Although the Tet Offensive ultimately failed to push the US Armed Forces out of Vietnam, it shocked the American public, which had, until then, believed that the United States would win the war. In April 1969, as the war was becoming increasingly unpopular at home, Army nurse LT Diane M. Lindsay volunteered for assignment to Vietnam. She was on duty at the 95th Evacuation Hospital when a confused US soldier pulled the pin from a live grenade and threw it. LT Lindsay and a male officer restrained the soldier and convinced him to relinquish a second grenade, thereby avoiding additional casualties. Her bravery earned her the Soldier’s Medal for heroism. She was the first black nurse to receive the award, and was eventually promoted to captain.45
In addition to the stress of living and working in a war theater, African-American military nurses in Vietnam frequently faced additional stresses related to racial and sexual harassment. Army MAJ Cora L. Burton served at the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai from September 1969 to September 1970. A northern city, Chu Lai experienced almost daily rocket attacks during this period. MAJ Burton served as a hospital supervisor, monitoring patient triage and stepping in during emergencies. Initially, her chief nurse had resisted giving her a supervisory position. She believed it was because she was black, and complained to the hospital commander. The issue was resolved in favor of MAJ Burton, however, this meant that she “owed the commander a favor.” Wrote Burton, “The Colonel found ways to let me know what he wanted from me in return for my support–my body. I learned to duck with such grace and poise, I soon became as fleet of foot as any prima ballerina. I didn’t want to offend or anger him because I had been warned of his vindictiveness. Instead, I called on all the psychology I had learned as well as my intuitiveness to stay out of his clutches.”
The commander repeatedly asked MAJ Burton to visit him in his trailer and even gave her a sexually explicit book to read, saying “Why don’t you read this and think about it, and we’ll discuss it later.” Burton dodged his approaches. She said, “The only thing I wanted to do was finish my tour and get the hell out of there unscathed physically and mentally and without a vindictive blow from the commanding officer via my efficiency [report]. In those days this type of annoyance was called hitting on you. Now its called sexual harassment.”46
In January 1970, MAJ Burton was given the additional responsibility of heading up the unit’s Human Relation’s Council, established by the command as an informal way to resolve racial tensions. She traced many of these problems to stress and overwork, and the fear some people felt in a combat environment. The council mediated race-based confrontations and attempted to educate soldiers about ethnic terms and traditions. In one notable situation, MAJ Burton was asked to talk to a panicked black private holding two white MPs at gunpoint. MAJ Burton convinced the soldier to surrender. She received the Bronze Star for her performance in Vietnam. She spent her entire nursing career in the Army Nurse Corps, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.47
Nurses Rodgers, Allen and Burton all spoke of feeling lonely in Vietnam. Because of the fairly small number of African-American Army nurses, most were assigned to hospitals where they were the only black nurse. Their social lives were further limited by the scarcity of African-American male officers during those years. According to authors Charles Moskos and James Sibley Butler, opportunities for black men to serve as commissioned officers in the Army were “severely constrained” during the 1950s and 1960s.48 Because nurses were commissioned officers and were strongly discouraged from fraternizing with enlisted personnel, the social lives of African-American nurses were also “severely constrained” during their time in Vietnam.
