens

And I feel like I’m one of the few women writing about it, and I’m definitely the only enlisted woman soldier writing about it.  What little I’ve seen is from either the spouse’s experiences, or the officer’s.  I’ve been writing only for professional rate publications, but when the University of Nebraska asked for a call for submissions for their non-paying veteran’s anthology, I went for it because the women veterans need a voice, and it really is about time for us to be noticed.