There is a monument in Washington, D.C., called the Vietnam Women’s Memorial that is dedicated to the women who served in Vietnam alongside the military, including hundreds of American Red Cross workers who put their lives on hold to stand with their country in a difficult war.
In September 1965, I was in the first group of five young Red Cross women to arrive in Vietnam, sent there to implement the semi-recreational program that had been so successful in Korea. We opened the first of several permanent and mobile Red Cross recreation centers in Da Nang.
We traveled all over the country in helicopters, Jeeps and trucks to visit the troops, sometimes as they were coming off patrol, soot-faced and exhausted. We were shot at on occasion, several were killed. We were all changed by it, some of us were defined by it. We learned to love these young soldiers, marines, and airmen, and we learned to hate war and what the war did to them.
We listened to their stories of friends lost and loves lost. We reminded them there was a world back home waiting for them. But the world waiting for them wasn’t always in a caring mood. Their world often turned bitter with jungle-searing heat, attacking snakes, foot-rot and an enemy that sometimes was a 6-year-old girl with a hand grenade.
We were there, too, each for 13 months, often in tents, in the monsoon, in the suffocating red mud dust. Sometimes, we met movie stars, politicians and the unknown foreign correspondents who would become famous.
But it was always the foot soldier who held our hearts. It was the foot soldier, young, still idealistic in those early war years, who bore the brunt, suffered the greatest and often came home the most broken.
It is the Vietnam foot solder in whatever American uniform he wore that I remember and honor this Memorial Day.
Susan Bauernfeind Russell,