Excerpt from an interview about her
experiences in Vietnam, 1972–75
Published in Kathryn Marshall's In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam, 1987
"I'm sure things are desperately poor [in Vietnam] and probably still incredibly beautiful. But whatever's happened, it's their [the Vietnamese's] country now, and I'm glad of that."
Thousands of American women served in Vietnam during the war years. In fact, some estimates place the total num ber between 33,000 and 55,000. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that nearly 7,500 of these women served in the American military, while the Veterans Administration places the number of American military women in Vietnam at over 11,000. The numbers are uncertain because the government did not keep separate military records by gender at that time. In addition, there were no official records of civilian (non-military) women serving in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War women who pursued a mili tary career were segregated into special branches of the service and not allowed to participate in combat. The main opportunities for women in the American military were in the nursing and administrative fields. Most of the women in the American armed forces in Vietnam served as nurses. But about 20 percent served in various administrative roles, such as clerks, typists, information officers, air traffic controllers, map-makers, decoders, and photographers.
In addition to those who served in the military, many American women also served as civilian relief workers during the Vietnam War. These women worked with a number of international organizations, including the Red Cross, the Agency for International Development, the Peace Corps, and International Voluntary Services. Some civilian aid workers, like Julie Forsythe, helped the Vietnamese people who suffered the effects of the war. They applied their skills in schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the South Vietnamese cities and countryside. Other civilian women supported the American troops by putting on shows, organizing games, or setting up entertainment centers at base camps where off-duty soldiers could play cards and shoot pool.
Nurses in the Vietnam War
The majority of the American women who served in Vietnam worked in a medical capacity, treating wounded U.S. soldiers or Vietnamese people. The U.S. military began recruiting women out of nursing schools in 1965. In some cases nurses entered the military through programs in which the government paid the cost of nursing school in exchange for a year of service in Vietnam. Nurses serving in the U.S. Army were stationed at hospitals throughout South Vietnam. U.S. Navy nurses served on special hospital ships off the coast of Vietnam, while U.S. Air Force nurses cared for patients on evacuation flights.
Female nurses were commissioned officers in the U.S. military, and they were required to be at least twenty-one years old. But many lacked practical experience. In fact, 60 percent of the military nurses who served in Vietnam had less than two years of experience, and 36 percent had less than six months. But even the most seasoned battlefield nurse might not have been prepared for the severe injuries nurses routinely treated in Vietnam. "No one told them, nor could they know, they would experience a level of trauma in Vietnam that nurses had never confronted before in wartime," Laura Palmer wrote in the NewYork Times Magazine. As army nurse Ruth Sidisin recalled in Inthe Combat Zone, the injuries were "like a grotesque form of 'can you top this,' because each time you thought you'd seen the ultimate, something else would come along."
There were several reasons that Vietnam War wounds tended to be more severe than the ones that nurses had treated in previous wars. For one thing, the widespread use of helicopters in Vietnam allowed wounded soldiers to be transported to hospitals very quickly. "Helicopters made the difference," Palmer noted. "Soldiers who would have died on the battlefields in World War II and Korea were evacuated to hospitals, sometimes within minutes of being wounded."
Another reason for the severity of wounds in Vietnam was the type of weapons that were used. Many soldiers and civilians were injured by mines or bombs rather than bullets. "In the Vietnam War, the small arms used by both sides were specifically designed to inflict massive, multiple injuries," Kathryn Marshall wrote in In the Combat Zone. "Even nurses with backgrounds in trauma surgery were unprepared for the kinds of injuries they saw." For example, huge blast wounds were common. Amputations of multiple limbs were routine. Nurses also frequently saw burns so severe that they went down to the bone.
"The typical soldier who arrived for treatment had many different types of injuries. It was unusual to see a single gunshot wound. More likely, nurses would work on someone who suffered from multiple traumatic injuries," Elizabeth M. Norman explained in Women at War. "For example, a navy nurse remembered one patient who had stepped on a land mine and lost both legs. The impact of the blast perforated his eardrums. He also fractured both arms when he hit the ground."
In addition to serious war wounds, military nurses and civilian aid workers in Vietnam treated a number of rare diseases that they had not been taught to treat, such as typhoid, tuberculosis, and dengue fever. "Nurses also found themselves in wards filled with patients diagnosed with tropical diseases like malaria, cholera, even snake and monkey bites," Norman noted. "There were the exotic diseases of bubonic plague and tetanus, usually found only in nursing textbooks." In addition, some military nurses worked in drug wards, where they treated soldiers who had become addicted to marijuana, cocaine, opium, or heroin. These drug problems became more frequent as the war progressed, for hard drugs were cheap, extremely potent, and widely available in Vietnam.
