Sisterhood of War



I was born in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive.  Too young to have any memories of the war myself, I grew up in a culture that had been torn apart by the war and wanted nothing more than to sweep it under the rug after its inglorious conclusion.  The first time I remember hearing about the war was in a social studies class in high school in the mid-1980s, when my teacher mentioned the My Lai massacre of March 1968.  There was no lesson about it, no discussion of the war’s history or politics, no accounting for how such a thing could have happened.  I was stunned by the facts of the case, but even more shocked that a war had been fought during my lifetime that I was only now hearing first real mention of.  From that point on, I embarked on a personal journey to learn more about the war and those who had fought it.  My earliest teachers were the writers and filmmakers who dramatized the war in books such as Fields of Fire (James Webb) and movies such as Platoon (Oliver Stone).

The only other thing I recall having heard about the war during my youth was the dictum to never, ever ask a veteran anything about it.  It was too painful a topic, and besides, those guys (and it was always guys) were a little bit…dangerous.  Don’t bring it up.  So I didn’t, even on the few occasions I met someone who had served in Vietnam.   During my college years, I worked with a man who was a veteran.  I knew this only because I overheard him discuss it in hushed tones to other men in the office.  He had been a member of a helicopter crew.  He was a nervous kind of guy, skittish, his hands plagued by a constant, subtle shake.  Whether or not that had anything to do with his war service, I will never know, because I never asked him anything about it.

I labored under such fictional, filmic, and foreboding assumptions about Vietnam veterans until November 1994, when I visited Washington, D.C., for the first time.  Part of my itinerary included a bus tour of Arlington National Cemetery.  One of the stops on the tour was the gravesite of Audie Murphy, World War II hero-cum-movie star.  The day was gray and rainy, but I decided to get off the bus anyway.  I stood in a small crowd and watched as fellow visitors put pennies on the top of Murphy’s headstone.  I turned to a man next to me and asked about the practice.  “You put pennies on graves to speed the soul to heaven,” he told me.  “I learned that when I was in the Navy in Vietnam.” 

Here I was, for the first time, knowingly speaking to a Vietnam vet – a vet who openly identified himself as such and who seemed very comfortable in doing so!  We didn’t have time to talk about his service any further because we heard the sound of a funeral procession in the distance.  He and I dashed through the drizzle so we could get a closer look.  We stood in silent reverence for a few minutes, then returned and joined our friends on the bus.  I never saw him again.

When I got home, I realized my mistake.  I had for so long been interested in the war and had had a chance to talk to one of its veterans and let it slip by.  In response, I wrote a letter to the man who had been so kind to me that day and posted it on the web.  It was called, simply, “Letter to a Vet.”  It paid homage to him and the sacrifices he had made; I used words like “honor” and “duty” and thanked this man for hinting at their meaning to me.  For years, I received e-mail messages from male veterans who stumbled across my letter as they surfed the web.  One message I received from a disabled veteran in the fall of 1999 thanked me for my interest in veterans’ experiences in Vietnam, then advised me not to pursue it any further.  “Kid, do yourself a favor: don’t even go there.  No matter what you hear, picture it ten times worse.”  Still, he said, “Good luck to ya, kid.  Write anytime you want; I’ll tell you the truth.” 

By the time I received this e-mail message, I was in the middle of graduate school and had finally put my interest in the Vietnam War to the test of critical academic scholarship and feminist theory.  It was in a women’s history seminar during my first year that I finally asked the question, “Where were the women?”  I had come to see the dominant story of the war as a highly gendered story of the war, one that consigned women to the sidelines as wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and the occasional spitting hippy war protester.  Women, apparently, had no direct role in war; they experienced it through their men.  The assumption was that war stories were men’s stories, that it was only men who could “tell the truth” about war, as this veteran offered to do for me.  That this is true in the case of my relationship to the author of the e-mail message is not so troubling in itself; I was not in Vietnam, after all, and he was.  The real problem arises because similar assumptions applied even to the 7500 or so women who were also in Vietnam and who, for so long, were denied cultural recognition of their service, their right to “tell the truth” about the war.

The paper I wrote for that seminar focused on military women who had participated in the antiwar GI movement and was based on research conducted in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s collection of underground GI newspapers.  I wanted to turn this paper into my dissertation, but realized that I could not, in good conscience, write a whole dissertation about a group of living people without actually talking to them.  I had to ask these veterans about the war.  So I started looking for women veterans who had been part of the GI movement.  I looked and looked and looked.  Finally, I posted an announcement about my project on the website of Vietnam Women Veterans, an organization of non-nurse veterans.  Within twenty-four hours, about eight women had contacted me and said they were eager to share their stories with me…but they didn’t know anything about this antiwar GI movement. 

At first I thought my project was doomed.  Then I realized that something important was happening.  These women’s quick response to my inquiry suggested that there was a bigger story to tell about the women who went to the warzone, whatever their thoughts about the war itself.  I ended up interviewing twenty women Vietnam veterans – 10 nurses and 10 enlisted women and line officers – for my dissertation.  When I finished graduate school in 2002, my dissertation evolved into a project focusing on Minnesota nurse veterans, and Sisterhood of War was born.

I’ve learned so much from these women – about service, about war, about what it was to be a woman at war and a woman after war, about the sometimes difficult task of building and nurturing a sisterhood.  But this project has also taught me the value – indeed, the necessity – of listening to our veterans.   To heal from war, veterans must be allowed to share their stories, to speak their truths about the reality of war.  But these stories need attentive listeners as well.  Though it is true that veterans share a special bond that the rest of us will never fully understand, it is our responsibility to open those lines of communication with those who have served.  We ignore their stories at our own peril.  Ask with caution, ask with care, ask when the time is right.  But ask.  Always ask a veteran.