Though relatively little official data exists about female Vietnam War veterans, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation estimates that approximately 11,000 military women were stationed in Vietnam during the conflict. Nearly all of them were volunteers, and 90 percent served as military nurses, though women also worked as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, clerks and other positions in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines and the Army Medical Specialist Corps. In addition to women in the armed forces, an unknown number of civilian women served in Vietnam on behalf of the Red Cross, United Service Organizations (USO), Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian organizations, or as foreign correspondents for various news organizations. Despite these high numbers of women in the military, women have had a long road to equality. Women were treated as second class soldiers, both in the military and after coming home. The woman soldier role was perceived as a helpmate and often times did not have proper medical training and put in dangerous situations.
A majority if not all women serving at Vietnam were stationed as nurses, making up the bulk force of the ground health system. These nurses were thrown into the midst of battle with little to no experience. Reports mention female nurses with experience ranging from two years to as little as six months. Before going to Vietnam, many women were given mock set-ups of battlefield casualties; this was supposed to prepare them for the real war and the real casualties. The women also got field training, which consisted of how to fire an M-16; ironically though, the women were never allowed to fire these weapons.
The Vietnam war was also known for the rise of drug use amongst soldiers serving in combat. A large number of nurses worked amongst and treated drugged out combatants and simply were not aware of the psychological effects of treating traumatized soldiers. The widespread use of napalm and phosphorus led to extremely traumatizing wounds that were far harsher than previous wars. The widespread introduction of artillery shells that were meant to cause massive multiple injuries also made these inexperienced nurses’ duties far more difficult.
Furthermore, with the military ignoring the fact that women are put on front lines makes their situation even more dangerous, because they would not get the proper combat training. Women were also there to boost morale and play the role of caregivers. In World War II the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) Program had been staffed by “donut dollies,” women who ran clubs and canteens where the servicemen could relax. These women also drove vans to the front lines equipped to make coffee and distribute donuts to the troops.
Women’s roles have evolved over the years from being essential but supplementary forces in the military during wars, to being active participants. They are now regarded as an integral part of the armed forces and if they have not achieved total parity with the men, it can only be a matter of time.