The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

Eight Names On The Wall Belong To Women

 By Christopher Podgus


Memorial Honoring Women Veterans Planned For Washington

Eight of the names on The Wall belong to women.

For the most people, that fact doesn't mean much. Most people, including many male Vietnam veterans, never really understood that women served with the U.S. forces in Vietnam, never recognized it as a fact. The lack of awareness means there is no real significance to those eight names, and no true recognition of their sacrifice.

No remembering.

There's no exact count of how many American women actually served during the Vietnam era in Indochina. The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project accepts a-figure of 10,000:7,500 in the military and 2,500 civilians. At the Department of Defense, where they worship statistics, estimates have ranged from 550 women serving in Vietnam to 57,000.

The difference in the estimates gives just one indication of how little recognition women have received for their role in Vietnam. D.M. Boulay, of the Women's Memorial Project, observes, "it's like nobody knows we were there."

Given this unusual lack of recognition it's not surprising that people overtook the fact that eight American women died in Vietnam. It shouldn't be that way.

For some people, it's not.

Doreen Spelts works for Congressman Peter Kostmayer's office in Doylestown, PA. In 1984, when Bucks County decided to build a monument to local residents who died in Vietnam, Spelts was assigned to liaison duties with the memorial committee. At one point she found herself wondering if any American women had died in Vietnam. A pamphlet-from the National Archives gave her the answer as well as the names of the eight women, the dates of their deaths, and the fact that all were nurses (seven had been army nurses, one had been an air force nurse).

Spelts soon discovered she couldn't let go of the subject.

"I kept thinking about those eight women. What were they like? Why did they go to Vietnam? How did they die?"

She realized that she would have to find out more, or else start losing sleep.

Spelts always knew she could be a writer. In fact, when she first teamed about the eight women, she had just joined the ancient and honorable company of unpublished authors by completing a novel she was unable to sell. "It's about benign possession," she says of her work. "But not the demonic kind. Maybe that's why nobody wants to buy it."

Since her fascination with the eight nurses was deepening into a personal form of benign possession, the next step was obvious: she began research for a book about them.

Late at night, and whenever she can find time on weekends, Spelts mines her slowly building pile of material until she's confident enough to write. One chapter for each nurse. So far, she's completed four chapters.

"There are times when my head feels heavy with nurses," she confessed during a recent conversation.

Spelts dreams about the women of Vietnam and calls them by their first names. Sometimes, when she's absorbed in talking about them, she speaks of them in the present tense, as if they were still alive. And the eight American women who died in Vietnam are alive. To her.

"They were fantastic women. They were fantastic people. They were brave, involved, caring. And they wanted to be there," she says. Spelts explains that women who served in Vietnam were essentially volunteers; not one of them was sent against their will. Some people are confused by that notion. Go to Vietnam? Volunteer?

"These women were committed to their profession," Spelts says flatly. "They wanted wounded men to get the best possible care, and they thought they could make a difference. So they went to Vietnam."

DRAZBA AND JONES

Among the first to arrive in Indochina were Carol Drazba and Elizabeth Ann Jones,
Both second lieutenants who landed at Vung Tau In November 1965 with the rest of the 51st Field Hospital. It was still early enough in the war so that the entire detachment was sent by troop ship from Oakland. Nobody knew definitely where they were being sent; most were pretty sure It was Vietnam. Their orders read "Southeast Asia."

Spelts has heard from only one colleague of the two women, a medical services corps officer who sent her a long letter detailing the voyage. According to the doctor, there were continual rumors and an enormous amount of tension during the trip to Vietnam. Finally, after the 51st Field Hospital landed, they were called into formation at dockside and told they would be based in Saigon.

So far, Spelts hasn't been able to learn much about Elizabeth Ann Jones. She has had better luck with Drazba. Apparently, the 51st was frequently co-opted by MACV's public relations operation. It was a standard stop on VIP tours-In 1965 the light was still shining at the end of the tunnel. Drazba, who worked as a surgical nurse in the O.R., was frequently tapped as part of the guide party on these excursions, and she enjoyed the duty. She liked meeting the VIPs, and she tried to make sure they talked to wounded men on the wards.

On February 18,1966, Jones accompanied Drazba on a helicopter flight to a nearby base. Both were killed when the chopper crashed.

