The massive Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which begins airing this weekend, draws from a rich body of literature about that cataclysm. From gripping novels to era-defining films, there is a great deal to consume about the men who served in Vietnam. But as many as 15,000 American women also served, along with many civilian volunteers. Their stories are compelling but harder to find. Here’s how to learn more about this facet of America’s Vietnam experience.
Walker interviewed women ranging from nurses (who constituted almost 90 percent of the military women in Vietnam), to Red Cross volunteers, to entertainers, to flight attendants. One of the most haunting stories is that of Doris Allen, an African American woman who worked in Army intelligence. Based on her analysis of what we now call chatter, she reported that plans were underway for a major attack in 30 days. Her superiors ignored her warnings; a month later, the Tet offensive took the U.S. military by surprise. Walker wrote that he undertook the book because “I was amazed that fifteen thousand women had been in Vietnam and yet I had heard nothing about them.”
For real-life, nonscripted narratives, you can go to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, near the more famous Vietnam Wall, where women gather on Memorial Day and Veterans Day to tell their stories. The website of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation has archived videos and transcripts from these storytelling events, beginning in 2003.
“Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam” by Elizabeth Norman
Almost a decade after the war, Norman began her PhD research on nurses who served in Vietnam. She was shocked to discover that “no one had been interested enough in the subject to pursue it. I found no statistics, no articles.” (As recently as 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs admitted that “little is known about the long-term health and mental health status of women Vietnam Era Veterans.”) Based on in-depth interviews, Norman’s book walks readers through nurses’ Vietnam experiences.
“Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories” by Donna A. Lowery
“There are people who believe that no military women, other than nurses, served in Vietnam,” writes Lowery. Her book proves otherwise, with data, photos, bios, and a wealth of stories from women in all four military branches who served as clerks, flight controllers, translators, dieticians, couriers and in many other roles. While the personal narratives are the highlight, the book is encyclopedic in scale and intent. It is one of the only histories focused on the perspectives of non-nurses.
In this book, nine female war correspondents reflect on their experiences. Many of them had to fight for their battlefield assignments; once in Vietnam, however, the journalists found extraordinary access to military action — and to danger. At least one of the women was wounded; another was captured and presumed dead, although she was released a month later, ill and emaciated. All were transformed. “If you pinch my skin, Vietnam is there,” writes journalist Denby Fawcett. “. . . I pray to leave Vietnam, but I never can.”
“Don’t Mean Nothing” by Susan O’Neill
This collection of fictional short stories by a former Vietnam nurse is sharp and mordantly funny, giving readers a glimpse of daily life during the war and a dose of the sophisticated sense of absurdity that young people developed in order to absorb so much death. “Religion,” one nurse muses, “isn’t much different from microbiology.”
“China Beach” created by William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young
This 1988-1991 television series chronicles the exploits of American women and men on a Vietnam Army base. The female characters include resourceful GIs, Red Cross volunteers, USO performers, nurses and an entrepreneur who does whatever it takes.
Many of the women in these books and videos share a startling secret, one that was revealed to me by a middle-aged veteran I interviewed while researching my novel about women in Vietnam. “I don’t speak about Vietnam,” she told me, “and most people in my world don’t even know I’m a veteran. I prefer it that way.”