-- Best Research Papers --
          Women, the Unknown Soldiers
                     by M. Carlson             

                                   Women, the Unknown Soldiers
                                            by M. Carlson

The history of women and war has been largely forgotten in favor of recording men's military achievements. Women have always played a part; however, it was more than to simply keep the "home fires burning." Between 1962 and 1973, according to Department of Defense statistics, approximately 7,500 women served on active military duty in Vietnam. The Veteran's Administration puts the numbers even higher, at around 11,000. Independent surveys estimate that the number of women, both civilian and non-civilian, working in Vietnam during the war is between 33,000 and 55,000 (Marshall 4-5).

Despite these high numbers of women in the military, women have had a long road to equality. Women were treated as second class soldiers, both in the military and after coming home. I say this because, although women could find excitement and a career in the military, the woman soldier role was perceived as a helpmate and often times did not have proper medical training and put in dangerous situations. 

After the war, women were treated even worse than their male compatriots were, although they were now Veterans. In addition, the all too common sexual harassment that women receive in society was also prevalent in the military. For some women training as nurses, the promise of a weekly paycheck meant they did not have to take out loans or get a job to cover tuition. For others, the lure of Vietnam was the excitement. They could abandon their humdrum lives for what they saw as a chance to travel to  glamorous locale; Vietnam had luscious forests before it was blown to pieces. Also, at the beginning of the Vietnam War there was a sense of patriotism. Women in the nursing profession were especially excited to go to war and use their skills.

Nurses made up the most of the bulk of the women serving in Vietnam. Before going to Vietnam, many women were given mock set-ups of battlefield casualties; this was supposed to prepare them for the real war and the real casualties. The women also got field training, which consisted of how to fire an M-16; ironically though, the women were never allowed to fire these weapons. Marching and finding their way out of a field using a compass was another part of their pre-Vietnam training too. This was very fun for many of the women who were young and newly out on their own, away from their parents for the very first time in their lives. "We were given compasses and had to go out and find our way back: we never had so much fun. We got lost twelve times-it didn't matter" (Walker 95).

The women nurses were not trained properly in the medical field for the severe combat injuries that they were to treat. It is interesting to note that the wounded soldiers were not called patients but casualties. The artillery used during the Vietnam War was specifically designed to inflict massive, multiple injuries. As well as the guns there was also napalm, white phosphorous and "antipersonnel" bombs. Napalm and phosphorous burned skin right down to the bone. Add to this the fact that the country's small size, plus the use of helicopters to airlift the wounded (who in earlier times would have died en route) to a hospital, meant that the wounds were more vicious than in previous wars and there were more soldiers to treat.

Orientation for the nurses usually consisted of being thrown into bloody "hell." According to Kohl, "The surgeon threw a pair of scissors at me and said, "Don't just stand there. He's going to lose that arm anyway. Cut it off." and so I did. And I remember the sound of the arm hitting the pail. That was the end of my orientation" (Walker 237). Even nurses with surgical training in trauma units were unprepared for the level of carnage. Often nurses had no terms for the operations required saving lives or the injuries. "We used to call them horriblectomies and horridzomas"..." Horriblectomies were when they'd had so much taken out or removed. Horridzoma meant the initial grotesque injury but also the repercussion of that injury-the tissues swelling and all that" (Marshall 7). Not only were these nurses treating wounds they had never before seen, or probably contemplated, but there were diseases, too, that were unfamiliar: typhoid, TB, malaria, dengue fever and bubonic plague.

Soldiers were also being treated for drug addiction and towards the end of the war, America had begun setting up drug wards to wean the soldiers off marijuana, opium, amphetamine, cocaine and, most common of all, heroin. Nurses who thought they were working in a war found out that they were suddenly surrounded by a lot of strung-out soldiers on drugs too. "Approximately 60 percent of the nurses who arrived in Vietnam had had less than two years medical training and of this 60 percent, most had had less than six months" (Marshall 6). There was very little training provided by the Army or the Navy for the type of work they would be doing. 

