Boston — The officer in charge looked up in disbelief. "How old are you?" "Twenty."
"You're a sweet young thing," he blurted. "You should think about it some more. Come back and see me on Monday."
Early Monday morning, Laura (not her real name) returned to see the duty assignment officer. A weekend to think it over had not changed her mind. She still wanted to be sent to Vietnam instead of to Hawaii for her tour of duty.
Laura's orders to Vietnam were cut and signed, and six weeks later she was standing in the airplane door looking out at Vietnam. But this green recruit was not prepared for the foul smelling, 100-degree F. sauna where she would spend the next 14 months.
"I'll never forget that smell," she recalls. She is a tall, attractive and physically fit woman filled with energy and vitality. She appears to have a no-nonsense approach to life and yet she gives off an air of doubt and suspicion. The small room in which we are meeting fills with anxiety as she startles at the sounds coming over the intercom. She listens alertly to approaching footsteps in hopes no one breaks in on the conversation about Vietnam.
For this interview Laura has purposely adopted the uniform that sprang out of the 1960s. Her faded blue jeans and white T-shirt adorned with blue lettering, "Participant of southeast Asian War Games, 1961-1975, Second Place," instantly identify her as a veteran of Vietnam.
At first glance the message strikes with an angry blow of contempt, but further investigation reveals that this is Laura's first tentative attempt at communicating her feelings about the Vietnam was with others. For the last 10 years she has kept her veteran war with others. For the last 10 years she has kept her veteran status quiet and has hugged closely to herself the feelings that stem from her war experience.
Laura is one of a small number of women who are emerging from the shadows and publicly admitting to their status as Vietnam veterans. Like the other women veterans, she has only just begun to realize how the decision that she made to go to Vietnam in December 1970 has drastically shaped the last 10 years of her life. She wants to let other women veterans in the same situation know they are not alone. But she is in a precarious position emotionally. She finds herself pushed from side to side by her desire to have the public know the effects of war on women and her fear of being alienated and abused once again for participating in an unpopular war.
In Vietnam, Laura worked in an intensive-care unit (ICU). For seven months her job as trauma nurse entailed being on the landing site to provide immediate care to casualties arriving by helicopter. She also acted as triage nurse, the person in charge of assigning priority ot the casualties for their treatment on the basis of urgency. Her basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., had only hinted at what this ICU would be like.
Through it all, she bore the anxiety of wanting to repair the broken bodies as well as the strain of many times being the only nurse on duty to care for 70 badly wounded patients. It is something Laura does not want to have to endure ever again.
Women were not involved in actual hand-to-hand combat, but were confronted with the daily destruction of war as the badly wounded bodies continued to flow in from the jungle. Their duty as nurses required them to shut off their own reactions to the carnage surrounding them, explains Shad Meshad, a former Army psychologist in Vietnam who has counseled over 200 women Vietnam veterans. The nurses were to be fast, efficient, compassionate, and above all able to assure the young men in their care that they were safe.
However, Laura was not confident that they were any safer at the hospital than in the jungle. "The guys on our perimeter at night [on guard duty] did not have loaded weapons," she says, recalling only one of several incidents. "One night, a couple of sappers came through our fence to throw satchel charges [an explosive on a timer encased in a canvas pouch] somewhere on the hospital grounds. There happened to be two GIs on stand down [a short break] at the hospital. They shot the guys coming through the fence right outside my ward. Who knows what would have happened if those GIs weren't there."
Trust was something veterans lost sight of after only a short time in Vietnam , agrees Ron Armstead, an Operation Outreach counselor in Boston. He is one of the many Vietnam veterans who work in the Outreach program set up for Vietnam veterans. The 91 centers currently in operation have been dubbed "storefront" centers, since they are in business districts in an effort to secure an identity separate from Veterans Administration (VA) facilities which many Vietnam veterans do not trust. Armstead agrees with other veteran counselors that the young men and women (average age of men was 19 and women was 21) arriving in Vietnam thought that they were there to win a war. They felt secure in the belief that although they were there to kill the enemy, it was for the purpose of maintaining a nation's freedom to choose its own type of government. The longer they were in Vietnam, the more this confidence was eroded by nagging suspicions that US involvement in Southeast Asia had little to do with their own perceptions of war. In addition, the principles they had been raised on eroded, as they struggled for survival in a setting filled with fear, hatred, and revenge for an enemy they rarely saw, amid intense antiwar sentiment from home.
Until recently, experts on Vietnam and its effects assumed that because men and women served in the same war, their responses to war and their means of enduring it were similar. Not a single woman was included in the eight-year study done for the VA released in late March by the Center for Policy Research. The study questioned and followed the lives of 1,340 white, black, and Hispanic males who had served in vietnam.
As more women come forward with their experiences, however, the experts are finding that the men were able to dissolve some of their fears and anger by fighting the enemy or in some way physically releasing those tensions. Women, on the other hand, did not have an outlet of any kind. The nurses in particular had the responsibility of putting back together what the war tore apart. They often blamed themselves when what they patched up didn't work.