Alexander and Orlowski

Eleanor Grace Alexander and Diane Orlowski were normally based in Qui Nhon, but they volunteered for temporary assignments In Pleiku, in November 1967, to help the evac units there deal with the heavy load of casualties from the battle of Dak To. That kind of volunteering wasn't unusual. From Eleanor Alexander, in fact, you might have expected It.

Eleanor Alexander's parents are so committed to Spelts's project that they sent her their daughter's letters from Vietnam. The letters reveal a young woman with an intense dedication to her work in Vietnam. All eight nurses believed what they were doing, Spelts says, but she feels there was "something about Eleanor, something special. Something extra, a kind of passion. She lived for what she was doing."

When Alexander joined the army, she had already been a nurse for six years, so she was commissioned as a captain and put in charge of her training detachment at Fort Sam Houston. It meant she had an extended stay at the base, and she didn't like It. Spelts notes that a theme runs through Alexander's letters from Ft. Sam: "I don't want to be here. I don't want to run a training company. I want to go to Vietnam and be a nurse. They send other nurses, why won't they send me?

Eventually they did. Captain Eleanor Alexander, and her comrade-In-healing, First Lieutenant Diane Orlowski, were killed when the plane crashed on November 30, 1967.

Pamela Donovan

Pamela Donovan's journey to Vietnam was longer than most. She was born and raised in Ireland; her family moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager. Her strong Catholic background led her to try life in a religious community. Donovan later left, but a strong sense of mission stayed with her. She had begun the legal process for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, but It was accelerated when she enlisted.

Spelts has only now begun to research Donovan, but the nurse's: parents, who have since moved back to England, wrote Spelts to explain why their daughter had joined our army, and our country.

"She was much affected by battlefield portrayals on the news, and she shared with us her distress that all the [American soldiers] were In such dreadful circumstances. She had learned that all the nurses were volunteers, and she told us that she had decided she should volunteer."

Second Lieutenant Pamela Donovan contracted an unusual Southeast Asian variant of pneumonia at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon, where she was stationed, and died on July 8, 1968.

Annie Ruth Graham

The nurses' section of Arlington National Cemetery is not easily accessible. It's a stiff walk up the hill from the Tomb of the Unknowns. Once you get there, it's a peaceful place, presided over by the statue of a military nurse. Doreen Spelts went there to see the grave of Lt. Col. Annie Ruth Graham, who commanded a detachment of the 91st Evac in Tuy Hoa. Graham was career army: Vietnam was her third war. When Spelts studied the marker on her grave, however, there was a glaring error. The marker listed Europe, where Graham had served in the "Good War," and it listed Korea, but It didn't mention Vietnam, where she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 14,1968.

Spelts, contacted Arlington headquarters, and after a period of standard confusion, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Office contacted her and admitted a mistake had been made. Spelts was told a new marker would be made and emplaced, but since she hasn't been back, she doesn't know if the record has been set straight. Looking back at the incident, Spelts wonders if it was just a typical snafu, or if it might have been a mass outbreak of "Vietnam amnesia," the half-conscious denial that there was such a place as Vietnam.

There was a lot of that going around for a while.

SHARON LANE

Sharon Lane was the only one of the eight to die from enemy action. She had been in-country for less than 10 weeks, but It was enough time for her to become fascinated by the country and its people. Apparently most new arrivals at the 312th Evac In Chu Lai, where she was based, were told they would have to spend some time in the POW wards, and many resented tending wounded men who were our enemies. Lane was assigned to POW wards with both Vietnamese civilians and NVA prisoners, but it didn't bother her.

Spelts, who has access to Lane's letters home comments: "She tended' people, not politics, and she liked the Vietnamese. She didn't ask if a casualty was friendly or hostile. She believed that hurt people needed help, and helping was her job."

The 312th Evac frequently caught short rounds from enemy rockets and mortars that were, targeted on a nearby firebase. On June 8, 1969, one of these rounds killed First Lieutenant Sharon Lane.

Mary Klinker

Mary Klinker was at Travis AFB when the American prisoners of war came home from North Vietnam. In fact, she helped treat them in a special ward set up specifically for returnees. About 20 months after that, she volunteered for a temporary teaching assignment at dark AFB in the Philippines.

