Women and the Vietnam War
Reid Holcombe, the protagonist in my novel If You Walk Long Enough, served two in-country tours with the Marines during Vietnam. He returns to his wife Ellie, sister Angela, and his South Carolina home in 1970 haunted by ghosts.
In the novel, a fictional woman character, Le Thai Linh, appears in traditional áo daì dress representing those Vietnamese women that contributed to her country’s war effort in various ways. She works in a makeshift field clinic serving Vietnamese civilians and, at night, passes along information she has gleaned to her Communist comrades. She follows Reid home.
Vietnamese Women During the Years of Conflict
The United States involvement in Vietnam began when the French abdicated, leaving the country in civil war. Vietnamese women served as nurses, doctors, village patrols, intelligence agents, propagandists, government office workers, and military recruiters. Viet Cong forces as well as North Vietnam (People’s Army) and South Vietnam (ARVN) armies utilized women with these jobs.
The most controversial role for women was that of combat. Vietnamese women set booby-traps, carried supplies and munitions along the Ho Chi Minh trail, drove military trucks, and smuggled goods moving within Vietnam as well as into and out of Laos and Cambodia.
Nguyen Thai Hoa is one example of a woman warrior. During the day, she acted as a Hué street vender squatting with her supply of palm leaf conical hats on a corner. At night she siphoned secrets gleaned from the streets to her communist handlers preparatory to the Têt offensive, that audacious assault which reshaped the Vietnam War. Hoa was also part of the Perfumé River squad, a top-secret combat unit formed in 1967. Deployed deep in enemy territory, the squad was comprised of 11 women, most in their teens, that fought in the battle of Hué. Five were killed.
Nguyen Nguyet An, another example, brought arms and supplies south and then shuttled wounded men back north. With each trip she struggled to evade enemy bombs dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Vietnamese families split much like U.S. families during their Civil War. Many of the fighters, viewed liberating Vietnam from foreign domination (the Chinese, French, and Americans in succession) as paramount. Some women left a comfortable life in Hanoi to join guerilla forces in the mountains. Many women stayed in their villages and died providing food and shelter for Viet Cong and the People’s Army soldiers as well as to families. My Lai is one example.
Other women and their families worked for the established government and supported the U.S. efforts.
U. S. Women Serve
American women also stepped up to serve their country. Like their male counterparts, they were largely inexperienced and unaware of the cultural and historical setting into which they were thrust.
Lieutenant Colonel Annie Ruth Graham, a World War II and Korea War veteran, and First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, a Korean War veteran, are two examples of women with war zone experience. Both died in Vietnam. National Geographic photojournalist Georgette “Dickey” Chappelle, known for her trademark combat fatigues, pearl earrings, and harlequin eyeglasses was killed by a mine outside of Chu Lai while on patrol. Journalist Phillipa Schuyler died in a firefight/helicopter crash in Da Nang. Four women missionaries were killed at the Ban Me Thuot leprosarium. Others like Betty Ann Osen were captured and later died a POW, buried somewhere along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by a fellow POW. Her remains have not been recovered. Likewise, Eleanor Ardel Vietti, captured at the leprosarium, is still listed as MIA.
American women died in U.S. cross border efforts in Laos. Others died in rebel explosions in the relative safety of Saigon. Thirty-eight women civilians died in the humanitarian program, Operation Babylift, when their first flight out of the country crashed on takeoff.
The demarcation between frontline fighting and nonmilitary programs placed women near or in hot zones. Although they were not classified as being in combat, these women suffered PTSD, physical wounds, and death the same as the men.
Not to be forgotten on either side are women like Reid’s wife Ellie and his sister Angela, characters from If You Walk Long Enough. They waited and supported their loved ones, serving in a different capacity. Sometimes their men did not return. Sometimes they came back physically broken. Sometimes they suffered post-traumatic disorders.
Other men and women—on both sides of the conflict– locked their war experiences inside and grieved inwardly. Reid, wife Ellie, sister Angela, and Le Thai Linh make their own peace somewhere in-between.