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February 1999
vietnamese and US women

American Women and the Vietnam War
by Catherine M. Jones
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Image from the film Regret to Inform.

Amazing as it may seem, until the 1980s there were no accurate records kept by either government or private agencies of women veterans. None of the studies on Vietnam veterans or on veterans in general considered women. This was probably due to the prevailing attitudes of the overwhelmingly male military establishment, blind to the contributions of women, and the widely-held societal assumption that war was exclusively a man's affair. Like the rest of the more than one million invisible women veterans who had served elsewhere and at other times, no one had any idea how many women had served in the armed forces in Vietnam. Through the persistence of women veterans and their supporters, the names of eight women veterans who died in the Vietnam War have been added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and a separate bronze Vietnam Women's Memorial dedicated to them in 1993.

The myth that "war is a man's thing" is revealed for the untruth and injustice which it is.

Likewise, research began in the 1980s, principally among women scholars, which involved interviewing women veterans and analyzing their roles in Vietnam and their adjustment to civilian life afterward. It spawned a number of memoirs of the war era by other, non-military women in Vietnam in those years, and by the wives of Vietnam vets, describing their experiences during the war and afterward. The diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), first made in the late '70s, but reserved for men in combat, precipitated medical and psychological studies, which slowly expanded to include women veterans with the same or similar difficulties and later to veterans' families. Lastly, historians began to study the role of American women in the civil rights and antiwar movements of that turbulent era. With such diverse evidence of the broad involvement of American, Vietnamese, and other women in the Vietnam War and its consequences, the myth that "war is [exclusively] a man's thing" is revealed for the untruth and injustice which it is.

We are still not sure how many women served in the military in Vietnam; a 1985 newsletter published by the Vietnam Veterans of America put the number of American military women on active duty in Vietnam at about 11,000, while a 1990 study by the Department of Defense placed the number at 7,465. As for a second group, non-military western women in Vietnam--missionaries, teachers, journalists, flight attendants, entertainers, Red Cross or Special Services personnel, and private business contract employees--the number runs as high as 50,000, though it is not clear that all of them were Americans. As for American women at home--wives, sweethearts, mothers of the military men fighting in Vietnam or those who became active in the anti-war movement--the numbers would have to be estimated in the hundreds of thousands if not the millions.

 

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