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After The Vietnam War, Women Veterans Fight To Preserve Their History

Florence Dunn spent more than two decades in the U.S. Army.
Florence Dunn spent more than two decades in the U.S. Army. After a promotion to Captain, she deployed to Vietnam, arriving on April 9th, 1971. Photo: Catherine Komp / 88.9 WCVE

In the years following the Vietnam War, the experiences of civilian and military nurses were featured in films, a TV series, magazine articles and books. In 1993, a bronze sculpture depicting Vietnam nurses was dedicated on the National Mall. But there’s another group of women who served and veterans want more recognition for the female soldiers in the Women’s Army Corps, Air Force, Navy and Marines. In our series Vietnam: Virginia Remembers, 88.9 WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

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Find details about the non-profit Vietnam Women Veterans, Donna Lowery’s book Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories and the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee. Thanks to the U.S. Army Women’s Museum for providing archival photos and cassette recordings and to Trevor Pogue for recording the interview with Donna Lowery.

As the war in Vietnam intensified, the U.S. Army Pictorial Center made a training film for new enlistees.

(U.S. Army Film “No Greater Heritage,” Helen Hayes speaking:) Love and loyalty to one’s country have never been exclusive attributes of men...

Popular actress Helen Hayes, known as the “First Lady of the Theater,” reassures the female audience of their place in history.

(U.S. Army Film “No Greater Heritage,” Helen Hayes speaking:) As members of the Women’s Army Corps, the heroism of generation after generation of American women is the bequest of history to you.

Women’s Army Corps soldiers in Vietnam, date unknown. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

Fifty years later, this history has faded from public memory.

Francoise Bonnell: It’s not a history that even in our own Army do we learn about.

Florence Dunn: We had a mission to do and we did it well.

Donna Lowery: There were absolutely incredible women that served this country, that have gotten absolutely no recognition.

While thousands of military nurses played a vital role in Vietnam, treating diseases and battlefield injuries, a small group has been documenting the other women who served. Dr. Francoise Bonnell is Director of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia.

Bonnell: So much of what we see, what we hear, what we’ve learned has been about those women and of course there’s a whole other story that has for the most part been left out.

More than 850 women served in-country in Vietnam, mostly in the Women’s Army Corps or WAC, but also in the Navy, Air Force and Marines. While there were many more military nurses, Bonnell argues the numbers aren’t as important as their actual contributions.

Bonnell: When you examine the greater story and the larger picture, you also find out that it resonates with a lot more people than you think it does. So we may only have at any given time 5, 10, 15, 20 percent of our Army filled with women but they are somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter.

During World War II, the U.S. military encouraged women to take non-combatant roles and “free a man to fight.” At the time women could only serve during active war, unless working in a medical capacity. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act changed that, creating permanent and reserve opportunities in the military. By the Vietnam War, says Bonnell, the idea of “freeing of a man to fight” had passed.

Bonnell: This is more a case of women in positions, in jobs with certain skills that are not necessarily replacing what a man can do but rather supplementing or expanding what can be done because of that.

Some of the first Women’s Army Corp soldiers in Vietnam were advisors, sent to train a Vietnamese Women’s unit.

Bonnell: I look at a picture like this and I just find it fascinating.

Bonnell sits before stacks of photos from U.S. Army Women’s Museum archives. One shows WAC Major Kathleen Wilkes and Sargent Betty Adams handing out uniforms to Vietnamese women.

Dr. Francoise Bonnell is Director of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia and co-wrote a chapter in Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Bonnell: When we think about training, equipping and advising another country’s military, it’s just fascinating to see and think about what’s her reaction to the uniform she’s about to put on and what is Major Wilkes thinking about, is this going to work, is this going to fit, what does the future of what they’re doing right now hold?

Women served in clerical and administrative roles, as translators and supply specialists, intelligence analysts and lab technicians. They worked 10-15 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes seven. When they did have down time, some volunteered at a local orphanage. They strung a parachute between quonset huts to make a shady recreation area. Others set up a small swimming pool, donated by WAC veterans back at home.

Bonnell: There’s a sense of camaraderie that you have in this experience that creates what they call a band of sisters.

