A reader sent to TWS Fact Check this Memorial Day weekend an internet meme claiming that of the more than 58,000 fallen service members commemorated on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, only eight are women. The engraved wall of names cuts into the topography of Washington, D.C.'s monumental core as a solemn reminder of those who gave their lives, and indeed lists only those eight women. Are we forgetting some?
Eleven thousand women served in Vietnam, according to the Veteran's Administration and the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation. Elsewhere that number dips to 10,000. Another estimate, this one from the Department of Defense, counts approximately 7,500 U.S. military women on active duty in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973—an estimated 85 percent of whom were nurses.
Judith Bellafaire, chief historian of the Women In Military Service for America Memorial, noted that military women were not posted in large numbers to combat zones in Southeast Asia until after the U.S. presence in Vietnam had escalated throughout the mid-1960s. (The 1966 Parade magazine story, "Should We Send Our Women to Vietnam?" offers a glimpse of the contemporary view of what a woman's role in war should be.)
As the war waged on, more military women were needed. From Bellafaire:
As male casualties mounted and demands to free servicemen for combat grew, the presence of nurses and other servicewomen increased in Southeast Asia. By the time American troops withdrew from Vietnam, more than 7,500 women had served. Almost 6,000 of these women were nurses and medical specialists. Seven Army nurses and one Air Force nurse died in Vietnam.
One reason eight women's names might seem like a counting error is that there were more civilian women serving in Vietnam than were ever officially counted.
Even the number 11,000 from the VA is dwarfed by other estimates of civilian and military servicewomen combined—independent estimates cited in Kathryn Marshall's volume of firsthand accounts In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam, 1966-1975 puts the total number somewhere between 33,000 and 55,000.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation lists 67 American women—eight military women and 59 civilians—who gave their lives. (Thirty-eight of those civilian women, and Air Force Captain Mary Therese Klinker, died in the failed first flight of Operation Babylift, an evacuation of South Vietnamese orphans that crash landed in a rice paddy on April 4, 1975.) Civilian women who served worked for a variety of government agencies and service groups. These estimated tens of thousands went over with the American Red Cross, Army Special Services, United Service Organizations, the Peace Corps, the American Friends Service Committee, different Catholic charities. There were even female prisoners of war: Dr. Eleanor Ardel Vietti is still listed as a POW. A surgeon on foreign service at a rural Leprosarium, Vietti was captured by the Viet Cong in 1962. There were two women journalists killed: Philippa Schuyler, in helicopter crash in the South China Sea, and Georgette "Dickey" Chapelle, by flying shrapnel from a mine.
The Women's Vietnam Memorial, a statue of three servicewomen and a wounded man—which was built in 1993—honors these military and civilian women.
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