From piloting to protocol, Vietnam expanded the role of women in war.
By Elissa Kaupisch
During the Vietnam War, more than 265,000 U.S. women served their country around the world. Between 10,000 to 11,000 women
actually served in Vietnam. About 7,500 of those were in the military.
Early in the war, military women were not posted to Southeast Asian combat zones in significant numbers, despite their
requests for deployment. However, large numbers of civilian women served in Vietnam in administrative and clerical positions,
the Red Cross and the USO. Army and Navy nurses were first to enter the combat theater.
About 80 percent of the U.S. women serving in Vietnam were Army, Navy or Air Force nurses. Nurses serving in Vietnam were
commissioned officers at least 21 years of age who generally served one-year tours in country. Navy nurses served two-year
tours. Many were recruited from student-nurse programs, and the government, in return, paid for their final years of education.
Army nurses stationed in Vietnam often cared for North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong prisoners of war, and civilians. Navy
nurses were assigned to hospital ships such as the USS Repose and the USS Sanctuary, and to the Naval Support Activity unit
in Da Nang. Air Force nurses cared for patients on evacuation flights and at casuality-staging facilities.
During the war, thousands of civilian women served in the Red Cross, USO, CIA, U.S. Agency for International Development
and other government agencies. Some served in humanitarian efforts, including Vietnamese orphanages and Operation Baby Lift.
Servicewomen were trained to operate construction equipment and small craft; manage ship's stores; refuel aircraft on
the ground and in flight; and to control motor-vehicle, air and harbor traffic. Women became veterinary specialists and helicopter
pilots. Women also served in the DoD Special Services, organizing recreation and entertainment.
Others specialized in physical and occupational therapy, intelligence, protocol, journalism, aerial reconnaissance photography,
weather, data processing, supply, finance and security.
Many served as military aides, worked on classified projects or held administrative and personnel positions. Stateside,
military women supporting the war effort undertook challenging new jobs in computer technology.
Eight U.S. servicewomen died while serving in Vietnam. Five deaths were accidental, two were non-specific. Lt. Sharon
Lane, an Army nurse at Chu Lai, was the only American woman killed by hostile fire. She was killed during a rocket attack
MEMORIAL CELEBRATES 10TH ANNIVERSARY IN 2003
The Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation Inc. will celebrate its 10th anniversary Nov. 10 and 11 in Washington.
The memorial, sculpted by Glenna Goodacre of Santa Fe, N.M., honors military and civilian women who served their country.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
When the corpsmen at the Da Nang Naval Hospital in Vietnam nicknamed her "Ma," Ann Barker took no offense. At
35, she was the older woman in a world filled with 19-year-olds. Her fragile, blonde good looks veiled a forceful, no-nonsense
edge reminiscent of her infamous 1930s namesake. A wily sense of humor and a mercurial wit challenged her subordinates. To
her gang of corpsmen, she was indeed "Ma" Barker.
"Sometimes my mouth would get cottony and my knees would shake, I was so scared," Barker said. "But when
I walked through those hospital doors, I became "Ma."
Good thing the lieutenant commander considered herself "a take-charge, tough old salt." Her job as intensive-care
unit head nurse during the 1968 Tet Offensive required constant vigilance in the fight against death. The staff on her ward,
a 20-bed clearinghouse for the most severely wounded, stabilized patients with a chance of survival within 72 hours so military
aircraft could evacuate them. Others were simply made comfortable with morphine until they died.
"These men were the most horribly wounded casualities we had in any war," Barker said.
"The dear souls would have died on the battlefield if it hadn't been for the helicopters. Some of them we could save;
some of them we could not. But to provide them with care was one heck of a job because these fellows might have all their
extremities gone...part of their jaw, an eye, head injuries. It was so sad. Their prime concern, as long as they could talk,
was their manhood. They always put it in other terms, but we would tell them exactly what the situation was. I have to admit,
because of the tremendous injuries and my own rusty clinical skills, I was scared stiff."
Although Barker's background was in ICU, she had been on recruiting duty for three years and at school for two years prior
to her assignment.
