American military leaders were reluctant to send women abroad during the Vietnam War due to the unpredictable nature of guerilla warfare. There were no battle lines and no one knew when or where the next attack would strike. Yet many American women wanted to serve their country by supporting deployed troops and making a difference where they could. By the end of the war approximately 11,000 military women had served in Southeast Asia along with an unknown number of American civilian women. All of the women who participated in the Vietnam War were volunteers.
Military Women in the Vietnam War
Though members of the Army Nurse Corps were in Vietnam as early as 1956 to train Vietnamese women in nursing skills, larger numbers of American women didn’t begin to serve in Vietnam until 1963. At this time the Army Nurse Corps launched Operation Nightingale, which was an intensive effort to find volunteers. Once abroad, enlisted women worked in all branches of the military. 90% of them became nurses, while others worked as communications specialists, intelligence officers and support personnel in military headquarters.
The women who volunteered to go to Vietnam ranged in age from their early 20s to their 40s. According to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the average age of a female volunteer was 23.6 years old and only 35% of them had more than two years of nursing experience. Many of them were fresh out college and were among the youngest medical personnel ever to serve in a war. Yet these women would treat thousands of injured soldiers, endure repeated exposure to wartime violence and work tirelessly to meet the ever-increasing demand for medical care. Their bravery and dedication did much to change social stereotypes about women and their capacity to serve in the military arena. In fact, by 1973 the military had officially lifted the prohibition against women joining the armed forces.
Civilian Women in the Vietnam War
In addition to women serving as military nurses and support personnel, an unknown number of civilian women volunteered during the Vietnam War. Some traveled abroad as members of organizations such as the American Red Cross, Peace Corps and the USO. Others were journalists, missionaries or part of the Army Special Services. Those who volunteered with the Army Special Services operated libraries, service clubs and shops meant to boost the morale of military personnel deployed in Vietnam. In the words of Nancymay S. Healy, a Vietnam volunteer with the Army Special Services, they “provided a little bit of home to the infantrymen.”
59 female civilians died during the Vietnam War, among them journalist Georgette “Dickey” Chappelle, who was killed by a mine while embedded with U.S. Marines outside Chu Lai. A piece of shrapnel struck Chappelle in the neck, severing her carotid artery and she died shortly thereafter.
Honored for Their Bravery
Many women received awards for their service during the Vietnam War. Five Navy nurses received the Purple Heart after being injured in a 1964 Saigon bombing on Christmas Eve, thereby becoming the first female members of the U.S. military to receive the Purple Heart in Vietnam. In 1967 Captain Eleanor Grace Alexander and First Lieutenant Hedwig Diane Orlowski were posthumously awarded the Bronze Star after perishing in a plane crash.
One of the most well known servicewomen to be decorated was First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane, who was posthumously awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross and the Bronze Star for Heroism. She died from shrapnel wounds following a 1969 rocket attack on the hospital where she was working and was the only U.S. servicewoman killed as a direct result of enemy fire. In 1973 the hospital where Lane had attended nursing school – Aultman Hospital in Canton, OH – erected a bronze statue in her likeness with the names of 110 local servicemen who had died in Vietnam engraved on the base of the statue.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial
On November 11, 1993 the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated to the American women who served during the Vietnam War. The monument is part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and depicts four figures in a moment of crisis: a wounded soldier supported by a female nurse, a standing nurse looking to the heavens and a kneeling nurse staring at an empty helmet. According to Glenna Goodacre, the artist who created the sculpture, “the kneeling figure has been called ‘the heart and soul’ of the piece because so many vets see themselves in her. She stares at an empty helmet, her posture reflecting her despair, frustrations, and all the horrors of war.”
- Heikkila, Kim. “Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam.” Minnesota Historical Press Society: St. Paul, 2011.
- Norman, Elizabeth. “Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam.” University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1990.
- Zeinert, Karen. “The Valiant Women of the Vietnam War. “ Twenty-First Century Books: Minneapolis, 2000.