The popular perception of women doing war work is that the men are in the danger zone and the women are safely behind them. This has probably never been true and was certainly not true in Vietnam. "I remember once in Chu Chi they got us all up in the middle of the night and were really not sure what to do with us because we were being overrun...Chu Chi was full of tunnels: there were Viet Cong underneath that whole city. They had hospitals underneath the ground, firing bases...I've never been so scared. They gathered all of us in the kitchen of our hooch...I remember sitting around in the kitchen in our flak- jackets and helmets, just bullshitting all night long. There wasn't anything else you could do. However, we just went to work the next morning at 6:30" (Walker 13). This leads me to believe that women were put in danger on the front lines without any combat training. 

Women in the U.S. military are supposedly integrated into combat support roles. No law prohibits women from serving "in combat." Laws do prohibit, however, the permanent assignment of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force women to ships and aircraft engaged in a combat mission. There is no comparable statutory prohibition for Army women, but policies adopted by the Army and the other services further restrict women's roles. 

The first woman to command troops in combat, Linda Bray, was during the invasion of Panama. She directed the troops in the capture of a dog kennel filled with guard dogs. In other words, she was not on the combat field but directing troops from afar. This is not to discount her achievement or the danger involved in the operation. However, if women are to be assigned jobs like this in combat, it speaks to a military highly resistant to really integrating women into high level positions. 

Furthermore, with the military ignoring the fact that women are put on front lines makes their situation even more dangerous, because they would not get the proper combat training. Women were also there to boost morale and play the role of caregivers. In World War II the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) Program had been staffed by "donut dollies," women who ran clubs and canteens where the servicemen could relax. These women also drove vans to the front lines equipped to make coffee and distribute donuts to the troops. 

A similar system existed in Vietnam (along with the better known USO) although here the women were also given the monikers "chopper chicks" and "Kool-Aid kids." As evidenced by these nicknames, feminism was slow to reach the troops. 

Younger women who went over in the seventies, however, began to feel a distance from the older women officers. These younger women were likely to be more outspoken, less tolerant of discrimination and sexual harassment. Even back home, however, in the burgeoning atmosphere of the feminist revolution, the women who had returned from serving in Vietnam felt cut off from those who had not. 

Women who had been flying in and out of LZs and fire bases found it difficult to talk to the women who had stayed home and got married. There was also the added strain of returning home to a world that was largely antagonistic towards the war and its participants. If the men who had served felt alienated and angry by the civilian response to their effort, the women had a right to feel that also. Part of the problem, of course, is that women were seen over there as helpmates and caregivers to the men. Care giving is what most women had been brought up to do and therefore, the women themselves did not protest as loudly as they had every right to do. And as in World War II, civilian life found women who had held responsible, often dangerous, jobs during the war being returned to a world that by and large still regarded them as "donut dollies."

 Nurses tell stories of working in surgical wards in Vietnam and, on their return, being shunted to the hemorrhoid ward. They missed, as the men did, the sense of camaraderie that developed during their time overseas and missed, too, a chance to share their experiences with someone who would understand. Part of the benefit of the women's movement was, and is; that it has given voice to women whose experiences might otherwise have been overlooked. It is interesting to note, however, that of the few books, which deal entirely with women's experiences in Vietnam, almost all are collections of first person narratives. 

Men's experiences, on the other hand, have been catalogued in any number of excellent books, mostly written by male journalists (Michael Herr, for example) and male literary authors (Tim O'Brien). Moreover, there have been numerous films and television programs about life in combat. Some of these are, Born on The Fourth of July, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, none of which contained any female characters other than girlfriend's back home or Vietnamese prostitutes.

Vietnam veterans have also become the crazy people of  choice in films requiring a psychotic villain. Apart from a short-lived series centering on a nurses unit in Vietnam, China Beach, women's contributions to the war would seem to be of interest only to other women. Women who had served in Vietnam exhibited the same symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that men were experiencing, feelings of isolation, intense anger, an inability to get and keep jobs, prolonged bouts of crying and depression. One women, a nurse, talks of running outside her home in Hawaii every time a helicopter passed by and standing in the street waiting for the casualties to land. Another woman talks about the strain it placed on relationships, "It was hard at first. For a long time, it was hard. There were a couple of broken engagements--one of them right before the wedding--and months of sleep disturbances and nightmares, when the horrors were coming back. Working with vets, with guys, has helped me learn to live with my own experiences. I will never forget, but at least I can put the memories in perspective and get on with my life" (Marshall, p. 135).