COL Clotilde Bowen faced an even more limited field of peers during her year in Vietnam. Traditionally, physicians have held substantial authority, and for years the military refused to commission women doctors. They served on a temporary basis during WWII, but were not accepted as permanent members of the regular Medical Corps of the Army, Navy and Air Force until the middle of the Korean War in 1952. Very few women doctors joined the military during the 1950s and 1960s, however. During this era, women comprised only 4 percent of physicians in the United States, and of these, only a small number were black. The first black woman physician to hold a military commission was COL Bowen, who joined the Army in 1955. By 1970, then COL Bowen, still the only black woman physician in the Army, received orders “to my surprise and dismay to go to Vietnam.”49
“We landed in Bien Hoa after midnight July 6, 1970 in a hail of gunfire, rockets, mortar rounds and unbearable heat,” wrote COL Bowen. Her job required frequent travel in country, and she “always packed my .45-calibre sidearm. I submitted reports about the morale and mental health of troops and civilians in Vietnam, briefed congressmen, visiting foreign dignitaries and ranking officers, and news media wanting to know what was really happening as we were losing the war.” COL Bowen recalled her tour as being very lonely. “My position and rank precluded me from socializing with most officers or NCOs.”50
As the Army’s chief psychiatrist in Vietnam, COL Bowen oversaw the work of 17 other physician psychiatrists, as well as nurse psychiatrists and social workers. She was also responsible for planning and coordinating the Army’s drug and race relations programs in Vietnam. COL Bowen told a newspaper reporter that “Army psychiatry is mostly preventative–treating problems before they start. The main problem in Vietnam and in the service in general is the disaffected state of American youth today. They lack the motivation to be in the service, they certainly lack the motivation to be in Vietnam and I think they lack the motivation to do things in civilian life. This disaffection is the main reason for the use of drugs, for instance.”51
COL Bowen believed that the majority of the discrimination she encountered both inside and outside the Army Medical Corps involved not her race, but her gender. “If America became all white overnight, the most persistent form of discrimination–sexism–would still be there,” she told a reporter.52 “Of course, when you are a colonel, discrimination is much less of a problem in the military. Even black, female colonels rate salutes in ‘this man’s’ Army.” Although the Army relegated most enlisted women to positions as secretaries and clerks and gave few women the opportunity to learn jobs that required mechanical or technical skills, COL Bowen believed that the Army had gone further than many sectors of society in giving women equal pay for equal work. “The Army promotes you on the basis of quality and years of service,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, you get the same pay, the same privileges. The system is trying to be fair.” Still, she said, “Changing laws and restructuring the system doesn’t do much to remove the main obstacle–the male ego and the way women relate to it.”53
In 1977, COL Bowen was assigned to command the Hawley Army Medical Center at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, IN, making her the first woman to command a US military hospital. She summarized her philosophy to a news reporter, “I know that there have been times when I have been victimized by discrimination–both racial and sexual. But I have refused to allow the fact that people discriminate against me to defeat me or sour my judgment. … Then too, I’ve often wondered if, when it came to assigning military physicians to new jobs, it wasn’t easier for my superiors to pick me than try to deal with a pool of white men–all essentially … the same. I imagine I sort of stood out, gave them something definite to point to that made a ‘reason’ for them to pick me.”54
Ultimately, opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft led to the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973. A few years earlier Congress had removed the artificial limits on the number of women who could be in each service, and as the armed forces began accepting the best qualified of all the volunteers, characteristics such as race and gender lost significance in comparison to such differentials as intelligence, physical fitness and commitment. The military rediscovered the link between equal opportunity and military efficiency first set forth by the Fahy Committee in its plan to desegregate the US Armed Forces in 1950. Today, the All-Volunteer Force is comprised of a higher proportion of women and minorities than at any other time in history and because of this the nation has gained a professional, highly trained armed force that is second to none.
By Dr. Judith Bellafaire, Chief Historian, Women’s Memorial (July 2006)
If you are a servicewoman or woman veteran or know one who is serving or who has served in the US Armed Forces, please contact the Foundation at email@example.com, so that we can continue to enrich the history of women’s service and sacrifice in defense of our nation.
46Cora Burton, Lt. Colonel, US Army Nurse Corps, If I Don’t laugh, I’ll Cry Forever, (Winfield, Kansas.: Central Plains Book Manufacturing, 2005), 63, 67-68.
48Moskos and Butler, 31-32.
49Clotilde Bowen, “A Different War, Another Time,” Denver Post, 21 November 2001.
51Parks, sec. B.
52Parks, sec. B.
53Parks, sec. B.
54Cheryl Fitzgerald, “The Colonel is Ready for Action,” The Washington Post, 12 September 1977.