Remarkably, only 2 percent of the patients who made it to American military hospitals died of their injuries or illnesses. Fast evaluation by helicopter saved some lives, while medical advances meant that more serious wounds could be treated successfully. But this high survival rate left many people—both American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers—with lasting disabilities. "Although it salvaged lives, this system also created a dilemma about the quality of life left for some of the men," Norman wrote. "Nurses spoke of the guilt and confusion they felt when they sent severely disabled patients home."
In general, military nurses and civilian relief workers in Vietnam worked long, grueling shifts in medical facilities that often overflowed with patients. They saw young American men and Vietnamese women and children suffering from terrible wounds on a daily basis. Because they were women, they were often expected to provide emotional support as well as medical treatment to these patients. In addition, the nurses often faced physical danger themselves due to guerilla warfare and the lack of clear battle lines. "Because a terrorist bomb could be planted anywhere and a midnight mortar attack could hit a hospital or office, women were sometimes in as much danger as any of the males in the same vicinity," David K. Wright noted in Perspectives: A Multicultural Portrait of the Vietnam War. In fact, eight female nurses died during the Vietnam War.
Overall, the nurses and relief workers who served in Vietnam reported that they experienced moments of deep satisfaction during their service, when they were able to make the difference between life and death for a fellow human being. But these moments were overshadowed by their feelings of fear, anger, and sorrow over the suffering they witnessed.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the interview with American relief worker Julie Forsythe:
- Julie Forsythe served as a civilian relief worker at a rehabilitation center for severely injured Vietnamese people. Since she was not a member of the armed forces, and she treated Vietnamese victims of the war rather than U.S. soldiers, her experiences differ somewhat from those of American military nurses. Still, she saw the same kinds of traumatic injuries and felt the same range of emotions as many nurses.
- In the excerpt, Forsythe discusses the damage that American bombing, burning, and use of herbicides (harsh chemicals that kill plants) did to the once-beautiful country. Before the Vietnam War the South Vietnamese countryside was lush and green. Farmers tended rice paddies (wet fields where rice is grown) in fertile river valleys. The surrounding hillsides were covered with jungles of trees and plants. But U.S. troops found that the jungles provided ideal hiding places for the Communist guerilla fighters known as the Viet Cong. They also realized that the rice paddies and rural villages were good sources of food and supplies for the Viet Cong. To eliminate these sources of support for the enemy, the U.S. military used more than 14 million tons of explosives and sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides on the South Vietnamese countryside during the Vietnam War.
- Forsythe also talks about some of the effects the war had on the Vietnamese people, including hunger, disease, emotional trauma, and physical wounds. The destruction of the South Vietnamese countryside with bombs and herbicides took a terrible toll on the people who lived there. Many people were killed or suffered crippling injuries. Many others left the rural villages where their families had lived for generations and became refugees.
- In her interview, Forsythe describes a visit to My Lai, a small village in Quang Ngai province near the rehabilitation center where she worked. My Lai was the site of a massacre in 1968. U.S. troops entered the village in search of enemy forces, then proceeded to murder hundreds of unarmed civilians, including elderly people, women, and children. When news of the massacre reached the United States in 1970, it triggered strong emotions of shame, disgust, and anger among millions of ordinary Americans. But the children Forsythe met in My Lai could not understand why Americans viewed what happened there as unusual. After all, the Vietnamese people were exposed to violence and suffering every day during the war.
- At the end of the excerpt, Forsythe expresses her hope for the future of Vietnam, now that it has been reunited under a Communist government. Unlike many Americans, Forsythe remained in Vietnam after the American troops withdrew in 1973. She was in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975, when North Vietnamese forces took over the city and won the war. Many Americans believed that the fall of South Vietnam to communism would be disastrous both for the Vietnamese people and for U.S. interests around the world. But Forsythe got to know many Vietnamese during her time at the rehabilitation center. She came to believe that they should be allowed to form their own government and rule themselves, free from interference by the United States or other countries.
Excerpt from the interview with Julie Forsythe:
You never get over the sense of green and flowers in Southeast Asia. Coconut palms, mango trees—the villages are really beautiful, especially where the mountains come down to the coast. And Saigon [capital of Vietnam]. You know, the earliest Western travelers there—the Portuguese were there in the 1600s—talk about walking on theroads out of Saigon and being entirely overwhelmed by the smell of orchids. Because, you know, the trees were just everywhere full of orchids. Of course, by the time I got there the Americans had done a fairly nasty job.
That's why there were so many diseases—the whole economy was wrecked. For instance, the U.S. came in with bulldozers and plowed down the hedgerows, right through the irrigation system. We messed up the fields and left Agent Orange in the hills, so every spring there were floods. Yeah, all the wells were messed up, too—you can't just wreck an environment the way we did and not leave a lot of nasty footprints. Typhus. Bubonic plague. Polio. All kinds of diseases from lack of public health and a completely destroyed economy.