Fort Lee Guard: Hello, welcome back, how you doing ma’am?

Florence Dunn: Good morning, how you doing?

Florence Dunn flashes an ID and pulls through the gate at Fort Lee. The Vietnam veteran comes to the base once or twice a week, sometimes shopping at the commissary, to fill a prescription or to volunteer at the U.S. Army Women’s Museum.

Dunn grew up in the rural town of Yale, Virginia, where she says choices for women were limited.

Dunn: Back in those days, women got married or they became a hairdresser or something like that. I wanted to do more.

Six months before her high school graduation, Dunn started talking to her parents about enlisting. Her mother said she’d support whatever Florence wanted to do. Her father didn’t like the idea.

Dunn: Dad said nope! You're going to nursing school (laughs).

Dunn never made it to nursing school. She kept making the case to her father and shortly after her high school graduation, she enlisted. She still remembers the date.

Dunn: July 30th, 1956. I was about a month over 18 and of course back in those days women had to have signature of both parents to come in.

Dunn spent more than two decades in the U.S. Army. After a promotion to Captain, she deployed to Vietnam, arriving on April 9th, 1971. She was the only woman assigned to CORDS, Civil Operations and Rural Development Support.

Florence Dunn served more than 22 years in the US Army including a deployment to Vietnam.  (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Dunn: CORDS was the part of the force over there that was pacification. We had nothing to do with, you know the shooting or anything like that. We were pacification and community development directorate was exactly that. Our folks went out in the fields, taught [Vietnamese civilians] how to plant crops, raise cattle and we did civic action projects, provided some equipment for them, provided some medical clinics for them, that sort of thing. So it was strictly pacification.

Dunn opens a photo album documenting her time in country. One image shows the delivery of a bulldozer, another captures a project to help civilians raise pigs. There are pictures of Dunn in her Class A uniform and wearing fatigues on a Vietnamese beach.

Florence Dunn on the beach at Nha Trang, Vietnam, December 1971. Dunn was the only woman assigned to CORDS, Civil Operations and Rural Development Support. (Photo Courtesy Florence Dunn)

Dunn: I had one of these small cameras I carried in my fatigue pocket the whole time. That's where these came from. This is a dental program. We went out into one of the small communities and the dentists provided free service to people who perhaps had never even seen a dentist before.

Dunn was stationed in Saigon, away from the larger group of women at the WAC detachment. She shared a room with a civilian Army employee at a hotel, but it wasn’t fancy. No elevators, no AC.

Dunn: We used to buy things downstairs in the PX Exchange and we’d bring them upstairs, pork and beans, things like that. Well, we ate off the ironing board for a year. We didn’t have a table so we ate off the ironing board.

Many women were eager to serve in Vietnam, but didn’t feel prepared. Initially, most received dress uniforms: shirts, skirts, nylons and heels - not ideal in the hot, dusty environment. And though arriving in a conflict zone, they weren’t issued weapons.

Many women soldiers were initially given dress uniforms, but eventually had the option to wear fatigues. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

Catherine “Cathy” Oatman Cassette Recording: (Explosion) That noise that you’re hearing the background, or did hear I should say, is what we jokingly call over here the de-escalation of the war.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Catherine “Cathy” Oatman captured her experiences in Vietnam on a tape recorder.

Oatman Cassette Recording: I’m not sure around this place whether the old saying “Silence is Golden” is true or not. Sometimes the silence around here can be the worst part of the whole thing. At least when you know, when you hear the firing going on, that something’s going on. When it gets so darn quiet, you don’t know what the heck’s up.

The military encouraged soldiers to record audio letters to send back home. Oatman talked about volunteering at an orphanage, a planned R&R trip to Thailand, and a roommate who kept the AC too high.

Oatman Cassette Recording: My room’s like an icebox (explosion in background). I have one roommate who swears she can’t go to sleep without the air conditioner on. Freezes everybody else out. I can always tell when the air conditioner is on because the door knob on the outside is wet. (Explosion) Hear the background music?

She often recorded outside, late at night or early in the morning as mortar and rocket fire exploded near the base.