"I felt guilty about not doing the best job that I could have done," Laura says. On top of her feelings of inability to stop the men under her care from dying, she also had to care for Vietnamese civilians who had been wounded. She admits with shame that caring for those civilians was not something she wanted to do.
"I learned not to trust the Vietnamese. They could have been Viet Cong in disguise. Children -- GIs are notorious for picking up children but they were often wired with explosives. They killed a lot of our guys that way." Laura recalls. "I didn't always treat the Vietnamese as human beings. I treated them as the enemy and didn't really want to take care of them."
In retrospect, she sees that her reasons for joining the Army were myriad but rooted in a lack of direction and her openness to adventure. The allure of stories told by her father, a career Army man who served in World War II and Korea, and pictures of Asia enticed her to join the Army. Her interest in seeing things outside the United States was entangled with the need to do something about her career. She had recently graduated from nursing school, and experience as an Army nurse would enhance future career possibilities. And she had other considerations:
"My brother was draft eligible," she says. She reasoned that if she were in the Army when he was so close to being drafted he probably would not have to go to fight in a war he did not support.
"At the time," she adds, "the Air Force and Navy could not guarantee me a duty assignment outside the US, but the Army could guarantee my choice of assignment. I chose Hawaii."
Basic training bombarded her with more romantic stories about the military and war and in particular the excitement of Vietnam. As she readied herself for her assignment in Hawaii, she considered the benefits of going to Vietnam -- the excitement, the boost it would give her career, and what she would learn as a nurse over there.
Mr. Meshad, who directs the nationwide Vietnam counselling centers, believes that Laura's reasons for going to Vietnam were similar to those of other female veterans.
"Women went for the same reasons the men did," he says. "They were attracted by the excitement; their career opportunities would be enhanced; and if they were nurses they would come out being the best experienced nurses in their fields. They were women who were driven by idealism, energy, and naivete."
Laura is only one of the thousands of women, who voluntarily joined the military during what has become known as the Vietnam era (1961-73). How many of them served in Vietnam is hard to determine; estimates vary from 6,000 to 55,000 .
"Information on female veterans as a whole is very sketchy because they make up less than 2 percent of the military population," comments John Hickman, a public information specialist at the VA. However, he adds the 193,000 women served during the Vietnam era, although not necessarily in Vietnam.
The discrepancies over the numbers of women in Vietnam also stem from the number of federal agencies that deal with military statistics.
Even the recently appointed director of women's programs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, Linda Van Devanter, a former nurse in Vietnam, is unable to give any statistics about women veterans. She claims the lack of solid information about women is because the Defense Manpower Data Center, where military personnel statistics are kept, was only established in 1970 and not put into operation until 1971.
While the Air Force admits that women personnel were in Vietnam from 1967 to 1973, a public affairs spokesman says it's not known exactly how many. It is known, however, that women of all branches of the military served in hospitals and major bases in Vietnam and Thailand in the capacity of nurses, administrators, and in public affairs positions, or what is commonly known by the military as traditionally women's jobs.
On the other hand, the Marines know exactly how many women Marines -- served during the same period -- 36. A spokesman even had their names, height, weight, and color of hair and eyes available, and what they are doing now.
The Army apparently had the largest number of women serving in Vietnam. It estimates that from 1966 until the evacuation of all military personnel in 1973 more than 5,500 women served, nearly all of them nurses.
Laura's return home was very quick. She says she probably has the record for getting out of the Army fast, but most veterans feel their return home was much too fast. One day she was in Vietnam patching up young kids and 48 hours later she was home having breakfast with her family wondering if she should be helping with the dishes.
Many veterans believe that if a method of debriefing had been set up for returning veterans similar to what was done after the release of the American hostages from Iran, some of the problems veterans encountered may have been alleviated.
"The hardest part of the war for many veterans was coming home," Meshad says. They were returning to a country that was hostile to the war and anything military. They took the brunt of antiwar sentiments. They were stereotyped as ruthless killers of civilians, drugs addicts, and unemployable misfits, he says. They were shunned by their own society and even by veterans of other wars.
Many veterans have readjusted to the return home, but the rate of alcoholism, suicide, and unemployment among Vietnam veterans is evidence that thousands have problems. Since January 1980, when the first center opened, close to 55,000 Vietnam veterans have participated in the program. The program was in danger of folding because funding for Operation Outreach was slated to be cut from the budget by the Reagan administration, which opposed renewing the program, but on June 16 Congress extended it for three more years.
The centers, staffed with Vietnam veterans, appeal to the troubled veterans, since they provide a safe place for them to talk about their experiences without running the risk of being ridiculed or judged by someone without the same background.
Since women have remained in the closet and haven't identified themselves as veterans of Vietnam, Meshad says, the counseling programs have been developed with the male veteran in mind.