Yeah, it used to be a beautiful country.
I wasn't prepared for a lot of things I saw. Like the prison wards. Or once I was in surgery and they were doing amputations —this was right after I got to Quang Ngai—and I nearly passed out. Horrible. But the kids were the worst. Up to 40 percent of our patients were kids—we saw about a thousand people a year—because the kids are the ones who take the ducks out and take the water buffalo down to the river. And some yo-yo leaves a landmine in the path and—pop! That's it. No, I wasn't prepared for how many kids were so badly damaged.
A lot of them came in with no arms and legs. And we saw kids with neck injuries from shrapnel, so that they were entirely paralyzed. At times we took over the hospital's burn unit, where we saw the kids who'd been napalmed. Napalm is really grim stuff. What's so disgusting about it is that only oil stops the burning. Water doesn't stop the burning, so when kids get hit with napalm they run into the river and the stuff keeps burning—they keep burning. And listen, the most disgusting thing you've ever seen in your life is a child who's just totally burned. Right down to the muscle. It's very, very painful, and the treatment is brutally long. It's almost impossible to undo that kind of damage. Maybe under extremely sanitary conditions—which we didn't have—and with horrible, really horrible, scar tissue.
Other burns we saw were due to black marketeering. A lot of airplane fuel was ripped off from the Air Force and sold as cooking fuel. And when it ignited—whoom! Really disgusting, those body burns.
We did the best we could for our patients, under tough conditions. There never seemed to be enough of us, though. The center had a Vietnamese staff of sixty. They included the prosthetists, the physicaltherapists, the people who made limbs, a maintenance department, a schoolteacher, a social worker, a nurse, and a physician's assistant. The Americans were my husband, Tom—he was the doctor—a physical therapist who was training the Vietnamese, a husband-and-wife team who were codirectors, and me. I did all the jobs that fell in the cracks.
My position was great, because I got to relate to everybody. I got to take patients back to their homes, for instance—which meant I was out in the countryside much of the time. And I did the books. I emptied the trash. I made trips to Danang to get pipe—we made all our own wheelchairs out of electric conduits, American military surplus. So I'd always have to go to the black market and scrounge. And let's see. I learned to make legs from a Vietnamese who'd invented the paddy leg. You know what a paddy leg is? Well, suction is a terrific force, and if you're going to work in a rice paddy with a prosthesis on, the foot will be sucked off. So this guy invented a very, very small foot that you could screw on, with a suction-release valve at the bottom. That way people could still go on being rice farmers even if they were amputees.
And we did nutritional evaluations. I remember once Tom and I went up to the mountains to do an evaluation on a hill tribe. It was pretty desperate—they were pretty much living on leaves. Not long after we got to the village a woman came out of a hut and grabbed me. "I want to show you a picture of my son," she said. "He was killed in the fighting." So I went inside. She showed me the picture, and then she started keening and weeping. And there was nothing I could do. Nothing but sit very quietly, listening to her. So that's what I did. I just sat and listened.
I don't know why that memory jumps out any more than the others. Because things like that were so much a part of what went on.
Or another time. One of my other jobs was taking tourists around. My Lai was very close to us, and it was a place American tourists often wanted to go. Not that there were a lot of tourists, but occasionally people would come. Reporters, for instance. So I'd take them across the ditch to My Lai. And one time we were standing there when some Vietnamese kids came up and stood with us. "Well," I said to the kids, "is there anything you want to say?" And one of them asked, "Why do you Americans think this place is so different from any other place?" You see, My Lai had been blown up seven times. And there we were, Americans, focused on a single moment in what we think of as history.
Oh, the stories. Like you're planting rice and a bullet goes astray and—bang!—you're a quadriplegic. Or I could tell you a story about a woman who went home and poisoned her son as soon as they left the center. The child was a paraplegic and she couldn't take care of him with all her other responsibilities. . . .
I'd give my eyeteeth to go back and see what the Vietnamese have done. I sincerely hope they're not as militarized now. I'm sure things are desperately poor and probably still incredibly beautiful. But whatever's happened, it's their country now, and I'm glad of that.
What happened next . . .
Upon returning to the United States, American women suffered many of the same problems as male Vietnam veterans. For example, thousands of female veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a set of psychological problems caused by exposure to a dangerous or disturbing situation, such as combat. These women struggled to cope with symptoms like depression, flashbacks, nightmares, and angry outbursts.
