Archive for the ‘women and war’ Category

U.S. Women Got Purple Hearts in Vietnam

May 20, 2017


Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

Seen here are, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam. Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

On Christmas Eve, 1964, National Liberation Front guerrillas drove a car loaded with explosives into a parking lot behind the Brinks Hotel Bachelor Officers Quarters in central Saigon. The blast killed two U.S. servicemen and wounded more than sixty American military personnel and Vietnamese civilians. Among the wounded were four Navy nurses who were injured while caring for U.S. servicemen hurt in the attack. On January 9, 1965, the nurses received Purple Heart awards for their service. In the photo above are three of the nurses, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. (Lieutenant Frances L. Crumpton is not pictured.) The photo was taken at the awards ceremony at the U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam.

We know that male U.S. servicemen earned Purple Hearts in Vietnam, but female nurses don’t typically jump to the collective American mind when it envisions the combat moment in the Vietnam War. Was the story of the Brinks nurses forgotten simply because four women nurses comprised a small fraction of the overwhelmingly male American casualties in Vietnam? Even though the Brinks bombing was part of a broader NLF strategy of urban combat before the 1968 Tet Offensive, did the lieutenants’ status as nurses — traditional women’s roles in wartime — somehow make their wounds acceptable to an American public that likely would not have supported women serving in infantry units or being drafted? Has this story remained obscured because it challenges the notion that the combat moment is a distinctly male space? Why are Americans invested in a Vietnam War narrative in which the characters are almost entirely American men? As the story of the Brinks nurses illustrates, American women saw combat in Vietnam, even in the air-conditioned jungle in Saigon.



July 24, 2016
Emily Strange

Emily Strange served in the Vietnam War as a Red Cross “Donut Dollie” with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force.

A few days ago, I learned that Emily Strange, one of the first Donut Dollies I interviewed for Beyond Combat, had passed away July 12. It was a shock to hear that she’s gone, in part because she had randomly popped into my mind before I had heard she’d died, and I had been thinking about the stories she had shared with me when we sat together in the living room of her home in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. That was nearly fifteen years ago, when Beyond Combat was just an idea for a dissertation, but I remember our conversation so vividly. I was a stranger to her, but she welcomed me into her home and told me openly and frankly about her experiences serving with the Red Cross in Vietnam, primarily at Dong Tam with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force. Her job as a Donut Dollie was to be a morale booster, a “touch of home,” for the troops she worked with. Donut Dollies organized parties and sing-alongs, played games, served sweets and cold (well, lukewarm at best in southern Vietnam’s heat) drinks, and listened to soldiers who needed to talk. Sometimes the most important thing a Donut Dollie could do was to sit beside a GI who couldn’t quite articulate all the things he wanted to say about being at war and just be a sympathetic human presence.

One of Emily’s stories that has stuck with me all these years is of her decision to stop learning the names of the guys she met in Vietnam. She had become close with one GI, a young man named Michael. They both played guitar, and when Emily was assigned to Michael’s unit, they’d sometimes sit around and play folk music together. Shortly after Emily’s Red Cross team moved on to another assignment, she learned that Michael had been killed in action. At that moment, she realized that she needed to put distance between herself and the guys she worked with. She needed to figure out a way to do her job of providing emotional comfort to frightened and lonely young men while protecting her own mental well-being. So Emily stopped learning names. She told me that there are probably guys she knows on the Wall, but she won’t have to face the pain of knowing for sure because she stopped learning names after Michael died.

Like so many veterans, Emily struggled to settle back into “the World.” She told me about times when her girlfriends would call her up and invite her to go shopping, and she would wonder how anyone could possibly care about something so frivolous. She knew it wasn’t that her friends were shallow, that it was her. What she had experienced in Vietnam made it difficult for her to enjoy everyday life back home. She found solace writing poetry, and she connected with other Donut Dollies as well as military veterans. She attended and spoke at vets’ reunions, and she built a website where veterans could publish their stories and find one another.

The emotional toll that the Vietnam War took on the women the Red Cross, the U.S. military, and other organizations sent to Vietnam to care for American troops mentally, emotionally, and physically needs to be part of the broader conversation about the war and its long-term impacts. On the home front, the war had a profound effect on the wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends of veterans, as my friend Andrew Wiest is exploring in his research on the families of Charlie Company, his follow-up to The Boys of ’67. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the U.S. Army’s Vietnamese counterpart in the war, employed women in the Women’s Armed Forces Corps (WAFC) to minister to ARVN troops and their families as healthcare and social workers. Women of the National Liberation Front (NLF) tended to their men as nurses and doctors. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s posthumous memoir, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, offers a glimpse of the experiences of an NLF woman doctor, but we have so much more to learn about the war’s impact on Vietnamese women caregivers.

Emily never knew how influential she was in the development of my thinking about women and the Vietnam War and about what it means to experience war. She taught me about the emotional burden Donut Dollies bore while working to lift the spirits of men at war. Her stories pushed me to think about the various ways in which the Vietnam War affected women’s lives and what it meant to be a woman serving in the war. I am grateful to have spent some time with her, brief as it was. Rest in peace, Emily.

