When Karen Johnson wears her bronze star in Little Rock veterans' parades, people always ask if it belongs to her husband.
Johnson tries not to show her annoyance when she informs those who ask that the medal is hers, that she is a veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam as a WAC captain, and that women also still bear the scars of that bitter war.
Some 10,000 women served in Vietnam, in the traditional support roles allotted women. They took care of the sick and wounded; they took care of the paper work to get short timers back home and fresh troops processed; and they took care of the myriad other supply and operating details of war.
Unlike the majority of men, the women were volunteers. Most were nurses fresh out of training. Others were career military officers who welcomed a Vietnam posting. Still others went over as Red Cross volunteers and in other civilian roles simply because they thought it was the right thing to do.
Women veterans point out that while the men who served in Vietnam were treated like forgotten warriors after they returned home, the women who served simply became invisible.
The debate over the Women's Vietnam Memorial Project -- a proposal for a statue of an Army nurse -- is encouraging many women to acknowledge the ways in which Vietnam still has a hold on them. Tomorrow, representatives of women veterans will share their stories with Congress at a committee hearing on the controversial statue. As women seek recognition for their role in Vietnam, the cloak of invisibility is beginning to lift.
The first step for some women is to accept themselves as legitimate veterans.
"Nurses are supposed to take care of themselves, so I didn't get help for a long time because I didn't feel my problems were bad enough," says Linda Watson, who served as an Army nurse from 1968-69. "Women often feel they are not like a true veteran because of low self-esteem and lack of recognition."
Watson had trouble settling down into a steady job when she returned from her tour of duty. Nursing back home didn't offer the same level of responsibility and intensity she experienced in the war. She found it hard to empathize with patients whose aches and pains seemed insignificant compared to what she had witnessed in Vietnam. Watson left nursing and moved to Casper, Wyo.
She eventually sought help at the Casper veterans center. She was diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and joined a therapy group of male veterans.
"While I was in Vietnam I was very proud of my work and I was a good nurse," says Watson, 41, who served at the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Tuy Hoa. "I'm not sure what I expected when I came home, but to not be able to talk about it and not be able to feel proud of being a Vietnam veteran really cripples a person."
Watson stayed on at the center as office manager and began counseling other veterans, continuing her own emotional healing by helping to heal others.
"I'm probably fortunate because I have a second chance to finish my work," says Watson, who used to hush her husband when he told people she was a veteran. "Many nurses who left Vietnam felt they never finished their work. I left my ward still full of patients. Here I'm still helping take care of the wounded."
Linda White of Fort Collins, Colo., also contacted a local veterans center after years of keeping quiet about her Vietnam service. She felt she owed it to her two children to see if talking about the war might in some way help.
"I think we all went over pretty young and naive," says White. "I thought I was wearing a uniform and doing wonderful things but people looked at women in uniform with disdain. Nice women didn't join the service. The stigma of the uniform had a real devastating effect on me."
White enlisted in the Army after high school graduation. She turned 19 in Vietnam where she served as a personnel specialist in Long Binh. She received the incoming orders for soldiers and established records for them. She updated them and helped put through their promotions and medals.
"I also got them out of the country as quickly as I could," recalls White. "I was pretty much like a mother hen to them, trying to make the paper work as smooth as possible."
She was proud of her service until she returned home.
"Coming home for us was even worse in some ways than for the men," says White. "No one knew a woman was a vet if you didn't have a uniform on, and they'd be appalled if they knew. It was easier to keep it a secret.
"The more I've gone back and thought about my experiences in Vietnam and realized it was a positive experience, the more self-esteem I feel."
White wants a statue honoring women Vietnam veterans, but she doesn't want the statue to look like a nurse. The original design shows a woman in fatigues with a stethoscope around her neck.
"That bothers me because it was a team effort in Vietnam. It's easier for people to accept a woman veteran if she's a nurse. Somehow that makes it okay as opposed to the other jobs we did," says White, 38. "Many, many women served, not just nurses, and we have our own stories to tell and our own scars."
Gloria Leon, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, recently finished a study of the coping mechanisms of women Vietnam veterans. She studied 34 nurses who served in Vietnam and 32 nurses who served during the Vietnam era but were stationed elsewhere. It took Leon more than three years just to find the women for her sample.
"A lot of women still don't want to be identified with being in Vietnam and the military," she says. "When they came back they were ignored or vilified or called a slut for having been in Vietnam. The way they coped was to learn quickly not to tell anyone they had been in Vietnam. Many women who were experiencing emotional problems later didn't draw the link between their anxiety or depression and 'Vietnam.' "
Leon found that women veterans coped better if they could share their feelings with interested persons and if they could find a positive explanation of their role in Vietnam.