If the men found it hard to get help for their trauma disorders, the women's needs were not even acknowledged. Most were cut off from traditional channels of help. Women who had been with the military for awhile, quickly learned that the Veteran's Administration had a history of ignoring women. Those who tried to join established veterans' organizations were often denied membership or shunted off into the ladies' auxiliaries. Furthermore, the force behind the organization of Vietnam veterans was all-male, and combat was the central issue. Civilian women, even those who had worked with military support organizations, were legally ineligible for government compensation or benefits 
and technically ineligible for counseling at Vietnam Veterans' centers.

There were other problems for women who were coming home from war. 
The public did not really view women as veterans or combat soldiers on the front line. Until fairly recently, the military's aversion to sending women into combat was seen to be shared by the general public. Certainly, the popular conception is that women are anti-war and anti-violence. Nevertheless, with more women joining the armed services, and presumably joining with the idea of engaging fully in the actions of their branch of the service, it may be that public opinion is changing. 

Public opinion polls show that Americans strongly support women's participation in the military except when it comes to direct  ground hand-to-hand combat. Although, even that exception may be less widely held than it used to be. In January 1990, in the aftermath of the Panama invasion, a New York Times/CBS News Poll showed that 72 percent of those surveyed thought military women should be allowed to serve in combat units if they wanted to. A McCall's magazine telephone survey of 755 women, conducted in February 1990, found even stronger approval: 79 percent of the respondents agreed that women should be allowed to serve in combat units if they wanted to" (McCall's).

The military is a many-headed monster and has been slow to change. Recent stories in the news have included the hazing of female cadets at the previously all-male military college, The Citadel. High-ranking officers have been charged with multiple cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Gay army personnel, both male and female, have been seriously harassed and dismissed. The military has had a hard time deciding on who should be able to serve and in what capacity. In the past, black men were segregated or barred from the military. This leads me to believe that this is a good example of a fallacy, an error in reasoning and stereotyping. In spite of this, women in the military, however, have continued to prove themselves equal to the task.

"In the Navy, there are three women rear admirals on active duty. Five women are currently rated as Navy test pilots, more than any other branch of the service. Two women, from the Army and the Navy, have been appointed to NASA as astronauts" (Becraft). Women could find excitement and a career in the military. However, women were treated as second class soldiers in the military. The "soldier woman" was perceived as a helpmate and often times put in dangerous situations in combat zones without proper training. After the war, women were treated even worse than their male compatriots were, although they were now Veterans. 

Women's roles have evolved over the years from being essential but supplementary forces in the military during wars, to being active participants. They are now regarded as an integral part of the armed forces and if they have not achieved total parity with the men, it can only be a matter of time. 

Works Cited:

Becraft, Carolyn, WOMEN IN THE MILITARY, 1980-1990.
yfactsheet http://www.illyria.com/vnwomen.html/ ( February 20, 1999).

Dusky, Lorraine, COMBAT BAN STOPS WOMEN'S PROGRESS, NOT BULLETS, http://www.inform.umd.edu/EdRes/Topic/WomensStudies/GovernmentPolitics/Military/factsheet 
(March 3, 1999).

Kalsched, Donald, THE INNER WORLD OF TRAUMA, Routledge, New York, 1996.

Marshall, Kathryn, IN THE COMBAT ZONE, Penguin Books, New York, 1987


( March 12, 1999)

Smith, Winnie, AMERICAN DAUGHTER GONE TO WAR, William Morrow And Company,  
New York, 1992.

Walker, Keith, A PIECE OF MY HEART, Presidio, Novato, 1985

Willenz, June, WOMEN VETERANS, America's Forgotten Heroines, Continuum, 
New York, 1983.