It was Spring 1975, and in Vietnam the sky was falling.

Hue fell on March 25, Da Nang surrendered on March, 30, and by April 2, the NVA was poised for Its drive on Saigon. The U.S. began refugee flights, trying to save what they could. Many of these flights carried children and infants from orphanages with American connections. Klinker volunteered to join the on board medical teams on one of these flights. At Ton Son Nhut, she was assigned to a plane loaded primarily with adult refugees. Because she loved children, she arranged a transfer to another flight, this one carrying 62 escorting adults and 243 Vietnamese infants. The plane, a Military Aircraft Command C-5A, took off on April 14. Minutes after it was airborne, a pressure door blew out, damaging the plane's control systems. The pilot tried to make it back to base, but crashed less than two miles from the runway.

About half the passengers survived, but Captain Mary Klinker was not among them.

This was less than three weeks before the fall of Saigon, which is the generally accepted date of the end of the war in Vietnam. One of the last men to die in the tunnel was a woman.

Memorial Project

People have started remembering Vietnam now. There's growing recognition of Vietnam veterans, and an answering pride on the part of veterans themselves. Sharon Lane has become a figure in this slow turn toward remembrance. The hospital in her hometown Canton, Ohio, has named a women's clinic after her. The local VVA group named their chapter after her. There's a scholarship fund in her memory, and in front of the Aultman Hospital stands Canton's Vietnam War Memorial.

The figure on the memorial is based on pictures, and drawings of Sharon Lane. It appears to be the only American war memorial to portray an actual woman.

The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project is working to raise another statue of a woman. They hope it will be built near the Wall, at a point that complements the Three Fighting Men sculpture. The statue will depict a woman veteran, and it is the most visible part of the project's purpose.

"We're an educational effort," explains D.M. Boulay, chairman, of the board of the project. "We'd like Americans to recognize how women served in Vietnam, and what they did." Boulay, who now practices law in Minneapolis, served as a nurse in Vietnam. She says that she and her fellow female veterans "were getting awfully tired of people giving us blank looks and saying 'Women in Vietnam?' as if we'd never been there."

It was that feeling that led Diane Carlsen Evans to establish the project, of which she is now president. Evans remembers flying home after a year in evac hospitals at Vung Tau and Pleiku. And she remembers meeting the same kind of non-reception that many veterans encountered. The ignorance, Stereotyping, lack of understanding were all the same. No one recognized that service in Vietnam might have value. At the hospital where Evans worked after she left the army, she was told she would have to be checked at three points before she could actually start an intravenous drip. She tried to explain it wasn't necessary; during a single night at Pleiku she started 30 IVs, working by flashlight and touch. The explanation died in her mouth when she saw that her supervisor neither knew nor cared what nurses did in Vietnam.

Even at her parent's home, a dairy farm in Buffalo, MN, she felt guarded and out of place. Her sister remembers that Evans seemed distant and withdrawn. Evans waited for her family to ask about Vietnam and they waited for her to bring it up. Somehow, it was never discussed.

Evans became a closet Vietnam veteran. She stopped referring to her Vietnam experiences outside her family circle. She would tell her brothers and sisters about "the good times, the happy times, like R&R," she recalls. "But I'd only talk about events, not feelings." She volunteered nothing to other people. Sometimes, when driving by herself, she would find herself crying.

Where Are The Women?

Evans came out of the closet at the dedication of the Wall, in November 1982. Ten months later, she attended Minnesota's state salute to Vietnam veterans with the specific objective of meeting other women veterans. She didn't; she was the only woman there. She did, however, make contact with sculptor Roger Brodin, who served with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam. Among the artworks on display at the salute was Brodin's The Squad, a group of maquettes-small-scale original versions of sculpture.

"These were the men I'd served with, that I'd taken care of," Evans says, "and they were portrayed with such dignity, in such a beautiful way "

Evans knows what Vietnam was like. She remembers fighting to save men who were so badly wounded they begged to be allowed to die. She had always felt that Vietnam veterans deserved much more than they had received, so she was pleased at the slow rise of recognition for them. At the same time, she was plagued by the feeling that something was missing.

"Where are the women?" she remembers asking herself. "It was a though we'd become invisible." That sense of absence gnawed at her until she found herself wondering if she truly was a Vietnam veteran.

