At the moment, the Vietnam War is on America’s collective minds once more, thanks to Ken Burns’ amazing documentary. Burns dealt briefly on the story of the women who served–just enough to make those of us who are interested in the roles of women in war want to know more. Luckily, I knew the right person to ask: Lynn Kanter, the author of Her Own Vietnam–an excellent novel about an American nurse who served in Vietnam. I asked her to share her experience researching and writing about nurses here on the Margins. Several things Lynn shares left me gobsmacked–and not in a good way.
Take it away, Lynn!
As a long-time reader and admirer of History in the Margins, I was delighted when Pamela invited me to write a guest post. Here is my contribution to Pamela’s current obsession about women in war.
On the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC, you will find 8 women’s names carved into the glossy black granite. All were nurses. The list of American women who died in Vietnam swells to 67 if you include the civilian women who worked there or served as volunteers. Of these unnoted dead, two were journalists; four were taken prisoner and either killed or remain missing in action; and two were murdered by U.S. servicemen.*
This fall, Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary series about the Vietnam war threw a brief spotlight on some of the approximately 10,000 women who served.** For most of the previous decades, they have lingered in the margins of history.
I spent more than 10 years exploring those shadowy corners, conducting research for my novel about the lifelong grip of the Vietnam war on a middle-aged nurse who had served there in her youth. I pored through books,*** articles, and websites. Best of all, I stumbled upon a listserv for women who had served in Vietnam. Most were nurses, as were almost 90 percent of all the military women there. Although they knew I was a civilian researching a novel, and that I had been an anti-war protester, these veterans welcomed me to their online community, revealed some of their memories, and answered my many questions.
The woman who shared the most with me was a nurse who had served two tours in Vietnam, from 1969 to 1971, based in Quang Tri and then Chu Lai. Her name was Chris Banigan. We lived on opposite sides of the country, so after a year of emails I was thrilled to meet her in person at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial**** on Veterans Day of 2003, where she told me a remarkable story.
She had just run into a soldier who had been her final patient in Vietnam. It was no accident: year after year he had been visiting the Vietnam Wall on Veterans Day, asking everyone he met if they knew a nurse named Banigan. Finally, he asked her.
I had to imagine the excitement, the conversation, maybe the emotional hug between a nurse and her patient. That’s not the kind of thing that Chris, reticent and matter-of-fact, would have shared with me. But she did tell me in a later email, “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.”
For years, Chris had been collecting and compiling an archive of information about the women who served in Vietnam. This, she believed, was historical data that would be invaluable to future scholars and historians. In her dogged way, Chris Banigan was preparing for that future. She never lived to see it.
In March 2004, just four months after the miraculous meeting with her last Vietnam patient, Chris died suddenly. She was 58 years old. I have not been able to discover what happened to the historical archive she built so painstakingly.
Vietnam had haunted her all her life and turned her staunchly anti-war, but Chris had some advice for me and other civilians who sought to write about military nurses. “They didn’t pick their war,” she told me. “They only served.”
*Some of their stories: http://www.virtualwall.org/women.htm
**No one really knows how many U.S. women served in Vietnam. The military did not keep track. [This is Pam butting in: !!!!!?????]
***A few good books: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/men-werent-the-only-heroes-of-the-vietnam-war/2017/09/15/59340c16-98d3-11e7-87fc-c3f7ee4035c9_story.html?utm_term=.ff6c223e4db0#comments
****The Women’s Vietnam Memorial is only yards away from the Wall, but not as well known. It was erected in 1993 after a 10-year struggle, led by former Vietnam nurse Diane Carlson Evans, against misogyny and opposition, including a suggestion by the Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts that a commemoration of military scout dogs would be the next logical step (http://www.vietnamwomensmemorial.org/pdf/dcevans.pdf).
Lynn Kanter is the author of the novel Her Own Vietnam, which was published in 2014 and released as an audiobook in 2017. She is a lifelong activist and has the t-shirts to prove it. Lynn works as a freelance writer for national progressive organizations, and blogs at www.lynnkanter.com. You can buy Her Own Vietnam at http://www.shademountainpress.com/lynnkanter.php. The audiobook is available at https://www.audible.com/pd/Fiction/Her-Own-Vietnam-Audiobook/B074JH42LJ