* Check out Emily’s website,, to see lots of photos from her time in Vietnam, read her poetry, and learn more about her work as a Donut Dollie and the men with whom she served. *


February 18, 2016

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced a new Pentagon program that will pay for servicemen and women to freeze their sperm and eggs for future family planning. Carter gave two main reasons for the program. One, it would keep women on the career military path, which typically runs right through the childbearing years. Two, it would give deployed troops peace of mind in that they potentially could still have children even if their reproductive organs become casualties of war. The first goal is in line with what appears to be Carter’s commitment to the needs of servicewomen. He has advocated for improved maternity leave, childcare, and breastfeeding support policies, all of which he hopes will help women personnel balance work and family and remain in the service. The second goal speaks to the problems of trying to maintain an all-volunteer force in an age of continuous war.

This is not the first time the U.S. military has gotten into the baby-making business. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed women to serve as permanent members of the military, permitted the forces to discharge women if they got pregnant. Personnel needs during the Vietnam War led the Army Nurse Corps to grant waivers to some nurses who got pregnant but wanted to stay in the military. In 1975, the Defense Department ruled that the armed forces could no longer forcibly discharge a servicewoman who became pregnant.[1] Considered in this context, Carter’s proposal looks like the next step toward gender equality in the military by giving women the option of delaying childbearing while they advance their careers. Observers have suggested that this policy could position the military as a model that other major employers wanting to implement progressive, pro-family, pro-woman policies in order to recruit and retain the best personnel could follow.

The argument that the U.S. military is becoming more family friendly loses traction when we remember that it is an all-volunteer force, and that the U.S. has been at war for most of this century. Carter’s policies are meant in part to recruit and retain service personnel in a time when enlisting likely will result in deployment. About 60 percent of current troops have been deployed at least once since Sept. 11, 2001. Less than one percent of the U.S. population presently serves in the military, so without a draft, the military must get creative in its efforts to convince young men and women to sign up for a job that could prevent them from having families later on. Conscription would make more Americans –and their reproductive organs – shoulder the weight of U.S. military commitments. That may be the only way to convince the public at large to scrutinize armed interventions and put pressure on elected officials to ponder more carefully the costs and benefits of war. As critics have already pointed out, freezing sperm and eggs will not guarantee that they will result in pregnancy later, so Carter’s program may create false hope in those men and women who have agreed to bear the burden of conflict. The draft has been a topic of conversation since the Pentagon announced in December the opening of combat positions to women, and it is also relevant to the conversation about the military’s use of reproduction as a recruitment tool. Reinstating the draft would either mobilize Americans to hold politicians more accountable for war-making policies or provide the personnel that the military’s long global reach requires. Then the military could leave the baby-making business to the future parents.

[1] Kara Dixon Vuic, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to just change our ways”: Marriage, Motherhood, and Pregnancy in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War,” Signs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer 2007), pp. 997-1022.


July 2, 2015
U.S. Army Major Rhonda Newsome from the CJTF 76 Surgeon Cell treats an Afghan women during a village medical outreach at Kandahar City, Afghanistan, January 28, 2006. U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Leslie Angulo. National Archives and Records Administration.

U.S. Army Major Rhonda Newsome from the CJTF 76 Surgeon Cell treats an Afghan women during a village medical outreach at Kandahar City, Afghanistan, January 28, 2006. U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Leslie Angulo. National Archives and Records Administration.

The first week of June was “Gender Week” at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. More than 120 participants representing NATO nations, military and civilian organizations, and NATO partners examined and discussed the findings of a report called “UNSCR 1325 Reload.” The report details efforts by NATO nations to implement the recommendations of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for increased involvement of women in conflict prevention, peace talks, and initiatives to prevent gender violence during wars. UNSCR 1325 was spearheaded by Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, and UN members adopted it in October 2000. Unfortunately, the UN has no authority to enforce the resolution. It is up to individual nations to make Resolution 1325 a priority.

“UNSCR 1325 Reload” noted that as of 2013, the final year of the study:

* Women made up approximately 10 percent of the militaries of NATO nations

* 93 percent of NATO nations had equal enlistment processes for men and women

* About half of NATO members had departments or positions dedicated to facilitating gender integration

* 43 percent of NATO nations have gender advisers in their militaries

* Countries with highest representations of women in their militaries are Hungary at 20.3 percent, the U.S. at 18 percent, and Latvia at 16.5 percent.

Due to a lack of available data, the report does not offer findings on sexual assault prevention.

That so many NATO nations appear to be taking 1325 to heart is encouraging, but will increasing the numbers of women in NATO armed forces transform the military and wartime cultures that inspire violence against women? Even when servicewomen are trained in combat tactics and weapons handling like their male counterparts, observers sometimes still emphasize the importance of the “feminine” qualities that women soldiers bring to a war zone. In a discussion about UN women peacekeepers in Liberia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated, “What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring. I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”[1] Gerard J. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an expert on women in the military, said, “Any conflict where you have an all-male army, it’s like a holiday from reality. If you inject women into that situation, they do have a civilizing effect.”[2]

Meant to affirm women’s peacekeeping roles, DeGroot and Sirleaf’s comments actually enforce the gender divisions that make war zones and post-conflict situations particularly dangerous spaces for women. Afghanistan offers a disturbing case study: Efforts to increase the numbers of Afghan women in security forces have led to the murders of policewomen because of a cultural opposition to women working outside the home, especially in the police and security fields. If we are talking about gender, we need to consider men, sexuality, and culture, not just women’s roles.

[1] Doreen Carvajal, “A Female Approach to Peacekeeping,” New York Times, Mar. 5, 2010,

[2] Ibid.

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