Vietnam Women's Memorial Lecture
By Elizabeth Norman PhD, RN
November 2003


Twenty-one years ago this month, I was busy making phone calls to various military and civilian organizations to try to find a list of nurses who had served in Vietnam. When I asked a member of the research department at Walter Reed why couldn't I find the information I wanted, she replied, "We never thought it was important to keep track of the female nurses—we saw no need." I was astounded and knew that if no one had thought about the nurses, other women must be more hidden-if that was possible.

There was a dilemma women faced when confronting patriotism and how-to carry out this obligation to our country. Even after two world wars, women traditionally supported the fighting men at home as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends. Combat was a man's world. What could possibly be more masculine than fighting and living in foxholes, climbing into an aircraft loaded with bombs, sliding behind a ship's gun battery? The fact that women can (and had) survived in war situations undermined this image.
You challenged this perception, offered your skills and served.

One woman, who confronted this dilemma said, "As a female I couldn't be drafted like a man but I felt that I had an equal responsibility to my country. I had a need not only to support my country but my own age group at a time when there was so little concern about the boys who were fighting in Vietnam." She worked in DaNang for 12 months and came home.

You volunteered to serve in a military or civilian role and experienced a time that remains unique, a focal point to which other life experiences are compared. Nothing can ever be the same after what you witnessed- the best and worst of humankind.

You saw courage and selflessness, cruelty and cowardice.
As one woman said, "You grow up fast.... A piece of me got old in Vietnam and a piece of me has been an old lady ever since Vietnam even though I was only 22 at the time."

You served your country when woman were confined to narrow military roles and few civilian opportunities. Some would argue that you did not experience the raw reality of war. But to anyone who listens to your stories that comment is simply not true. Many of you endured the horror of terrorist attacks at a time when this type of combat was new to Americans. All of you know the profound loneliness and fear that comes from being far away from home. And by providing civilians and soldiers a temporary refuge from the brutality of war- whether in health care or support services- you came to know war intimately. Soldiers are often too preoccupied with the business of fighting and dying to keep the awful inventory of battle. Only later does the scope of the slaughter really begin to stagger them. But you saw the deaths and maiming and emotional devastation in a
way no one else did.

The monument we are celebrating this afternoon illustrates your experiences and brings the anguish and ambiguity into sharp focus. I look at the standing figure and imagine hearing the sound of helicopters. After a few months overseas, how many of you could tell without looking up what type of helicopter was flying nearby and whether it was empty or full.

The second woman kneeling could be holding the helmet of someone she knew. If there was one shared reward for your service it was the camaraderie you had with those around you. As one woman said, "My true brothers and sisters were the people I was with in Vietnam." That empty helmet she holds could have belonged to her friend.
I look at the third figure cradling a man and think about the rapid evacuation system that brought in wounded who would have been lost in previous wars. A few of those wounded could not be saved—the expectant cases with a hopeless prognosis. All a nurse could do was squeeze the hands or whisper into the ears of these patients. But often you did more.

"When the end was near," said one nurse," I would just stand near him. I felt that his mother would feel better knowing that someone was with her son when he died."
That soldier represented every young man who went off to fight a war and never returned. The nurse was every woman who ever mourned the loss of a husband or son or brother or friend.
Whether military or civilian, you returned home to an under whelming greeting. One woman so poignantly illustrated this situation when she said, "I was dragging my luggage into the subway to get back to Long Island. I was wearing my uniform and I went to buy a token and the toll collector-asked, "Are you in the Army? Where were you?"

I got defensive and said, "I just got out and I just got back from Vietnam." Then he said, "You were in Vietnam? His voice was incredulous. I thought, "Oh-oh here it comes."

All he said was "Wow" as he left his token booth. "Let me shake your hand. I am so proud of you. My brother was there and he was wounded. Thank you for being there. You (he said with great emphasis) get to ride the subway free." And he opened the iron gate and let me go by. He was the only person who ever said thank you to me in fifteen years."

Never again will this woman or any of you here today be forgotten. You have this memorial to remind everyone what you've done. Long after you're gone this monument will speak for you.

Since you first gave voice to women and patriotism and service, our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and others have spoken out, raised funds and had memorials to their service built around the nation. As one woman who was a POW of the Japanese for three years said to me, "Once the gals from Vietnam began talking I realized that I too had something to say, and not all of it was nice but if I didn't tell my story and the lessons I'd learned, no one would know."

Every time you go home and see a memorial to women who served-- You began it all.
You made an important contribution to our country. You supported others and you saved lives. By accomplishing this objectives/so successfully, you invested in the future, everyone's future. There is not a greater gift mat a woman can give.

As the daughter of two World War II veterans, the wife of radioman who served with Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, Gulf Company in Vietnam in 1968 and the mother of a son who recently returned from serving his country as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, West Africa, I deeply thank you.