Kathy Gunson could not talk about Vietnam, not for years. The former Army nurse from Eugene, Ore., felt guilty, tainted, frightened, alone. Flashbacks and nightmares of the war haunted her. One morning, she grabbed a pencil.
"I desperately want my childhood back with its innocence and make it different. I want to come home to a marching band and a red carpet. I want to hear a 'Thank you.' I want to hear 'I'm sorry.' Most of all, I want to feel at peace with myself.
She finished writing, and cried.
It has been six years since Saigon fell, but the effects of the war on the 7,484 women stationed in Vietnam, 6,250 as nurses, are only now beginning to surface. Volumes have been written about the problems of the 2.8 million male Vietnm veterans, but no comprehensive study of female veterans has ever been done. Even the eight-year Veterans Administration-sponsored study of the war's multiple impacts on 1,340 veterans released Monday failed to include a single woman.
"Women were forgotten," says Shad Meshad, a former Army psychologist in Vietnam and pioneer in Vietnam veterans' storefront counseling centers."We are only now beginning to see the war through their eyes."
Most researchers have assumed that since women and men lived through the same war, their reactions to it have been the same. But Meshad and female vets say the woman's role was unique in Vietnam and still is an unexplored issue today.
Although they weren't on the front lines, women saw the worst of the war: An endless procession of mangled bodies across the operating table.
They lived in the swirl of wartime romances that often ended abruptly and painfully. They returned home to not only a hostile nation, but to frequent questions about way a decent woman would want to be stationed half way around the world with so many men. And once home, women seem to have blamed themselves for problems that male Vietnam veterans blamed on the war.
"Women had to be warm fuzzies," explains Meshad, who has counseled more than 200 female Vietnam veterans. "They had to be a wounded soldier's mother, wife, and girlfriend. They saw these beautiful young bodies, 18- and 19-year-old kids, coming in every day with sucking chest wounds and ripped off flesh and they had to hold their hands and tell them everything was okay."
Their anger and frustration built. And unlike the soldiers they treated, nurses could not shoot back.
"Nurses were officers," Meshad says. "They were not supposed to date enlisted men. But most male officers were older and married. I don't know how many times a doctor would come to me and tell me couldn't bear to say goodbye to Jeanie, who was maybe 22 or 23 and deeply in love. They'd ask me to do it for them."
Because women "are brought up to nurture and protect others," says Meshad, "many of the nurses felt like failures because, no matter what they did, the GIs kept dying."
"Every Vietnam vet was told he was a fool, a real sucker, for going over there, but for women, it's been even worse," explains Lynda Van Devanter a 33-year-old former Army nurse in Vietnam who last year headed a task force studying women veterans for the VA. "People figure you were either a hooker or a lesbian if you were a woman in the Army in Vietnam. Why else would a woman want to be with 500,000 men unless she was servicing them?"
Van Devanter's task force learned that few women take advantage of GI benefits, most VA hospitals do not have obstetric/gynecologic services and that no studies have been done to discover how the Agent Orange defoliant may have affected women soldiers. Van Devanter and her husband are delaying a family because they know the chemical has been linked with birth defects.
VA spokesman Julian Morrison insists that women veterans have not been ignored. VA hospitals may not have facilities for women, he says, but the VA will send women to private clinics and pay the tab.
"Only 2.3 percent of veterans are women," Morrison says. "They are entitled to the same benefits as the men, but it would be discriminatory to create programs just for them."
But Van Devanter, now head of the women's program of the Vietnam Veterans of America, says many women simply do not realize their problems might be war related, in part because the VA has failed to reach out to women.
"I'd cry for days, once for six months," she remembers. "I'd wake up crying and spend the entire day in tears.
"I kept losing jobs. I went on unemployment, food stamps and welfare. I couldn't sleep. I kept having the same nightmare over and over again so I'd stay awake drinking, afraid to go to bed."
Without knowing it, Van Devanter was suffering delayed shock syndrome -- a delayed reaction to a stress common in male Vietnam vets.Van Devanter would feel guilty and have constant headaches. She'd explode at her husband and friends for no reason. She could not concentrate or remember what people had said. She wanted to be alone, yet she was lonely and afraid.
She went to a therapist, but never told him about Vietnam -- or her recurring nightmare.
"We talked about marital problems and other pressures, but I kept telling myself that Vietnam was five, six, seven years ago," she says. "I was afraid my therapist would think I was crazy if I told him about Vietnam."
"I was ashamed of Vietnam," she says.
Van Devanter learned about delayed stress only after meeting Meshad by chance. He forced her to "walk through Vietnam day by day." The story she told him was similar to the stories he had heard from dozens of other women Vietnam veterans suffering from memories of the war.
"It is 3 a.m. in Pleiku, South Vietnam," says Van Devanter as she recalls the nightmare she told Meshad. It's been 10 years, but her hands still tremble.
"I had been sleeping under my cot because I was afraid of the rocket attack outside. It is only a few days until my hump point, when I will pass the half-way point of my tour.
"They send me to the neuro emergency room. The longest trail of blood I have ever seen leads the way." Her voice is a monotone. "He is there. His entire face was blown away when a flare he was handling exploded. A perfect set of straight, even, white teeth is swinging from a jaw that dangles loose.
"The anesthetist yells at me and the wall goes up. I become a robot, doing my job."
For eight hours, the medical team labors over the young soldier, pumping 120 units of blood through needles in his leg, neck and both arms.
"I always believed that you could stop bleeding. The lesson I learned that night was that we have developed the ability to destroy something beyond repair."
While changing a blood bag, Van Devanter kicked the soldier's clothes which were on the floor. A photograph fell out.
"It's a picture of him and a girl. He is gazing sweetly at her. Straight, blond and tall, he looks proud in his tuxedo. She, too, is tall with shining dark hair and a pastel gown. Suddenly, he is real again and the wall falls down. I gaze at the mass of blood vessels and burned skin in front of me and I feel sick."
Again, someone yells at her, and she becomes a robot. Finally, the team gives up.
"We wrap his face with layers of pressure dressings and send him to post-op intensive-care to die," she says. Her eyes fill with tears. "I keep telling myself that a miracle could happen. He could stop bleeding. He'd be all right. Picking up the bloody linens and putting them into the hamper, I see the photograph again and stare at it.
"This boy was real. He was a person who could love and think and plan and dream and now he is nothing, there is nothing left
"I must see him again. I take his hand. Already the blood is coming through the bandages. I ask him if he is in pain. He squeezes my hand. I ask him if he wants pain medicine. He squeezes again. I call a nurse and tell her to give him some. I know it will cause him to go faster. That's what I want to do, for him to go easy.
"I stand with him, 20-30 minutes. I want to say something, to tell him it is okay that he will be fine and that I care.
"He stops breathing. He's dead. I am crying. I want my mother and father. I want to go home and forget everything that is around me, the death, the destruction that I am a part of, but they are calling me, saying more wounded are coming and I must put the wall up again. Always the wall."