The “other” Vietnam Vets
Everybody knows about the men who served in Vietnam. They have at least heard of the mentally trying conditions during the war and the resulting “post traumatic stress syndrome” (PTSD) so many veterans suffered from, or heard of the issues concerning negative public opinion of veterans for their role in a hated war. However, few are aware of the female role in the Vietnam War; women, the “other” veterans, shared in all of these problems and issues along with the gun-toting men. They were the nurses, and in A Piece of My Heart by Keith Walker the stories of many women are presented to better understand just how the Vietnam War affected women. Working in places like evacuation hospitals exposed women to the endless flow of casualties from the battlefield, and these experiences took major mental tolls upon the minds of the women who had to assist them, especially in their considerations for the value of human life. Women experienced other problems upon returning home such as the same PTSD and outlashes by anti-war protesters. Women were veterans of Vietnam just like the men, and they experienced many of the same problems as a result of their role there.
Women were exposed to an enormous amount of pain while in Vietnam. As veteran Rose Sandecki said, “The Vietnam War really did a number on all of us, the women as well as the men” (20). Nurses in Vietnam were exposed to a nonstop flow of casualties from the field. The landing of a Chinook with mass casualties on board had become a standard to Christine Schneider, a nurse in Da Nang. Practically every nurse’s story described the hospital scenes in Vietnam as “busy.” Jill Mishkel explained that she experienced a minimum of at least one death per day. As Ms. Schneider described, “There was just too much death” (46). Ms. Schneider also mentioned, “Everybody was bad” (45); nurses only saw the bad because they were surrounded by it, day in and day out. Charlotte Miller described everything as “on a very negative basis” (324), and that she had to deal with these problems from twelve to fifteen hours per day, twelve to fifteen days in a row, a very rigorous schedule. Further emotional damage was incurred by the severity of the injuries that the nurses had to deal with. Nurses described situations such as little boys with their intestines hanging out, men with half their faces blown off, men missing their legs from a grenade explosion, paraplegics, quadriplegics, and in one case pulling someone’s shoe off and having the foot come with it. In addition, the soldiers they were treating were only eighteen or nineteen. As Ms. Mishkel said, “They were young, healthy, good-looking men that could’ve been my brothers or my boyfriends or my husband, and they were dying” (124). Women in the Vietnam War had a lot of trying emotional stress that they had to deal with.
All of these emotional traumas that women had to experience day after day had a notable impact upon the women’s moral concept of the value of human life. Ms. Miller mad a very interesting statement, saying, “I am a professional committed to the concept that before anyone can administer to the health needs of an individual, one must recognize the dignity of human life” (322). One could believe that upon first being sent to Vietnam, nurses, being Americans, had a profound respect for the value of human life. Nurses such as Sara McVicker “had a hard time accepting that we couldn’t keep everybody alive and bring everybody back” (144). In the early days of her service, Ms. Mishkel said that she cried often, and that she thought the other nurses were “totally insensitive” (124). However, after day after day of experiences like Ms. McVicker’s, where there just simply weren’t the resources necessary to tend to everybody, where cases with low chances of survival had to be dropped to make room for others; Ms. Mishkel soon became as apathetic as everybody else. Many nurses, such as Ms. Sandecki, put up an emotional wall around them; forcing themselves to care less. As Pat Johnson said, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken life as lightly as I did then” (64). The emotional stress was so great in Vietnam that often nurses lost their concept of the value of human life, a result of having to numb their emotions to cope with the pains they were subjected to.
Women’s problems were not over upon returning to the states; women veterans continued to experience a variety of problems of treatment, in relationships, in the workplace, and emotionally. Problems began for women as soon as they left the compound they worked on. A number of nurses felt a degree of guilt in leaving the busy hospitals. As Ms. McVicker said, “I felt bad about it; it was almost like I was deserting them” (145). Upon arrival other nurses experienced antagonism from the American people; one nurse was denied passage on her plane home because her clothes were bloody, while another was greeted by anti-war protesters throwing tomatoes. In addition, many women suffered from PTSD just as men did. For instance many like Ms. Johnson had trouble talking about the war because it was “just too painful” (65). Others, like Ms. Mishkel and Sandra Collingwood, experienced social problems and couldn’t get involved in any relationships upon returning. Ms. Sandecki had problems maintaining a job because of a continued apathetic tendency upon returning from Vietnam; “Nothing meant anything when I came back from Vietnam” (18). On the other hand, many women do claim to have grown mentally in Vietnam, like Georgeanne Andreason who learned not to take things for granted as a result of Vietnam. Never-the-less, the emotional consequences were still harsh for most leaving “scars” that would last for many years after the war.
Women had much to say about the Vietnam War, on how it was being fought and mistakes that were made by the United States. For the most part, the women in A Piece of My Heart did not attack the US for being involved in Vietnam, through some like airline attendant Micki Voisard did have some general doubts about the necessity of the killing that went on there. Most of the women who did attack the US complained of how the US was operating in South-East Asia, not the fact that they were there. For example, a really important point made by Ms. Schneider which is shared by many people was that she was tired of hearing soldiers “say time and time again that they could win, but they were told to go only so far” (50). She was saying that the US wasn’t winning in Vietnam because its own government wasn’t letting it. After losing the war, many felt just like Ms. McVicker in that they felt that they had fought for nothing. These people were very upset with the government for just pulling out, and with the South Vietnamese who had simply given up all the land America had fought so dearly for without a fight. However, probably the most intriguing observations of all were made by Sandra Collingwood, a civilian volunteer who wanted to work with the Vietnamese from their own point of view. She, unlike most, identified with the Vietnamese rather than the Americans through her knowledge of the Vietnamese language and farming culture. Because of this camaraderie with the locals, she got to see the American mistakes through the eyes of an Asian. For example, she heavily criticized the actions of the military. She called attention to the embarrassing calls GIs made at local women which alienated them; the “fun games” of GIs to grenade water buffalo, which ere the most important tools used by farmers which their entire lives revolved around; the the rocketing of apartment complexes to get a sniper or two, in the process losing the support of hundreds of Vietnamese who lived in those complexes. She also admonished the Strategic Hamlet Program, saying that removing locals from their sacred, ancestral ground was a terrible sin to commit in the culture of the Vietnamese. She herself exclaimed, “I started developing antagonism toward the American military” (217); “I went through an irrational hatred of khaki (military) green…of anything military” (224). If the actions of the American military could evoke the hatred of a fellow American, imagine the effects upon the Vietnamese! The insight of these women, especially of Ms. Collingwood, are quite fascinating.
It is really interesting to consider that the effects upon, and insight of the women as a result of the Vietnam War might be greater than those of the men. Though the men did the dying, the situations women were placed in were truly more emotionally taxing than the majority of males. Nurses only saw the bad, only the bodies of dozens of wounded and dying soldiers per day. They were surrounded by death without exception each and every day. There can be little doubt that the minds of nurses, especially in the concept of the value of human life, were dulled even more than the minds of the soldiers toting guns. In addition, women also had to suffer through he same rough reception as men upon their return to the United States. Women also had many unique ideas spawning from unique experiences of women like MS. Collingwood which can be analyzed and learned from. Women definitely played a very important role in Vietnam, and it’s really amazing how these “other” veterans could so easily be overlooked by the American people.