To some American women who served in Vietnam, life at home seemed dull and unrewarding compared to the danger and excitement of the war. Many nurses who had been responsible for saving lives in Vietnam suddenly found themselves changing bedpans in American hospitals. As a result, many female veterans felt alienated from society. They had trouble sharing their experiences with other people and felt that no one could understand their feelings. "You didn't feel there was anything you ever could enjoy again because you really were immersed in death," nurse Joan Furey explained to Palmer. "Other people seemed shallow. You felt a strong allegiance to the dead."
To make matters worse, the women who served in Vietnam did not receive much support from the American people, the U.S. government, or male veterans' groups. In fact, many people did not even realize that women had served in Vietnam. "Because their numbers were smaller and because they had worked for such a variety of organizations, the women were more isolated ... than the men were," Marshall noted.
Immediately after the war ended, the Veterans Administration—a U.S. government agency responsible for providing medical care, insurance, pensions, and other benefits to American veterans—claimed that military women were not eligible for counseling services, medical treatment, or other benefits. But in 1979 a group of female military nurses organized the Vietnam Veterans Association Women's Project to bring attention to the issues they faced. The resulting publicity led the U.S. Congress to investigate charges that the Veterans Administration discriminated against women.
Finally, in 1993 the women who served in Vietnam received some public recognition for their service to their country. A bronze statue of three female nurses and a wounded soldier was dedicated in Washington, D.C. General Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and America's highest-ranking Vietnam veteran, spoke at the dedication ceremony. "I didn't realize, although I should have, what a burden you carried," he noted. "For male soldiers, the war came in intermittent flashes of terror, occasional death, moments of pain; but for the women who were there . . . and for the nurses in particular, the terror, the death, and the pain were unrelenting, a constant terrible weight that had to be stoically carried."
Did you know . . .
- In 1973, when U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the government ended the military draft—an involuntary process used to select men between the ages of 18 and 26 for military service. Throughout the war the draft was criticized for unfairly targeting the poor and minorities. When the draft was eliminated it resulted in a shortage of military personnel. Over the next few years large numbers of women joined the U.S. armed forces to help make up the shortage. In fact, the percentage of women in the American military increased from 2 percent in 1972 to over 8 percent in 1980. The influx of women encouraged the U.S. government to end the practice of segregating male and female recruits into separate branches of service. It also led to expanded career opportunities for women in the military.
Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
Norman, Elizabeth M. Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses WhoServed in Vietnam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Palmer, Laura. "The Nurses of Vietnam, Still Wounded: Only Now Are They Healing Themselves." New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1993.
Saywell, Shelley. Women in War. New York: Viking, 1985.
Van Devanter, Lynda, with Christopher Morgan. Home before Morning: TheStory of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. New York: Beaufort Books, 1983.
Walker, Keith. A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of Twenty-Six AmericanWomen Who Served in Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1985.
Women Reporters in Vietnam
In addition to the women who served as military nurses and civilian relief workers, more than 70 women journalists reported on the war from Vietnam. Although women accounted for only a small fraction of the hundreds of war correspondents in Vietnam during the conflict, they reported for such major news media as the Associated Press, United Press International, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Newsweek, and the New York Times. Two women journalists were killed in Vietnam, three were wounded, and four were taken prisoner.
Julie Forsythe grew up on a Quaker dairy farm in New Jersey. The Quakers, formally known as the Society of Friends, are a religious group that has traditionally opposed war. During the Vietnam War, many Quakers became conscientious objectors and were released from military service on the basis of their religious beliefs. But many other Quakers went to Vietnam as civilian relief workers, hoping to help the victims of the war.
After graduating from Oberlin College in 1971 with a degree in religion, Forsythe accepted a position with the American Friends Service Committee as a civilian relief worker in Vietnam. In 1972 she was assigned to a rehabilitation center in Quang Ngai province where Vietnamese people were treated for serious war wounds, like amputated limbs, severe burns, and paralysis. During her three years of service in Vietnam, Forsythe learned to speak Vietnamese fluently. She spent a great deal of time among the Vietnamese people and developed deep sympathy for them.
Unlike most Americans, Forsythe remained in Vietnam after the U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973. In fact, she was in Saigon in March 1975, during the final North Vietnamese push for control of the South. When it became clear that Communist-led North Vietnam was going to win the war, many people tried to flee the country. They were afraid that the North Vietnamese would take violent revenge on anyone associated with the American side. Forsythe witnessed scenes of mass hysteria as refugees desperately tried to escape from South Vietnam.
But Forsythe stayed in Saigon when the Communist forces arrived and took over the South Vietnamese government. North Vietnamese soldiers questioned her, but she recalled that they treated her politely and then let her go. In October 1975 she returned to the United States and married the American doctor she had worked with in Vietnam. The couple have two children and live on a farm in Vermont.