Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Book honors the 846 women – non-nurses – who served in Vietnam

VIDEO: Reflections from a female Vietnam vet

Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Betty Ann Patterson Pope, 86, believes women have made the military better.
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Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Betty Ann Patterson Pope, 86, believes women have made the military better.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial added a monument in 1993 to honor the women who served, it reflected the service of 6,250 nurses who went to war — and ignored those who filled other positions.

Retired Army Master Sgt. Donna Lowery of Olympia aims to change that.

In the spirit of Veterans Day, Lowery has written a book, “Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories.” It comes from the lives of nearly half of the 846 women, none of them nurses, who served during the Vietnam War.

“At the Vietnam Memorial, there’s a statue with three nurses,” Lowery said. “That’s wonderful if you’re a nurse, but there were nearly 1,000 of us who went to Vietnam and weren’t nurses.

“We don’t want women who honorably served their country to be forgotten. The book is their stories.”

We found 846 women nonnurses who served in Vietnam. Two hundred and fifty of those have died since serving.

Donna Lowery

Beginning in 1964, women were sent to Vietnam: intelligence analysts, stenographers, translators, supply specialists, physical therapists, lab techs …

Two of those women, Barbara Reid and Betty Ann Patterson Pope, live in Pierce County and were happy to discuss their service, both for the book and for a newspaper interview.

“I went into the Army as a second lieutenant physical therapist in 1966,” said Reid, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1985. “I loved the Army and the PT program. All our instructors were women, so we had these incredible role models.”

A Texas native now living in Puyallup, Reid recalls her 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam.

“Exciting, challenging, exhausting — we were in-country, in combat, doing our best working 12 to 14 hours a day, every day,” Reid said. “It could be the saddest duty. You’d see horrific injuries, then be amazed by these young, strong soldiers and how fast their bodies could heal.

“There was no option for healing the spirit, which is tragic.”

Now 72, Reid did her duty against a backdrop of a war she hated.

“I didn’t approve of war and still don’t, but I did my best to do my duty,” Reid said. “We have got to get to some place where war is not the solution.”

Like Reid, Betty Ann Patterson Pope, who lives in University Place, retired as a lieutenant colonel. She joined the Army, then moved to the Air Force during a 22-year military career.

She was an intelligence analyst who volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1967.

“We weren’t spies, we were analysts,” said Pope, 86. “We looked at what came across our desks and made decisions on our little areas.

“In the morning I would write a paper that would justify more troops, and in the afternoon a paper justifying less troops. I was working for people who wanted both points of view.”

Imagine being a girl and needing to go to the bathroom in a war zone. There was little room for modesty.

Rhymell Stoabs Kerr, from “Women Vietnam Veterans”

Was her duty dangerous?

“Put it this way: The public buses we’d ride had screens in the windows,” Pope said. “That was to stop grenades from being thrown in.

“We were involved in Vietnam, and it wasn’t our place to be involved. It was a civil war. Vietnam taught me war was not the answer.”

After leaving the service in 1974, Pope wrote 10 books, many of them romance novels under the pen names of Elizabeth Carlson and Vickie York. She no longer writes.

“Since I got married, I’m living my romance,” she said.

Lowery has taken over the writing now, coaxing stories from many of the 400 women veterans she was able to reach. For her, it was a labor of love and duty.

“I spent 2  1/2 years and $29,000 on the book,” she said. “Most women enjoyed their time there, but certainly not all. We told the women to write what they wanted people to know. One woman was gang-raped, and she wrote about that — named the unit.”

As I look back, I cannot believe we were sent over in Class B uniforms, wore heels and nylons and weren’t issued weapons.

Donna Lowery

Lowery was only 21 when she arrived in Vietnam in 1967 with the rank of sergeant. At one of the first camps where she worked, she and the few other women were given written defensive plans to consult in case of enemy attack.

“We were all supposed to hide in a certain ditch, and if the enemy breached the perimeter, we were to try to kill the enemy,” Lowery said, laughing. “Except we weren’t issued weapons.

“Recently, (a friend) and I were laughing about that. I told her I had no idea what we were supposed to use to fight the Viet Cong. She said, ‘Don’t you remember? Hairspray!’”

It never came to that.

The women who tell their stories in Lowery’s book are fading into history. Some fight the mistaken belief there were no women in Vietnam except nurses.

“Their history should not be lost. Two hundred and fifty of them have already died,” said Lowery, 68. “They served. And a lot of them were the victims of Agent Orange, which showed up later in the form of birth disabilities.

“These women were the best this country had to offer, and most of them volunteered to go.”

Get the book, talk to the author

“Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. If you’d like to have author Donna Lowery speak to your group, you can reach her at women.vietnam.veterans@gmail.com.

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