Rumors of War

As a member of a veterans' speakers bureau, I have been asked many times to speak about why I went to Vietnam, and what I did there.

And with no exceptions, the very first question people ask when they hear I was in Vietnam is "Were you a nurse?" It doesn't seem to matter whether it's a young student who might have been born after Vietnam, or a 40 something in-country vet.

My reply by rote is, "No, I was a Dept. of the Army Civilian with Army Special Services."

"Oh, you were a Donut Dollie."

At this point, I really want to be rude and say, "Is there something wrong with your hearing? I said ARMY SPECIAL SERVICES!" But I don't. Instead, I smile, stuff my emotions, and clam up. For me, the conversation is over. You're askin questions, you may be listening, but you're not hearing me.

Please don't misunderstand, there's nothing wrong with being called a Donut Dollie if you were one. But just as all women in Vietnam were not Army nurses, all civilian women in-country were not Red Cross Donut Dollies.

It is important to make those distinctions? I don't know--but for now it is to me. All grunts were not Marines; all Army infantrymen were not Ist CAV all airborne rangers were not 173rd "Sky Soldiers." Are those important distinctions? I don't know--but they seem to be to me.

The feeling I get when someone says "Oh, you were a Donut Dollie" is that a value judgment has somehow instantly been made. It feels like a put-down as though our efforts, our contributions, our sacrifices as civilian women don't count. That we might have been there, in Saigon or Long Binh maybe, but we're not to be taken seriously. After all, we didn't have real jobs, and were never under stress or in mortal danger. Or worse yet is the reply "Oh you were a Donut Dollie?!" The not so subtle implication sometimes being "Then we know what you did in Vietnam!"

Do you??

I recently read a poem written by a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, entitled "Donut Dollies." I read it and was insulted. Insulted and dismayed that age-old slander about women and the military was being perpetuated by such a well-known author. His comments had the ring of second-hand rumors, unworthy of print. Forexample, rumor had it we were "war cheerleaders," "officer's material," or simply "camp followers." Depending on who was speaking, we were either there to entertain the officers, or play with their troops. And everyone knows that since we didn't have to go to Vietnam, we must have gone there to get rich quick, or to find a husband! Right?

Well, contrary to all such hurtful remarks, let me tell you what we did not do- We did not go to get rich quick selling Donuts, or anything else for that matter! Such comments are rooted more in fantasy and ignorance than reality.

Pardon my pun, but isn't it time we lay those rumors to rest? I wish I could always respond to rumors and innuendoes with humor. But, I can't always take them as lightly as the pun suggests. Those rumors still hurt and brew resentment Perhaps, instead of hurting and staying angry, I need to speak up. Stand up for myself and my sisters. Tell our story and hope it will be heard.

So--with that said, let me suggest that we women went to Vietnam for many of the same reasons you men did--out of a sense of duty, loyalty, adventure, or patriotism. Our President had said, ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country, and many of us took his words to heart. We went to Vietnam because our brothers were there in need of support and comfort. And in supporting you we served our country.

In the words of another poet, Sara Haines, who perhaps says it best: "We went there to be life affirming in an arena that destroyed life. We smiled. We listened. We tried to cheer and console the best we knew how." No, we weren't nurses, but we civilian women performed a variety of in-country jobs, and did so with the same skill and dedication with which the nurses did theirs. We all had a mission and a job to do!. and we did it to the best of our abilities, We were all exposed to the same chemicals, the same dangers, the same stressors, and the same homecoming difficulties as the nurses. No, we are not military veterans, but we are Vietnam veterans!

Civilian women, an estimated 20,000, volunteered for service in Vietnam with organisations such as Special Services, American Red Cross, the USO, the State Dept.,Dept. of Defense, U.S.A.I.D. and the Central Intelligence Agency. There were also other women there as jounalists, civilian nurses, and missionaries. Five civilian women are Missing In Action, and one, Eleanore Vleni, is still officially listed as a P.O.W. by our government. To date, it is known that 57 American civilian women died in-the-line-of-duty in Vietnam,

Perhaps you're saying to yourself "Where were all those women? "I never saw any round-eyes in-country, and I certainly never set foot in a Service Club." I know, we hear that all the time. But, take my word for it we were there! And we weren't all stationed in Saigon, Long Binh, or China Beach.

You may not remember us, but we remember seeing you in base camps, artillery posts, and LZ's.

I often wonder. If that wasn't you, then who were those thousands of soldiers we talked to in Service Clubs From Tay Ninh to Dong Tam; served coffee and koolaid to in Pleiku and Soc Trang, 10 AM to 10 PM, seven days a week; or played cards, pool or chess with in Bong Son or Vinh Long. Who were all those young, dirty, tired, weary soldiers we served breakfast too on Nui Ba Din, or shared lunch with at Camp Caroll or LZ English; brought mail and cookies to in the field; wrote letters home for, read letters to; laughed with; cried with, and in general, cared for as though you were our own brothers. If that wasn't you, who were all those young soldiers?

We civilian women worked in hospitals, orphanages, schools and offices. We ran recreation centers, libraries, and USO's. We traveled daily in trucks, jeeps and helicopters to bring you smiles, warm koolaid, books. games, dry socks, but more importantly the knowledge that we cared about you, and what was happening to you.

At the Women's Memorial in D.C. last Veterans' Day I saw a T-shirt imprinted with these words:

A touch of home in a combat zone
A smiling face at a bleak firebase
The Elusion of calm Vietnam

Those words very accurately describe our civilian mission in Vietnam. In today's jargon, it might best be summed up as stress management under the ultimate stressor . . . WAR.

It is important that you know what civilian women did for the war effort and for its soldiers in Vietnam, and why? I don't know--but it has becomeimperative for me that I tell you our story in the hope of quelling the rumors of war.

Welcome Home.

Cathleen Cordova

* The Circle of Sisters...Circle of Friends,-co-founded by Jolynne Strang and Cathleen Cordova, is a coalition of civilian women who served in Vietnam. It is a private, non-profit organisation established to document civilian service and to honor the American civilian casualties of that war. For more information contact:
Jolynne Strang, Exec. Director Tel. 303-575-1311.