The Forgotten Veterans

Courtesy of The NAM Facebook page. Can anyone identify her?

On this Veterans’ Day, let’s spare a thought for the forgotten veterans: the women who served in Vietnam—overlooked by the military while they served in-country; scorned by their neighbors; neglected by their government when they returned.

“Little is known about the long-term health and mental health status of women Vietnam Era Veterans,” the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs wrote. This was in 2011, nearly 40 years after the war. “For many of these women, the effects of this war are still present in their daily lives.”

What do we know about the women who served in Vietnam?

About 90% of them were nurses.

Photo of Army nurse in Vietnam

Capt. Ryan, 27th Surgical Hospital, Chu Lai. (Photo: Pinterest)

The names of eight of them are on the Vietnam Wall.

Woman in nurse's uniform

Lt. Sharon Lane, 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, killed by rocket fire at age 26. (Photo: virtualwall.org)

The most famous woman who served in Vietnam was fictional: Colleen McMurphy, the character Dana Delany played in the TV series “China Beach.”

Actor Dana Delany dressed as her character in "China Beach," an Army nurse.

Dana Delany in “China Beach.” (Photo: imdb.com)

But she was based on the stories and memories of a real person: Lynda Van Devanter, who wrote Home Before Morning, the first and perhaps most scorching memoir by a military nurse of her time in Vietnam.

Lynda Van Devanter

The most shocking thing

I spent over a decade researching the women who had served in Vietnam, interviewing them, listening to their stories. The most shocking thing I learned is that a large number of them had never told anyone about their experiences. Not a parent, not a best friend, not a spouse.

“I don’t speak about Vietnam, and most people in my world don’t even realize I’m a veteran,” a nurse named Chris Banigan, who had served two tours, told me. “I prefer it that way.”

Military nurse in a truck in Vietnam

Capt. Chris Banigan (Photo: Chris Banigan)

Based on these years of immersion, I wrote a novel, Her Own Vietnam. It is the story of two Army nurses who served in Vietnam, one white and one African American, who reconnect 30 years later to consider what it truly means to survive a war.

Cover photo of the novel Her Own Vietnam: A pair of dog tags with the title printed on them.

In the four years since the novel was published, and indeed during most of the years preceding it, the U.S. has been in a state of perpetual war.  The number of active-duty military members in the U.S. has remained at around 1.3 million, with another 800,000 or so in the reserves. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the number of women in the military has hovered at around 200,000  to 250,000 per year.  The share of women among the U.S. veteran population is projected to increase from 9.4% in 2015 to 16.3% in 2043.

Long ago the United States shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. We sell products, but for the most part we no longer make them. The one thing we produce with regularity is veterans.

Today is for them. All of them, even the ones we usually forget.

History in the Margins


My favorite history blog is History in the Margins, by Pamela Toler. She writes about historical events that I never knew – or that I thought I knew – and makes me see them through her fresh, witty perspective. (Have you watched the PBS series “Mercy Street”? Pamela wrote the book.)

I’ve been reading her blog for years, so I was thrilled when she invited me to write a guest post about the women who served in the Vietnam war.  Enjoy! And while you’re at it, take a stroll through History in the Margins.

Bookish tidbits

Photo: allposters.com

A few quick items:

So cool

So cool that my interview with the writer Martha Toll about Her Own Vietnam was one of the top 5 posts last month in the Washington Independent Review of Books. Here’s how they describe it:

“Martha Anne Toll conducted a thoughtful Q&A with Kanter, one that touched on everything from women warriors’ emotional scars to the rise of feminist presses.”

Here’s the interview, in case you missed it.

Damn, they’re good

File this under “These writers are getting a lot of acclaim and don’t need any help from me, but damn, these books are good.”

The Listening Cure

Ericka Taylor

I’m delighted to welcome guest blogger Ericka Taylor, reflecting on audiobook snobbery and other revelations discovered while listening to Her Own Vietnam.  

The Listening Cure

By Ericka Taylor

The first time I read Her Own Vietnam, I had nothing but praise for the book. Page by page, I’d grown appreciative of the expertly-drawn characters whose strengths and failings made them as real as anyone I passed on the street. The story was compelling, and nicely balanced scenes from the present day with ones that took place during the Vietnam war. The writing was excellent. Plus, the novel exposed me to the trauma experienced by women veterans of Vietnam and the lack of support available to them when they returned home. Her Own Vietnam had more than fulfilled its role for me as a reader. What more could I ask?

Well, it turns out that this book is the gift that keeps on giving. Listening to the recently-released Audible version of Her Own Vietnam cured me of an audiobook snobbery I was only partly aware that I had.  Continue reading

“Decent Women Wouldn’t Be Here” – Review of Her Own Vietnam

Andria Williams

I’m excited to share this insightful and beautifully written review of my novel – and the audiobook – by Andria Williams. She’s the editor of the Military Spouse Book Review, and author of the novel The Longest Night, which was one of my favorites of 2016.

My favorite line from her review, other than her praise of narrator Robin Miles, which I totally agree with, is this: “At the dawn of the Iraq war, which rumbles uneasily beneath the novel…”

Here’s the review.