These feelings emerged when she called Roger Brodin to thank him for The Squad. Brodin agreed that some kind of recognition for women who served in Vietnam was important and asked Evans to his studio to talk about it. This was the start of a series of conversations that lasted for hours and eventually grew into the figure of the woman veteran. There was general agreement on two points: the figure should appear feminine, and she should look like she was returning from a war, not going to one. Brodin found a model and dressed her in the jungle boots and fatigues Evans had worn in Vietnam.

"They're not new issue," Evans points out, "they're old and tired and there was a big rip under one arm." The figure carries a feeling of great weariness, as well as great compassion and resolve. One veteran, studying a close-up of the statue mused, "she looks like you could tell her anything, and she'd say, "hey, it's all right."

As the maquette for the statue neared completion, Evans and a number of male veterans who had become involved in the effort decided to call a meeting to discuss future action. Evans says, "everyone felt there was only one place that was right for the statue; she belonged at the Wall." The meeting, in April 1984, introduced Evans and D.M Boulay. The two of them have been a team ever since. With several male supporters, they incorporated the project in May 1984, and went out on the road to see if anyone shared their dream.

The Women's Vietnam Memorial Project has received support from VVA, the VfW, and the American Legion. Evans, who went to conventions in 1985 to help marshal this backing, says they met "a certain amount of skepticism, but a lot of encouragement and help also emerged, and that kept us going."

About 100 volunteers, both men and women, have become involved in the project, and there's been an outpouring of positive response on the part of Vietnam veterans.

At present, the statue exists only as a maquette and as three small-scale bronze replicas, which the project sends to public exhibitions and presentations. "Seeing is believing," explains Evans, "and she's what we're all about. "D.M. Boulay adds, "I think sometimes she's a lot more convincing than anything we can say." Both women stress that the statue is not a monument solely to nurses, but to every woman who served in Vietnam. Why the figure of a nurse, then?

"We had to choose somebody," Boulay points out. "In Vietnam, there were women photo-interpreters, air traffic controllers, logistics specialists. . .No matter who we chose, somebody would have been left out. So we settled on a nurse because she's representational. She stands for all of us."

Evans notes that the Three Fighting Men are also representational-even though they are dressed like infantry. Everyone accepts that they stand for the men who served in thousands of other specialties as well.

This spring the Women's Vietnam Memorial Project received the essential backing of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund, which built the Wall. The time is now coming for negotiations on the necessary approvals from three federal agencies and for special legislation from Congress. And this spring the project launched a fund-raising effort to gather the $1 million needed to construct and place a full-sized version of the statue at the Wall, and to landscape and maintain the site. So far, Evans reports, they've raised about $80,000.

"We don't understand why we're not more controversial," remarks Boulay. Everyone thinks we've got a great idea.''

It may simply be a case of an idea whose time has come. Many people think it's, actually long overdue. In Vietnam women helped make sure our soldiers got fed, supplied and paid. When the dust-off ships-came in with their loads of casualties, there were women waiting with the aid parties to heal and comfort. And the aftermath of the war has been the same for both men and women.

Doreen Spelts, who has talked with many Vietnam veterans, both men and women, feels there is very little difference in the post-war problems of men and women. There is the same inability to open up and communicate and the same high rate of divorce and substance abuse.

"It's all the same hell," she observes, "there's enough to go around."

"War changes people," Spelts says. "It's supposed to. You don't go through hell for a year and come out a happy, healthy person." For the people who went through it, she adds, "Vietnam is like a shackle in the mind, there's no getting away from it." It can be eased and loosened a little, however, and public recognition is part of the process, so she chases leads and writes letters and works on her book, trying to loosen the shackle.

Public recognition is also the goal of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project.

"We don't want glorification," Diane Evans says. "I don't know a single woman who went to Vietnam for the glory of it. But we do want public awareness that what we did was valuable. And we want to be able to be publicly proud of what we did."

Evans is haunted by an encounter with a Vietnam nurse who asked her: "Diane, do .you think anyone will even give a damn?"

Evans, Boulay and their, supporters believe people will give a damn if they are given the chance, and so they keep toiling on their project, trying to give that chance to the rest of us.

After all, it was a woman's war too.

   

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