"The knowledge that they were there helping the wounded and dying and the fact they were able to do this to the best of their ability, that was the meaning they found in their circumstances and those who could look at it that way found a powerful means of coping," says Leon.
Linda Watson was 21 when she went to Vietnam. The soldiers she saw die were the same age as the boys she could have been in college with back home. Col. Elizabeth Finn believes it was harder on the young nurses to cope. Finn, on the other hand, was 36 when she became head nurse of an intensive care unit at the 93rd Evac Hospital in Long Binh -- the most professionally rewarding year of her life. And at age 57, after an equally successful career at home, there is something about that year she still can't shake.
"I was thinking the other day, was I really there or was that a dream," says Finn, of Silver Spring, who retired from the Army almost two years ago and still works in clinical nursing. "There are some kinds of dust that you pick up and it's in your pores and just stays with you always. In Vietnam the dust was everywhere and it has continued to stay with me."
Susan Hunt Babinski, who met Finn in Vietnam, didn't think of herself as going to war. She thought of herself as a nurse. She spent four months in a ward with wounded soldiers and eight months in a pediatric ward with Vietnamese children.
"One of the kids in our unit, her village was destroyed by our side. Her parents, everyone, was killed," says Babinski. "That was the turning point for me as a person in understanding that I wasn't going to be a heroine, that I couldn't be just a nurse and not part of the larger system."
Babinski was 22 when she went to Vietnam. She came back much older.
"When I first came back I wanted to go on -- after all it was just one year out of my life," says Babinski. "It took a few years for me to accept myself, to understand that I couldn't recapture my youth." Like other veterans, Babinski didn't talk much about the war when she returned home to Rhode Island in 1968. Now a psychiatric nurse in the South Bronx, she is working on a book about her Vietnam experience. She began writing it as a personal catharsis, and then decided she wanted to share her story with her 13-year-old son and others who may someday face choices about war.
"I worked with kids who were blown apart," Babinski says of the time she spent in Tuy Hoa, about 300 miles north of Saigon. "It's not the nicest side of war. It's the messy side. People think of the enemy, not the kids."
The war also has stayed with Karen Johnson. She injured her knees in Vietnam, an injury that led to a later ankle problem. She left the Army in 1980 with 60 percent disability, went to law school, and is a defense attorney in Little Rock.
As a career WAC, Johnson thought it was a privilege and honor to go to Vietnam. "It is unrealistic for a country to expect women not to have patriotic feelings and want to participate," says Johnson, who was command information officer for U.S. Army Vietnam at Long Binh. (Both Johnson and White, who also served in Long Binh, have placed their names on the Agent Orange registry.)
"I didn't have to face death on a one-to-one basis every day because women weren't in combat, but you knew when you woke up that morning that you may not make it to that night, and when you went to sleep at night that you may not wake up," says Johnson. "Everything was temporary."
Donna-Marie Boulay, chairman of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, says it has taken the organization years to locate 3,000 women veterans because so many have hidden that part of their lives.
"When we women veterans see our country beginning to accept and nurture the men who were there and our country doesn't even know we were there, we begin to wonder about the value and self-worth of our experience," says Boulay. "The emotional pain of war has got to last a lifetime."
Boulay, 45, is married to a doctor she met in Vietnam. Today she is a Minneapolis attorney specializing in health issues. Her enduring connection to Vietnam is evident in her drive to get a women's statue erected and to educate the public about the role of women in Vietnam.
When Boulay speaks publicly about the war, she sometimes shares the story of a young Tennessean named Randy. He was a soldier who came into Boulay's unit at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau. It was a unit for minor wounds. Three times Boulay helped Randy heal and then watched him be sent back to combat.
The last six months of her tour, Boulay served in Long Binh handling intensive care patients. At least here, patients who pulled through were sent home.
"Tet was winding down and it was about 7 p.m. one night and I was told we have a guy who probably won't make it," Boulay recalls. "I went down to the bed and it was my friend from the 36th. I held his hand and kept saying, 'Come on Randy, wake up. It's me, Miss Boulay.' Then he woke up around midnight and said, 'Hi, Miss Boulay.' We talked about going home and about God. I held him in my arms and he died shortly thereafter.
"I went home a few days later," Boulay says, her voice two decades later still quivering with the pain of Randy's death. "I was alive but my soul was wounded. It still hurts to this day. He was so typical of all the patients I knew. But he was atypical because he was the only one who died in my arms."