WOMEN VETERANS; A DIFFERENT ROAD HOME FROM VIETNAM
The officer in charge looked up in disbelief. "How old are you?" "Twenty."Skip to next paragraph
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"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.