Band of sisters: Vietnam soldiers recall sacrifice and sexism

Photo Credit: Steff Thomas

Advocates for women veterans say men still receive most of the gratitude and assistance for military service, despite women’s roles since the Revolutionary War. Groups, such as Women Veterans Rock, aim to change that.

By Steff Thomas

From nurses to combat, the position of women in America has run parallel to their roles in the military, yet their contribution often goes under-recognized as the perception of service women continues to evolve.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ records show women make up only 10 percent of recorded veterans, which makes them easy to overlook during celebrations and in difficult times, said Rev. Helen Fleming.

Women soldiers and veterans have faced rape and other injustices, which Fleming became aware of while researching a speech on Veterans Day that she was giving at Trinity University in 2010. In response, she created the Women Veterans Resource Center at her church in Washington, the Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church.

Army sargeants Shaylnn Jennings and Lisa Coulter say they came to the rally to support and give thanks to the women who served before them.

Army sergeants Shaylnn Jennings and Lisa Coulter say they came to the rally to support and give thanks to the women who served before them.

“Sometimes the women feel they don’t have anybody in their corner and my job is to say that we are here,” Fleming said. “Sometimes that just means giving them a shoulder to cry on and my door is open.”

Her center became the Washington satellite site for the Pennsylvania-based Women Veterans Rock initiative, which is focused on removing barriers women face as they transition from military service back into civilian life.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 ‘Ending Homeless Veterans’ campaign inspired the Women Veterans Rock initiative, according to Director Deborah Harmon-Pugh. The White House partnered with the VA and made a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, but the effort remains ongoing.

“Studies have shown that when women leave the military, they often leave with a high degree of depression, hypertension and PTSD,” said Harmon-Pugh, president of the Healthy Caregiver Foundation.

Aiding the wounded, banding together

Donna Barbisch, a veteran who is involved with the Women Veterans Rock campaign, said people in the military are “doers.” She enlisted in the service in 1967 at only 20-years-old against her family’s wishes, because she knew the Army needed her, she said.

Barbisch was a nursing student in Pittsburgh when the U.S. Army began to recruit.

“I was already wondering where I was going to go from there, so I thought if soldiers were dying on the battlefield, they obviously needed medical care,” Barbisch said. “So that is why I went to Vietnam.”

She worked in an emergency hospital in Vietnam for a year, treating U.S. military, Vietnamese civilians and even POWs who didn’t speak English. Barbisch said the Vietnamese patients often believed the nurses were trying to hurt them.

In one situation, a man thought the nurses were torturing him because they would not allow him to have food or drinks after surgery. When no one was looking, she said he “chewed through his IV so that he could drink the fluid.”

When the area had incoming mortar fire, nurses had to remove the people from their metal cots and put them under the beds.

“I remember putting a patient on the floor and then remembering that the chest tube bottle that helped to maintain his pressure had to be lower than the patient, so I had to clamp the tube,” Barbisch said.

Nurses in her unit worked 12-hour days, mostly six or seven days per week, and despite “total exhaustion,” they got up the next day to do it again.

She said she appreciated the other nurses around her and became very close to them during her service. Of the over 7,000 women in Vietnam, most were nurses or administrative personnel, said Barbisch.

“It was like a little family and you couldn’t get through anything without being dependent on others to hold you up when you thought you were on your last leg,” Barbisch said.

Military advances, memories of bigotry linger

The military is a lot more “politically correct” today than it was back then, according to Barbisch.

“Despite the need for women in the military, the men still displayed a certain amount of bigotry,” she said.

The men would purposely walk across the street to avoid saluting a woman, according to Barbisch. The men did not care that the women were also in uniform, Barbisch said.

“I remember we would be marching to songs like ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls,’ and the guys would be cat-calling from the balcony,” Barbisch said. “It could be annoying, but it wasn’t perceived as offensive back then.”

Today, military women struggle with some of the same challenges that existed in the Vietnam War, such as leaving a family behind.

Tiffany Johnson-Pittman was a single parent during her two deployments in Iraq. Unlike in the past, the military now has a family care plan that tracks who is taking care of their children while they are away, she said.

“But just because I was a world away, doesn’t mean I stopped being a mother,” said Johnson-Pittman, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.

Johnson-Pittman called home and once had the chance to read her daughter a story on camera. The tape was sent to her daughter, and Johnson-Pittman said “it was really special,” as reading to her daughter before bed had been one of their rituals before she was deployed.

There are still gaps in services for both women and men veterans. With a coalition of advocacy organizations working together, Women Veterans Rock makes an effort to help these women veterans, and also military women on active duty and their families.

“Women veterans are an elusive group and unlike male veterans, they do not wear their service like a badge of honor,” Harmon-Pugh said. She said it is more difficult for these women to find aid because they are not easily distinguishable and do not often know where to ask for help.