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By Mac Leepson
It’s not every day that a veterans’ service organization’s national election results make headlines in the nation’s top newspapers. But that’s what happened on August 3, 1987, when The New York Times and The Washington Post trumpeted the fact that Mary Stout had been elected the second president of Vietnam Veterans of America the day before by an overwhelming majority of the four hundred delegates at VVA’s Third National Convention in Washington.

“Woman Takes Command,” was the NYT headline. “Woman to Lead Charge for Viet Veterans Group,” the Post said, followed by the subhead: “Election Follows Tradition of Non-Tradition.” The newspapers played up the fact that Mary Stout, who had served as a U.S. Army nurse in Vietnam, was the first woman chosen to lead an American VSO. At the time, Stout felt that her election signified an important step in the recognition of the role played by women in the Vietnam War and as veterans’ advocates at home.
“I think this is really significant,” she told the reporters, “because for the first time a national veterans’ association has acknowledged that there are women who are veterans, and ‘veteran’ is no longer a male word.”

Outgoing VVA President Bobby Muller, who supported Stout’s candidacy, touted the fact that her election showed that VVA was unique among the nation’s VSOs, which were dominated by an older generation of veterans who did little or nothing to help Vietnam veterans. Stout, who had served as Muller’s national secretary, he said, is “truly a remarkable person.” The “old-boy network is truly a club for the old boys, and that’s one reason why we’re proud not to be a member of that club.”

The “fact that the delegates elected a woman,” Muller went on to say, “is one of the clearest statements you can imagine that Vietnam veterans are a totally different generation of veterans—much more progressive in thinking and not as sexist, racist, and reactionary” as the old-line VSOs. “It’s a helluva statement.”

Mary Stout today plays down the fact that she was a pioneer in the women veterans’ movement and plays up the fact that from the first time she became involved with VVA in 1981, she felt she was being treated as a veteran, not as a woman veteran. “I never felt an awkward moment being a woman and being active in VVA,” Stout said.

“Yes, later in my presidency, there were crude people who said some things, and that got a little bit wearing. But I never felt out of place in VVA. I just felt I fit in at VVA as a veteran. I never felt that it was because I was a woman or wasn’t a woman. I fit in because I was a veteran.”
From the Beginning

Mary Stout, who was 43 when she was elected VVA president, joined the Army in 1964 during her last year of nursing school. She went on active duty after graduating. While at her first duty station, Fort Ord, she met Carl Stout, a young Army officer, and the two newly minted lieutenants quickly decided to get married. When Carl Stout received his orders for Vietnam, Mary Stout volunteered to go to the war zone.

“I thought it would be important for us, for our life together, that I had that experience, too,” she told Kathryn Marshall in the oral history, In the Combat Zone. “It just seemed like Vietnam was going to be a real important experience in his life, and I didn’t want to be cut off from it.”

Mary Stout arrived in Vietnam in November 1966, several weeks before her husband-to-be did, because he had gone to jungle school in Panama. She served with the Second Surgical Hospital, which was in An Khe when she arrived and then moved to Chu Lai in June of 1967. “I kind of worked everywhere in the hospital,” she said. “I spent most of my time in intensive care.” It was often a harrowing experience. “We had a lot of people come in with missing arms, legs, hands; you name it, it was gone,” she said. She witnessed the worst that the war had to offer—death and maiming—up close and personal for an entire year. It was an experience that left emotional wounds that didn’t heal for several years after she came home.

Lt. Mary Stout returned from Vietnam in November 1967 and took an early out. Carl Stout came back almost two months later and they were married on December 30, 1967. Carl Stout, who was drafted, decided to make the Army a career. The young couple moved to Wichita, Kansas, then to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where Carl Stout taught for three years. When he was sent to South Korea, Mary Stout took her children and moved back to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

“That’s where I met up with the local VVA chapter,” she said. It was 1981, just three years after VVA had been founded. She was working for the USO at the time, and one day met with local VSOs to get help with a fundraiser. “I had heard something on the radio about a Vietnam veterans group,” she said, and so Stout asked the head of a local VFW post about them. “And the guy says: ‘They’re a bunch of radicals; we don’t want them involved.’ “ That, to Mary Stout, was like waving a red flag at a bull.

Immediately, she said, “the hair was standing up on the back of my head.” She decided to contact that group.

The next morning, she said, “after the kids were off at school, I called this number. I explained the whole thing, and the guy I talked to, Parker Lee Hargrove, said to me: ‘We’d be interested in that. And when did you serve in Vietnam?’ It wasn’t like, ‘I’m not asking you if you served,’ it was like he knew. And now I’m in shock, sitting on the kitchen floor. So I talked to him for a little bit.”

Mary Stout paid a visit to Columbus Chapter 16 a few days later. “They had an office in a very seedy part of town,” she said. “VVA in the early years was in very seedy places. So I drove downtown, I walked into that office, and I knew that I was in exactly the right place.” She joined the chapter (which later disbanded) on the spot. She found a home. She rose in the organization and was named executive director of the Ohio State Council.

“The issues certainly were the things that kept me active and kept me interested,” she said. “I saw VVA as an organization that actually could do something about them. The other VSOs weren’t much interested.”

One day in the spring of 1983, Bobby Muller, VVA’s founder and first president, came to Columbus to meet with the Ohio State Council. “It was the first time I ever met Bobby,” Stout said. “He’d been there before and people kind of seemed enamored with him, but I had never seen him or heard him speak. And the first time I met him I didn’t like him at all.” That soon changed.

