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.

On Veterans Day, a miraculous encounter

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

I grew up surrounded by veterans. My father, my uncles, my friends’ fathers all had served in WWII. Both grandfathers served in WWI.

A question never asked

When it came to my own generation, the Vietnam generation, none of us served. I remember watching TV, sick with anxiety, as a man drew the lottery numbers for the military draft – numbers that would determine whether my brother would stay or go. I would not have considered serving myself, but as the oldest girl cousin, the question did not even occur to me.

But it occurred to Chris Banigan. As a lieutenant and then a captain in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, she served two tours of Vietnam, from 1969 to 1971. Chris was the first veteran to read an early draft of Her Own Vietnam, and we shared a lively email correspondence, since we lived on opposite coasts of the country.

When we finally met on Veterans Day in 2003, she told me a story I’ll never forget. I’ve shared it on this blog before, but it’s worth repeating.

A miraculous encounter

That morning, Chris encountered at the Vietnam Wall a soldier who had been her last patient in Vietnam. He had been visiting the Wall for years on Veterans Day, walking along its gleaming black expanse and asking everyone if they knew a nurse named Banigan. Finally, he asked her.

She told me, “I remember when I took him to x-ray. He was terrified that his eye had been blown out, and he could not be reassured until he saw the reflection of his left eye in the x-ray machine. Odd, the things you remember.”

All gone now

On this Veterans Day, I remember my father and grandfathers, all of them gone now. And I remember Chris Banigan. She died suddenly six months after her encounter at the Wall, only in her fifties. I am sure a part of her died in Vietnam.