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Fifty Years After the Vietnam War, Women Vets Gather in Central Virginia

Last Fall, as part of WCVE’s series on the Vietnam War, we shared the little-known story of women who served in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. Every other year, the women meet at a conference. Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp visited their recent gathering in Colonial Heights and at Fort Lee and traveled with the vets to Washington, DC.

Learn More: 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. And listen to our 2017 audio documentary After The Vietnam War, Women Veterans Fight To Preserve Their History

Transcript:

Present Arms!

Dozens of Vietnam veterans stand and salute as two Fort Lee soldiers post the colors. After an invocation and the pledge, they sing.

(National Anthem Singing)

The women have traveled here from all over, including California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Upstate New York. Many wear blue vests emblazoned with where and when they served in Vietnam.

Charlotte Phillips: I’m Charlotte Phillips, retired colonel United States Army and I worked as a quartermaster all my career. I was not a nurse (laughs).

Charlotte Phillips laughs, but says sometimes it is upsetting when people assume that if she served in Vietnam, she must have been as a nurse. She was at Fort Lee testing irradiated meals when she was told to write a letter volunteering to go to Vietnam.

Phillips: (laughs) I was volun-told.

She spent 15 months in Vietnam, traveling the country and preparing detailed reports on the status of equipment.

Phillips: There was no safe place there and I think we’re learning it even more now, but when you’re in combat there just is no place that is safe.

Hundreds of other women deployed to Vietnam, mostly those in the Women’s Army Corps but also in the Air Force, Navy and Marines. They served clerks, intelligence analysts, physical therapists and lab technicians. They worked in a combat zone, but weren’t given weapons training, although some learned how to use firearms on their own. They took cover from explosions and witnessed the endless casualties brought to the Long Binh Evacuation Hospital. Some like Phillips went on to have long careers in the military. But many went back to civilian life, some didn’t consider themselves veterans, others felt invisible.

Linda McClenahan: Nobody in the news or at events, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, nobody said men and women. It was always just the men.

Linda McClenahan shows me a citation for her Amy Commendation Medal. Her name is written in, but the rest of the form is pre-printed and uses male pronouns.

McClenahan: And as you can see it says it was presented to Sergeant Linda J. McClenahan with my numbers and all that stuff and then it goes on to say “who distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious service in support of military operations” and then later, “His commendable performance reflects distinct credit upon himself in the United States Army.” This is the way it was, you know, it didn't even occur to them. They probably thought “Oh that poor guy had to live with the name like Linda” and it probably didn't even occur to them that they were women there. So my citation has “he” all the way through it.

On the front and back of McClenahan’s leather vest is the same red and black patch: Women Are Vets Too. Even at the Vietnam Memorial Wall Dedication, she says they felt slighted.

McClenahan: There were a group of us that were there and the speaker, he kept saying “our servicemen” and we would yell “And women!” ... finally about the fifth time he  just waved his hand like that as if you know, yeah and the woman. It was pretty bad. We had to hold one of our members back. (laughs) She was pretty angry.

More than 20 years ago, a group of these women started an ambitious goal - to track down each female, non-nurse who served in Vietnam. Inquiries to the Pentagon and even FOIA requests went nowhere. So they did it themselves, searching phone books and obituaries, contacting relatives, navigating the early days of the internet. Their database grew to some 800 women. They formed an organization, Vietnam Women Vets, Inc and in 1999, they organized the first “homecoming” conference in Olympia, Washington.The biennial gatherings are a place to connect, support each other and learn about veterans benefits and resources. This year at the US Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, they were welcomed by Brigadier General Rodney Fogg.

Rodney Fogg: Let me tell you, as I look around the room and try to make eye contact with every single one of you, this is the appropriate place for you to be  - the museum, the Women's museum, because you made history.

The General locked eyes with each woman in the room. He repeated his gratitude, made the group smile and laugh and emphasized their role in shaping the military.

Rodney Fogg: I stand in uniform and have had the privilege and honor to serve for about 30 years now in a wonderful Army because of you. And we have a wonderful Army that has been trained and the best in the world because we learn from you and we were trained because of what you did and what you told us we needed to do.

During the conference, the veterans had serious questions for Fogg and other speakers: in the era of “Me Too,” what was the military doing to prevent sexual assault? What about veterans and suicide? What kind of research is being done into the effects of agent orange and the toxins at Fort McClellan?

McClenahan: I have a question. As you know agent orange is still an issue and women were never included in the studies. So our higher rate of breast cancer, even in this group, isn’t counted anywhere. Isn't there some way to push the agent orange registry or whatever to look at that? And other things, I've got a neurological thing going on right now that my neurologist thinks is probably related to agent orange, but we don't know. And it's different than some of the guys.

The women have dealt with cancer, birth defects, respiratory problems, PTSD, and military sexual trauma. A number have died young, in their ‘60s. The group Vietnam Women Veterans and the conferences are an important way to share information about accessing benefits and resources they’ve earned through their service.

(Church Bells)

The conferences are also a time to reflect. This year, the vets boarded two buses to Washington, DC. The first stop was WIMSA, The Women In Military Service For America Memorial. On the second floor, overlooking Arlington National Cemetery, the group paused to read quotes about military women etched on large glass panels.

Betty Russell: Now that’s well said!

Betty Russell was a Specialist 4 at the WAC Detachment in Vietnam. She retired in 1991 as a master sergeant.

Russell: “The ground they broke was hard soil indeed, but with great heart and true grit, they plowed right through the prejudice and presumption, cutting a path for their daughters and granddaughters to serve their country in uniform.” That's exactly what it felt like to be in the Corps, in the Women’s Army Corps.

The vets heard from retired Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, whose long career included a deployment to Vietnam. After a pinning ceremony, they departed for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I need the two wreath teams up here...

The group brought two wreaths, made of red roses, white carnations and blue delphinium, adorned with a large green ribbon and in gold glitter, the words “Vietnam Women Veterans, We Remember.” Thinking of the women who’ve died, the ones they knew and those they haven’t yet found, they placed one wreath at the Wall, the other at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Then a crowd of hundreds went silent and turned to watch a bugler, standing alone under a giant Elm, arranged by the women to play Taps.

(Bugler playing taps)

The group has an hour or so to explore the Memorial. People notice their decorated vests and approach them. There’s a fellow Vietnam Vet who earned a purple heart, a woman who served in the Army with her eight year old son, a World War II veteran here through the non-profit Honor Flight Network.

World War II Veteran: I have never met at a Vietnam vet.
Vietnam Women Vets: Are you kidding? Wow.
World War II Veteran: It’s true. And I'm one of the reasons I'm here is because I figure I'll run into a Korean vet or a Vietnam vet. And I got you.
Vietnam Women Vets: You got all of us, this whole group served.
World War II Veteran: And you served in country?
Vietnam Women Vets: Yes, absolutely!
World War II Veteran: Bless you both. Hope we won’t have to do it again.

Some of the vets have to field those questions about whether they were nurses. But it’s opportunity to set the record straight and share a snapshot of their stories. Today, they’re not invisible. They smile and shake hands, as strangers say “thank you for your service” and “welcome home.” For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.