Oatman Cassette Recording: I hate to go to the bunkers at all, but I’d by far rather go at 2:00 a.m. than at 5:00 a.m., because I got to get up at 6:00 a.m. (Explosion) That irritates me to no end to have to get out of bed that much earlier-- I saw that one go over. Rocket leaves sort of a trail, that’s the only word I can think of right now, a vapor trail, that’s the best way to describe it in the sky when it goes over. Once in a while (yawn) you can see the streak from it.

Donna Lowery: You know honestly nobody was safe.

When Donna Lowery flew into Vietnam on January 31st, 1967, ground fire erupted below.

Lowery: We did not land for about an hour because we had to circle around and then finally they decided to land and they turned off all of the lights and then you had to bend down and scurry off the plane and go into a bus.

Lowery spent 19 months in Vietnam and retired as a Sergeant Major with 26 years in the Army. She said while the WAC detachment did have armed male guards, the perimeter of the base wasn’t secured and one side backed up to a golf course. Lowery said her fellow soldiers were also troubled by the lack of planning if the base suffered a major attack.

Lowery: Our unit had no evacuation plan, because we were considered non-combatants.

Lowery says this lapse had a lasting impact.

Lowery: The person that we had that worked at the evacuation office has never recovered that her country has sent her to a foreign country in a war and had evacuation plan. Plus what happened is that this is the group of women who have been overlooked.

After a deployment ended, many women returned home. Lowery says they were told not to wear their uniforms; the discharge process was simply handing in your ID card.

Lowery: They didn't even say thank you for your service. They just took the I.D. card and you were out of the military. And if we had which was really bad, we had some pregnancies. If you had a pregnancy, then what would happen is you get a dishonorable discharge and just be sent home.

Lowery says she’s been working with one veteran Fanny Brooks who is still fighting to get her benefits.

Lowery: She’s one of these lost women that we have that didn’t get any recognition from her country and now at 70 years old she’s trying get what she was entitled to a long time ago.

The non-profit Vietnam Women Veterans, formed by Precilla Landry Wilkewitz and Claire Brisebois Starnes in 1999, organized the massive search for others who served in Vietnam. It was complicated because many women’s names changed after they married; some were just known by their nicknames. Lowery says they struggled to get information from the Department of Defense, even after filing Freedom of Information requests.

Sergeant First Class Betty Benson (second left) with other WACs in Vietnam. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

Lowery: They told me that they could give me everybody, all the women that were in the service at the time without names. And I said well that's ridiculous, what am I going to do with that? And so they finally sent me a letter saying that they have no idea of this group of women who served their country.

Volunteers identified 863 women who served in Vietnam in the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. Their stories, many accounts written by the veterans themselves, are featured in Lowery’s book Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories. Veterans share fond memories of the Christmas tree procured from Maine, USO shows and giving away a rare shipment of fresh fruit to Vietnamese civilians. Florence Dunn described a care package from her sister. Inside the precious cargo of twinkies had an invasion of ants.

Dunn: I don't know how these ants got inside the packages of twinkies, but...

Her roommate had an idea.

Dunn: She had brought a refrigerator over with her household goods and she said well we'll just stick the twinkies is in the freezer. And when they freeze, we’ll just brush them off and eat the twinkies and that's exactly what we did! (laughs)

Veterans write about challenging and painful memories too. Barracks flooding up to the cots during monsoon season; the trauma of near death experiences, seeing body bags lined up for processing; sexual harassment and assault. Historian Francoise Bonnell says there’s an assumption that PTSD only happens to combat soldiers, that it only happens to men.

Bonnell: Anytime you're anywhere, especially in a hostile environment you are going to witness things that the average American wouldn't. I mean that's really what it is about being a soldier in a combat environment that makes it so tough. So many of these women interestingly after the war, didn't really recognize that they they had been traumatized or that they were being affected by their experiences. And a few of them remarked that it really hasn't been a until it's been in the news about post-traumatic stress that they began to realize that their symptoms they've had for years, I mean decades since the war ended were in fact the same symptoms that they had been experiencing through all of this and recognize for themselves that they suffered from PTSD.

