Women in the Military
A Perspective from Vietnam
By Lt. Col. Janis Nark, Huts For Vets
The first military women to arrive in Vietnam were nurses. It was 1956. As the American presence in Southeast Asia grew, so too did the number of young women who served. In all, nearly 8,000 military women, and thousands more who served in the civilian sector, were there.
About 83% of us were nurses. The rest held positions in special services, supply, air traffic control, cartography, the USO, American Red Cross and many other jobs in support of our combat troops.
We were all fairly young when we volunteered to serve our country, and many of us were woefully naïve in believing our recruiters’ promises; mainly that we could be stationed anywhere in the world that we wanted, and that Vietnam was “strictly voluntary.”
Still, when our orders arrived sending us to war, most of us believed in our hearts that we were needed, that what we were doing was important, and that it was our duty to go.
We went to our jobs, faced the perils of enemy fire, horrific heat and humidity, disease, insects, isolation, long work hours and sleepless nights; and then managed to pull ourselves together, dab some perfume behind our ears, and do it all again the next day.
We learned a lot about ourselves. We discovered our strengths and tried to survive our weaknesses. We were ordinary young women trying to function in the most extraordinary of circumstances; dealing in life and death and seeking not just to survive, but to understand.
We did the best that we could with who we were and what we had. Daily we collected our memories and stored them away, someplace safe, out of our conscious minds, where we thought, “I’ll deal with this later.”
After a year we came home, back to “The World.” In the span of one plane ride we went from war to peace – from childhood to irrevocable adulthood.
We knew we had changed, that our lives would never be the same, that we could never explain any of it to the folks back home.
We couldn’t and we didn’t. For as unacceptable as it was for the guys to talk about the war when they came home, no one wanted to acknowledge that young women had been there. Even as Women’s Lib was making its voice heard, the underlying message was clear: “Nice girls wouldn’t have gone to war.”
We came home quietly, went back to our homes, our families, our jobs – and we never spoke about the war to anybody.
Many of us quit nursing and never knew why. Some of us had recurring nightmares, flashbacks, unexplained illnesses, depression, or abused drugs or alcohol. Many women applied themselves with a fury to school – attaining one degree after another, to work – rising to the top leadership positions in their companies, to their churches, their social organizations, their families – anything to avoid the memories they had stored away “to think about later.” These memories had created a deep, impenetrable wound that needed to be healed.
In 1982, the initial healing ground was laid in the form of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – “The Wall.” The women, just like the men who served, were drawn to it. The healing power of that sacred place is evident to all who have been there. We could go to The Wall and mourn, and cry, and reach out for comfort if we chose, and yet it was so easy to be invisible there. Women simply weren’t recognized as veterans.
Veterans Day 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC. Thousands of women vets attended and we were overwhelmed. We led the parade – the nurses, Red Cross workers, entertainers, women who worked in administration, logistics, and intelligence. The streets were lined with people applauding and crying. A vet sat high up in a tree yelling, “Thank You! Thank You!” A man in a flight suit stood for over two hours at attention, saluting as the women passed by. People handed us flowers and hugged us. One GI had a picture of his nurse, taken “July 1964.” He was trying to find her.
We found each other. We knew, at last, that we are not alone, that we were not crazy or paranoid, but that we had a lot of work to do in order to heal. We talked to each other and found comfort as well as pain in our words and our tears. Words and tears, that now, finally, we shared. Now, after so many years, the process has finally begun…and we hold each other close and say, “Welcome Home!”