Perhaps her tough "Ma" persona pulled her through the uncertain, hellish times. She doesn't know. What is clear
is that Barker didn't just meet her fears; she excised them. The retired Navy captain ended her in-country tour by accepting
a Bronze Star with a Combat V for "unyielding selfless devotion and dedication in treating severely wounded casualties."
Although Barker claims she received her medal because the Navy decided it was going to recognize some nurses, her record
clearly outlines her dedication. Barker suffered a series of abscesses that qualified her for a short tour, but she refused
to leave because it would have left the hospital understaffed.
"They would drain the abscess and put me on antibiotics for seven days, and it would clear up. Then I'd get another
one," she said. "It was where I worked and all the infection I was exposed to.
There was so much infection there you wouldn't believe it. Some of the guys would be wounded and be out in the field a
while before they got in. So by the time we saw the wound, it was really bad. My little infections were nothing compared to
what we were taking care of."
A month after she returned to the United States, an abscess on her face became so septic Barker fell into a near-fatal
BRUISED YET UNSCATHED. Despite the perceptible scar on her cheek and the haunting recollections of the war as a nonstop
ritual of triage, pre-op and intensive care, Barker came through the Vietnam experience bruised but emotionally unscathed.
She has no nightmares, no hate, no rancor.
"Im sure there were some women who were affected, but I wasn't tremendously affected by the war," she said.
"I'll tell you the reason. None of us over there were required to do the same thing the men did. Yes, I was afraid of
being taken prisoner. But when I was going to work at dusk to some nice, little air-conditioned hooch - and yes, with a lot
of badly wounded men - I'd see these young Marines having a cigarette before they wnt out into the jungle. The danger they
encountered was horrendous.
That's a he** of a lot different than me going to work. If I saw my friend's head blown off, I don't think I'd recover
Before Vietnam, Barker had considered herself fundamentally narrow-minded. "I gradually began to realize I was a
real bitch on wheels. I wanted everything done to perfection - the way I wanted it - and I pretty much got it that way. But
then I got to Da Nang, and I realized there was more to life than having a perfect career."
That awakening made the adjustment back to her regular duties an exasperating time. She said she feels lucky other Vietnam
veterans were at Chelsea Naval Hospital, Mass., in whom she could confide.
"We had been in a day-by-day, life-or-death situation," Barker said. "And we would get so frustrated when
we got back to a hospital, and it became an international incident when you were missing four sheets on your linen count.
It was those kind of occurrences that burned us up."
Those were minor irritations. For someone like Barker, who had wielded a considerable amount of responsibility, the greater
difficulty was surrendering the authority the nurses had so rightfully earned in Vietnam to a batch of young, inexperienced
"We didn't have many doctors in Vietnam so we did a lot of things on our own, especially someone like me, who was
the head nurse in intensive care," Barker said. "I was used to depending on myself and taking charge without consulting
a doctor. Not that I endangered any patient's life, but I got myself into a little bit of hot water over that."
RELIVING THE EXPERIENCE. In April 1975, "Ma" found herself reliving her Vietnam experience as director of nursing
at Subic Bay Naval Hospital in the Philippines during the evacuation of Saigon. The stoic sailor recognized the same people
with different maladies in a familiar, painful setting.
"I didn't work with families in Vietnam, but I was accustomed to the Vietnamese people," she said. "Before
being assigned to ICU, I ran the prisoners ward. I found a VC doctor who'd been captured to care for the patients, and I even
had Vietnamese corpsmen. I made myself understood with sign language, whatever it took. I have great respect for how they
took care of their own."
Barker belongs to a Navy nurse veterans group, attends reunions and keeps in touch with Vietnam veterans, yet she remains
philosophical about her experience.
"You can serve in the military for a career and never be associated with a war or a disaster. Then there's people
like me who get involved in more than their share. Well, I joined the Navy to serve in the best way I could. Over the years,
I hope I accomplished that."
In 1979, Barker retired as the Navy's director of nursing services after 22 years in uniform.
Margarette Chavez, a retired Marine chief warrant officer-5, is currently editor of The Wilson County News in Floresville,