When Carl Stout came back from Korea, the family moved to Maryland. Mary Stout, who had had experience doing membership data entry for the Ohio State Council, contacted the VVA national office in Washington about the possibility of a job with the Maryland State Council. “I asked Rick Weidman [VVA’s current director of Government Relations] if VVA had something like a State Council in Maryland where I could work. He laughed and said, ‘Mary, the national office is the only place [in VVA] that has any paid staff.’ ”

Within days, she was offered, and accepted, the job of national Membership Director, replacing Weidman, who took over VVA’s Government Relations Department. “We lived up north of Baltimore, and I commuted down to Capitol Hill and sat in the garage of the little town house that was VVA’s national headquarters with the mice running across my feet doing data entry for membership,” she said. “I had a lot of experience in talking to veterans thinking about joining a chapter and putting together materials about how you form a chapter and the things you need to do. Of course, we didn’t have any Constitution at this point because we hadn’t had a convention yet. So I worked in membership.”

VVA’s first national office was located in an infamously run-down building in a not-good section of the nation’s capital. “It was an old town house with a blue door,” Stout said. “Ginny Richards was kind of the office manager. We had a receptionist. We had Ken Berez and Jenny Berez and Rick and I. We had a little living room where the receptionist sat and everybody else except for me was in the middle room. I was in the garage until it got too hot that summer so they moved me. We had mice.”

Bobby Muller “and John Terzano had offices upstairs and Lynda Van Devanter had an office upstairs. This was a little, tiny townhouse. It was almost like being in Vietnam in some ways. You just don’t have very much, so you make do with what you’ve got because the mission is so important.”

The first year on the job included VVA’s Founding Convention in the summer of 1983. That Convention, Stout said, “was absolutely amazing. We had to approve every article of the Constitution, every Resolution, and start from scratch. I was so busy I don’t think I ate anything at all for something like four days. And I probably slept for two hours. But it was okay because the adrenaline was just going all the time. It was exciting.”

The Founding Convention in Washington, she said, “was the first time that many VVA members worked together with other Vietnam veterans, other than people in their chapters. It was very contentious. But we got so much done and we met many wonderful people who” stayed with VVA “for years and years, through the years when I was secretary and national president. And many of those people are still there, like John Rowan, Tom Corey, and Jack Devine.”

Mary Stout won election as VVA’s national secretary after the 1985 National Convention. And then, in 1987, she swept into office as president, succeeding Bobby Muller. While the media attention at the time focused on her gender, Stout was committed to working on a wide range of Vietnam veterans’ issues.

During her four years as VVA president, the organization accomplished a great deal, including leading the fight to force the Veterans Administration to institute judicial review. Before that, veterans had no legal recourse if they were turned down for a VA claim. That also included the fight to get the VA to recognize for the first time the health consequences of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. And, not coincidentally, VVA was the only national VSO to fight for women veterans.

“VVA has always been the leader in women veterans’ issues,” Stout said. “And the person who started that and the person who can most take credit for women veterans advocacy is Lynda Van Devanter,” who headed VVA’s first women veterans’ efforts. “She is the one who started it all.”

When Van Devanter—like Stout, a former Army nurse who experienced emotional difficulties after coming home from Vietnam—left VVA, “everybody kind of looked to me to be the next Lynda Van Devanter,” Stout said. “I said, ‘I’m not Lynda.’ We already had a women veterans committee, and my thought was to bring those women in and let them be the spokespersons for women veterans’ issues. I could go before Congress when we did and there were certain issues where I felt I was the best person, being the leader of the organization, to be there. But when it came to women veterans’ issues about PTSD, I wanted to get our experts from the field to also come in. Sometimes it would be me with them. That was one of the most important things.”

She also encouraged other women to take more active roles in VVA. “I certainly looked for women I knew and encouraged them to come forward and run for the national board,” Stout said. “I think that helped bring women into active leadership roles in the organization. I think seeing me [helped], but also me saying to them, ‘C’mon. You can do this. If I can do this, you can do this. I’m a housewife from Ohio, for God’s sakes.’ ”

Stout also takes pride in helping to establish VVA as an effective advocacy organization for veterans on Capitol Hill. One veteran House legislative aide told Stout, she said, that “VVA was extremely effective legislatively and that we got that way not only because we worked so hard here in Washington, D.C., which we did, but because our members in the field knew the issues and went to their members of Congress.”

Other VSOs, he said, “send out a message around the country that says, ‘Call up your congressman and tell him these words.’ But they don’t really know what it means. Your people really know the issues; they can talk intelligently about the issues and the reasons why.” That fact “is one of the things that VVA can be most proud of,” Stout said. “Not only did we educate our members, but our members wanted to be educated. They wanted to be actively involved. And the things that we got while I was president—judicial review, the Agent Orange legislation—is certainly a tribute to that network of people in the field who really worked those issues.”

Mary Stout left VVA following the 1991 National Convention and eventually went to work at the VA in Washington. Today she is chief of the VA’s Veterans Health Administration’s Forms, Publications, and Records Management. “I like the job,” she said, “because I still have a lot of contact with veterans from our website. They can send us messages directly and they do. Many times those messages are not about the forms or publications, but are about issues they are having, and we are able to help them find what they need. I also have a lot of contact with VA people in the field.”

As for her tenure as the first female head of an American veterans’ service organization, Stout said: “I think a lot about what we did, what we did with Agent Orange, with judicial review, with women veterans, and other things. What we did was amazing. I’m proud of that time. We had a lot of challenges and we met them.

“We had a lot of great times together. The important thing is that we worked together, and I don’t think there were a lot of egos. I think that was something that made it work, that there weren’t big egos. There were people who really saw that there were things that needed to be done and that we could do them. And it took all of us. It took all of us to do it.”

 

 

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