Any mention of Vietnam to my Uncle Chuck causes him to bow his head in shame. He was a nurse, sure, but he felt the ramifications of this horrible war just as anyone else did. When I stumbled upon Elizabeth A. Allen’s “My War” regarding her time as a nurse in Vietnam, I had to choose it because I hadn’t read literature of women in Vietnam. Her experience was harrowing not only because of what she witnessed, but because of what others witnessed in her–a black, strong, well-educated woman during the peak of the civil rights movement.
Driven yet cautious, respected yet often belittled, empowered yet overwhelmed, Elizabeth Allen entered the war. Her deployment was only set to 12 months, as in her own words, “women were allowed only one year in a war zone.” With this in mind, she worked with urgency, trying to keep up with the piles of bodies that arrived to the 71st evac. By all accounts, she should have been an inspiration-smart, ruthless, and strong- to others, but instead, she arrived home with to find that almost no one appreciated her efforts.
I think those last few lines-the one’s about her return home- are perhaps the most shocking of the whole work. That despite the hours a young woman poured into saving lives, no one was willing to treat her as the “woman warrior” that she was. Vietnam was not the soldier’s war. It was the president’s war, and congress’s war, so to place blame on the fighters, the one’s who enlisted in one of the bloodiest wars in American History, all because their presidents urged them to do so, is blatantly wrong and ignorant of reality. Pleading, Elizabeth Allen tried to stay longer in Vietnam to continue in her efforts to help the falling soldiers. Certainly, this was an act of heroism. Still, her story goes ignored, bottled up and sent off to sea, and put on this website, for a few hundred, maybe thousand people to read.
We’re familiar with some of Vietnam, the gas, the swamps, the Viet Cong. And yet, we are unfamiliar, as a whole, with the reality of their return home. That America, a place of promised freedom and supposed equality, could treat someone worse than the jungles of Vietnam is mind boggling. I guess this really shows why civil rights, a domestic enterprise, should be our primary concern. Ms. Allen was right in wanting to be a Civil engineer. Because while we were fighting a war in Vietnam, we were fighting an even bigger ideological war back home- one where the “enemy” didn’t speak another language, but rather, had a darker complexion. One where racism was so deeply entrenched in our upbringings that we struggled to empathize with our people’s struggle for freedom, something so basic to our identity, yet so easily cast aside.