"Women are reluctant to come into the centers," Bruce Harmon, a counselor at a Seattle center, says. He agrees with Meshad's assessment that women are afraid to identify themselves as veterans, since the abuses outweight the rewards. Harmon explains that when a woman admits to being a Vietnam veteran, she saddles herself with the stigma associated with being a member of a small group of women among a large number of GIs far away from home. The word "veteran" has an unfeminine connotation, and their reputations are questioned by others.
Harmon has identified several women veterans in the Seattle area who appear to be interested in using the services of the center but somehow never get through the door. His goal is to get one women involved at the center who would search out others and encourage them to make use of the program.
Ron Armstead in Boston believes that as more women veterans make contact with the Outreach program the necessary programs will be established to meet their needs.
Many of the problems Outreach centers face today in trying to reach women veterans were identified back in 1976 by Carole Williams, who headed up a project in Seattle.
The Women Veteran Project was an outgrowth of a veteran program established in 1971 by the Veterans Education and Training Service. Robert L. Hill, then the national director of the VETS project, explains that in those early years the VA was not geared up for the thousands of returning Vietnam veterans, nor were they fully aware of the need for reeducation, training, and health care. With funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, VETS established 10 projects across the country to fill this void.
The Seattle VETS project designed a program specifically for women, but started from the misconception that they had the same experience and therefore the same needs as men. It took an all-out effort by Miss Williams to get women into the center. She set out to locate women veterans by distributing posters and putting public service announcements in newspapers and on the radio. Women responded.
As more women were counseled, it was soon realized that they generally had a better education and were looking for specific solutions to specific problems -- jobs, benefits, etc.
In its short, two-year existence, the project served over 100 women, and it was hoped it would serve as a model for future programs across the country. In December 1977, the funding for the women's program ran out and the program never went any further.
Counselors at Outreach centers realize the need for a safe place as well as the importance of cementing relationships with family and friends. That sense of trust lost by many while in Vietnam is essential to the first steps of getting veterans to talk about their recurring images of the war. As one veteran said recently, "When I started to talk about Vietnam I started to leave it behind." The inability to communicate their feelings has not helped family and friends understand their needs and moods.
"I didn't know if they didn't know what to say to me or I didn't know what to say to them, "Laura says of her family's response to her when she returned. "I couldn't sit still. I would wander from room to room and I didn't know what I was supposed to do or if I was supposed to do anything. I couldn't make any decisions about anything."
Laura spent much of her time listening to all the news reports to find out what was happening in Vietnam, preoccupied with the safety of friends still there. She was not able to sleep at night. "My dog couln't go to sleep until everyone was settled down, so she'd put her mouth around my wrist and try to get me to go to bed. She finally gave that up and just waited for me with her head in my lap."
Although male veterans have know for several years that their problems are related to Vietnam, women who served there are only beginning to make that connection. According to Meshad, one reason it has taken so long for them to make the connection is what women have not admitted to themselves or to others that they are veterans of Vietnam.
"I figured the depression was due to change of climate or environment and it would go away," Laura says. "You can only have nightmares for so long and they burn themselves out," she reasoned, "But they don't. I still have nightmares, I still sleep with the light on sometimes and loud noises frighten me.
"I'm not used to having a terrible temper. I came home and I couldn't get English muffins in the toaster.The toaster wouldn't go down. That would not ordinarily bother me, but I threw it against the wall so may times until I couldn't throw it anymore. My dad didn't say anything. He just picked up the toaster, dropped in the muffins, and the toaster went down. Then you feel like a jerk."
Laura's stint in Vietnam gave her impressive professional credentials, just as she had anticipated.
"Professionally, people look at your resume and say, 'You were in the Army and Vietnam?' They think that you can do anything and it's terrific," she says. "But 10 years down the road it isn't so terrific and I wouldn't do it again."
She recalls her first job interview, where she was offered the head nurse position in an intensive-care unit: "I had my coat and was almost out the door. I said there is no way I am going to work in an ICU." She mused, "There was my head nurse position, waiting right there for me, but I just couldn't take it. I finally got a job in an operating room." There, she doesn't have to deal with patients in pain or with the families. This was the only way she felt she could continue in nursing.
Laura has also become an active member of Agent Orange Victims International, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization established by Paul Reutershan, a Vietnam combat veteran who died in 1978 at age 28. The purpose is to inform veterans and the public about Agent Orange and to provide services to those affected by the herbicide, which was used to defoliate large areas of the Vietnam jungle and is now considered toxic. Her frustation over discovering its dangers accidentally through a newspaper article only two years ago, rather than through the government, prompted her to join the organization.
In the last few years, Laura has been connecting her Vietnam ordeal to the lack of direction in her life. She is climbing over the hurdles of fear, uneasiness, temper, and frustration. Her anxiety over speaking about Vietnam is dissipating.
This is evidence that Laura is leaving Vietnam behind.