Conversations with Women Veterans

Julie King is a new writer. She attended this summers writers workshop and produced the thought provoking piece.

Conversations with Women Veterans

Julie King

Two weeks ago, after the veterans’ writing class that I have been a part of for the past many Mondays, I had a conversation with another female veteran that led me to thinking about female veterans and their stories. I do not like the phrase “female veterans,” but I lack a better term.

I missed the class after this because I went camping in the mountains. Both being in the mountains and camping are always a change of attitude and state-of-mind for me. Yet, even as the breeze enticed daydreaming and the sounds of the natural world around me enchanted me, this conversation with this woman veteran about women veterans lingered.

The conversation began with me commenting on how I wasn’t sure I should be in this veterans’ writing project and how I felt like my writings were not really “veteran” related, and that my four years in the Army were pretty calm and every-day-ish and a long time ago. She said something like (I’m not good at specific quotes) “I have found that women veterans don’t really talk about being veterans,” or at least that is the message I heard.

I didn’t elaborate in that brief conversation, but my time in the army was calm and everyday-ish, except for maybe the time there was a bomb scare in the old, wooden World War II hospital or the time volunteers were needed to go to Ft. Huachuca to care for Viet Namese refugees.

Truth: even though I was trained as a Viet Nam combat medic, after all the training was said and done, Viet Nam was over. I found myself stationed at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There I worked on the women’s surgical ward until I was offered further schooling at Ft. Sam Houston to become an AMOSIST (acronym unknown), which in the 1970s was the Army’s fast-paced version of a Physician’s Assistant school. After returning from Ft. Sam to Colorado and my family, I worked as a P.A. in the Outpatient Clinic. Everyday-ish.

I did not go to Viet Nam. I did not live under the constant and immediate threat and fear of death everywhere or have to triage the dying for the sake of those who could live. I did not have to kill anyone. Nonetheless, every morning for four years I donned the uniform of a soldier and I cared for other soldiers, and in the Outpatient Clinic, their dependents as well.

Women veterans don’t really talk about being veterans.” Who have I shared my military experiences with? And who has shared theirs with me? As I ponder these questions, I realize that mine and everyone’s military experiences, no matter what gender, are worth writing about. But, women’s stories interest me most.

I entered the Army in April of 1974, the last year women in the army were referred to as WACS and the last year women were not required to qualify on weapons; then the weapon was the M-16. All personnel were required to attend “Race Relations” classes. Blazing Saddles hit the post movie theatre and my head nurse let me off the surgical ward to see it because we had only a few patients at the time.

Ft. Carson is where I first met one of my oldest friends, then a barrack’s mate. She still works at Ft. Carson with soldiers, doing the same thing she did almost forty years ago. She is a nurse. She is a veteran.

While I camped and let the mountain air clear my head, I ruminated over this idea of all of the women who have served in the military and all of their untold stories. Then I began to think of all of the women veterans I know, including my college/camping friend’s mother, Mary, who served as an M.P. during World War II. My camping friend, Michel, and I were undergrads together at UNR in the early eighties, so I have know her and her mother and they me for over thirty years, and Mary never talked about her time in the military. Michel told me about Mary’s military background years ago when I mentioned to her that I am a veteran, but Mary never did. Interestingly, when Mary died last March, she had a military burial, not because she wanted one, but because Michel wanted her to have one, thought she should have one, and, of course, because Michel had the proper paperwork, the VA agreed. I could not attend the funeral, but Michel said it was moving, and I knew exactly what she meant because I have been to more than one military funeral. All military funerals are moving —taps, the twenty-one gun salute, the folding of the flag! Ceremonies for saying goodbye in the military way. Very moving.

I have some women friends here in Fallon who are veterans also. They are younger than me, and one served in Iraq (but I need to confirm this detail and others before I call them facts) and swam for the Navy, diving, looking for things in the waters. Her husband was a Navy sniper. She has not shared her military experiences with me either, except to acknowledge, only after I mentioned I am a vet, that she is a veteran also. Because I know what she did in the Navy only from others telling me, I need to confirm what I say beyond the fact that she and I are both vets and have never discussed our military experiences.

Another Fallon friend who is a vet also fessed -up to being a vet after I mentioned that I am. I believe she served in the Navy, but, again, we have never shared military experiences.

And, now that I begin to think about all of the women veterans I know, and there are many, some who were students, I realize that we never spoke to each other of or about the experiences of being an active duty woman soldier. It was the past. We served, and we all process those experiences in our own ways.

The closest I came to speaking of active duty life with another woman soldier was a few years ago. She is an active duty Navy officer, a Quaker chaplain who was then the interim chaplain here at NAS (Naval Air Station) Fallon. Prior to Fallon, she served in Iraq, leaving her husband and two sons home along with the world as she knew it. A Quaker in a war must be a hard thing to be.   While there, she kept a journal and photographed her experiences. They later became a book, a well-written and insightful tome titled Heaven in the Midst of Hell.

My mind goes into overload as I try to recall all of the women I know who have been on or are active duty.

I even have a cousin who is an officer in one of the military branches. I don’t know her married name but do know that she is a veterinarian.

Then there is Lea, a student and veteran who worked hard to make an exhibit for Veterans Day at the college a yearly reality.

Then there are all of the women I knew when I ”was in” who I never kept in touch with nor who kept in touch with me after leaving the military.

Finally, although I know there are many other women veterans whom I know who I cannot think of at the moment and my pages grow too long in the tooth, I have another friend who is retired from the Navy. She was stationed here in Fallon and took an English 101 class from me when I first arrived here in 1989, and we became friends. After she left Fallon, she sent me postcards and letters from everywhere she was stationed up until she retired with twenty years in and Muscular Sclerosis (MS). I kid her about her “body of work,” the letters she wrote, which are full of such description of military life that they could be turned into a novel or a play. I tell her I will be her editor. Why? Because she and I share what all veterans share, an understanding of an age-old system that can make you or break you, that molds and shapes you, that influences all you do and all you become.

But beyond this understanding, the question still remains—why do women who served in the military not talk about their “service?”

Julie King served in the Army from 1974-1978. She served as a corpsman and as an Amosist in Ft. Carson, Colorado.  She is a Vietnam Era veteran who joined the Veterans Writing Project this year and plans to continue writing with her fellow vets for years to come. Her writings explore hers and other women’s military experiences and how those experiences shaped them.

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