Vietnam Women Veterans Inc. has helped respond to these needs. They offer health and education resources and organize reunions and conferences, the next one’s at Fort Lee in 2018. Lowery says since the book came out, there’s growing interest in the non-nurses who served in Vietnam. She’s been contacted by the NY Historical Society and the National Archives, which opened a multiyear exhibit on the Vietnam War.

Lowery: I am really hopeful that this country will be as frustrated as I am that these women have not been honored and will honor them.

By documenting these stories, other legacies come to the surface. As a single woman, Catherine Oatman adopted two Vietnamese children from the orphanage where she volunteered before returning to the states. She was a longtime advocate for other vets until she passed in 2013. Florence Dunn worked to bring her Vietnamese interpreter and friend Ha Thi Lang to Richmond, Virginia.

Dunn: I had come back to the states and it must have been five, six, maybe 10 years later she said I want to come, will you sponsor me? So I had to work through a lot of different agencies, the Catholic Diocese in Richmond, I wrote senators and congressmen and one of Lang's friends had come to the States and was in Washington with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. So it took a lot of people to get them over here.

They didn’t come with much, says Dunn.

After returning to the states, Florence Dunn kept in touch with her interpreter and friend Ha Thi Lang and helped to bring her and her family to the United States. (Photo Courtesy of Florence Dunn)

Dunn: It was really a very gutsy move, I don’t know if I would have done it.

Ha Lang lost a husband and a son in Vietnam. After the war, the family survived with a small pastry business run out of their home. They eventually fled across the border, and after a long process, arrived in Richmond in 1992.

Dunn: This was her daughter and the three children.

Ha Lang and her family rebuilt their lives in Richmond. She taught english to other refugees, played an active role in cultural groups. She became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and while she passed away in 2011, her family continues to thrive. Now living in Florida, her grandchildren are working in education and engineering, studying nutrition and computer science. All this may have been a dream, back in 1972, when Lang invited Florence Dunn to be the first guest at her home for Tet, Vietnamese New Year.

Dunn: I could not understand why. I said why are you inviting me, an American? And she said well the first person that comes to your house for Tet is supposed to bring you good luck, wealth, happiness, prosperity. And I said I can't do any of those things for you! But quite ironically, it must have come true.

In addition to Vietnam, Florence Dunn’s long career in the Army included assignments in Japan where she was a military journalist and quite the athlete.

Dunn: I was all star shortstop for two consecutive years.

After returning from Saigon, Dunn served as a Commander of the Women’s Army Corps at Fort Meade. She earned a bronze star and other medals. She retired in 1978, after 22 years, five months and one day as a soldier.

Dunn: But who’s counting? (laughs)

Dunn transitioned to a civilian post at Fort Lee, working in media relations and public affairs from 1979 to 2005.

Dunn: For a country girl who was 18, who had no college at all, straight out of high school to the Army, I've had some lucky breaks along the way and met some interesting people.

Florence Dunn regularly volunteers with the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, where a brick recognizes her service. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Florence Dunn keeps in touch with Ha Lang’s family and her roommate from Saigon. She speaks once a month with her military mentor from Fort Monroe, who’s now 100 years old. Dunn says that the women soldiers in Vietnam helped pave the way for future generations.

Dunn: Well look at what women can do now. They can pilot airplanes, they can jump out of airplanes, they can be infantry. Women have come a long way. There’s still something that needs to be accomplished as far as acceptance, I think. It's hard for men to accept some of the women in the positions in which they have.

Women serving today, says Francoise Bonnell, understand the contributions of those who came before them. But she adds, their legacy is underestimated.

Bonnell: And it really is a legacy of which to be proud not just as a woman but as the Army, as an institution, in our society.

While the book, Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories was published in 2015, it’s a living document, says author Donna Lowery. She’s still searching for a woman she served with, Linda Garrigan, originally from Joplin, MO. And, says Lowery, she won’t stop until all her fellow Vietnam veterans are recognized.

Lowery: I want before these people like Fanny Brooks dies, I want somebody to say to her “Thank you for your service. I'm so proud of you.” That’s what I want.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

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