THE VIETNAM WOMEN VETERANS CONFERENCE

Special Report by Pat Jernigan, COL, USA-Retired

The first ever reunion of women Vietnam veterans was held in Olympia, WA from November 10th to 13th, 1999. Olympia and Washington State really rolled out the red carpet. It was a terrific experience! The only thing that couldn't be controlled was the weather; it rained almost all the time!

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Claire Starnes addressing conferees.

The conference was the idea of Claire Starnes and Precilla Wilkewitz, U.S. Army, Vietnam (USARV) Women's Army Corps (WAC) Detachment veterans and several others who attended the 1997 dedication of the Women in the Military Service to America Memorial (WIMSA) in Washington, D.C. This group had such a great time that they wanted to get other women Vietnam veterans together. The work of organizing and planning any conference is a daunting one. To help provide structure for the group, Vietnam Women Veterans, Inc. (VWV), a non-profit group, was founded in 1998. One of the most daunting challenges faced by the new organization was that of identifying and locating the estimated 1,000 or so military women who served in Vietnam. This was especially difficult because no one, including the Defense Department, knows just who served in Vietnam. With the hard work of a lot of women veterans and their friends over, 700 women were "found" before the reunion; about 125 attended.

Opening ceremonies on Nov 10th provided one of many highlights. Greetings and welcoming remarks, some by letter, were made by about 30 people, including Secretary of Defense Cohen; BGEN Vaught, President of WIMSA Foundation; Congressional, Washington State, and local political leaders; General Hill, the I Corps Commander at Ft Lewis; representatives of many veterans organizations, and, a representative of the Olympia area Vietnamese community. It was quite a marathon! The opening speaker was BG Sherian Cadoria, USA-Retired, who made a very moving speech. She quoted Thomas Wolfe saying "you cannot go home again." She said home is in the heart, so we have it with us always. She continued that regardless of our specialty we were in Vietnam because we were needed. Women have historically served in peace and war. She admonished us to remember that freedom is not free: many of our fellow veterans have sacrificed with their lives. She finished her presentation with a stunning rendition of "God Bless America" - we joined in, but she led the way.

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BG Sherian Cadoria, USA Ret

November 11th, Veterans Day, included many activities. The first was a moving morning Veteranís Day ceremony held in the Washington State Rotunda. Music was provided by the excellent American Legion Post 3 Band. Woman veteran and band member Elaine Claflin did a wonderful job of playing "Taps" at this and others events during the week. That evening the VWV's own candlelight memorial service was held in the Rotunda. It was an emotional and fitting tribute honoring the 74 military women veterans who have died since leaving Vietnam. Memorial candles were lighted, the name of each woman was read by a representative from her service, a wreath was placed before the candles, and a rose was brought forward for each woman.

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Pat Jernigan at wreath presentation.

Taps was sounded by Ms. Claflin. There wasn't a dry eye anywhere that night. My hat is off to 1SG Marion Crawford, USA-Retired, the first sergeant of the WAC Detachment in Vietnam, who had the difficult task of reading the largest group of names, those of the Army women, and who did this difficult task so ably.

Friday brought a series of seminars and an excellent health fair. Ms. Joan Furey, Director of the Veteran's Administration (VA) Center for Women Veterans, an Army nurse in Vietnam, led the discussions and spent the entire day making presentations on topics including VA benefits and registration, Agent Orange, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental health, and sexual trauma. Ms. Furey noted that until 1988 women veterans were excluded from VA research; the women veterans of World War I and World War II were never included in VA studies. Now women must be included unless there is a specific reason not to.

An informal dinner on Friday featured a bountiful BBQ buffet followed by more speeches, presentations, and a slide show of Vietnam pictures loaned by many of the VWV members. Musical entertainment was provided by Vietnam veteran and singer Sarge Lintecum. An excellent informal talk about service in Vietnam was made by 1SG Crawford. Several of the former WAC Detachment commanders also spoke.

The final formal event of the conference was a homecoming banquet on Saturday. An honor guard was provided by the local Civil Air Patrol and Naval Sea Cadet program members. Remarks were made by CW4 Lucki Allen, USA-Retired; BG E. P. Foote, USA-Retired, made the keynote address. She noted that it wasn't easy for a woman to get to Vietnam. Women generally had to work around the WAC authorities simply to get orders to Vietnam. She got there by going to the Adjutant General Branch career course and volunteering from that course. General Foote concluded that women should be able to do whatever their talent and ability allow.

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Brig Gen E.P. Foote, USA Ret

All of us who attended took terrific memories with us. The best part was the chance to meet old friends and make new ones. We enjoyed the chance to tell our war stories, to hear the stories of others, and to remember an important part of our past. For many of us this was the first time we'd had the chance to talk with our fellow women veterans since leaving Vietnam.

The next VWV reunion is planned for September 2001 in San Antonio, TX. For more information, visit the VWV web site:

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If you know a woman Vietnam veteran who isn't registered with the VWV encourage her to contact the group.

Permission to use Conference photos graciously granted by Claire Starnes. For many more pictures be sure and visit the conference section of the VWV website.






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