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January/February 2019

Sara McVicker

Many women veterans tell a similar story. The moment arises when a male colleague or acquaintance implies that the woman they’re speaking with could not possibly be a veteran. Or, if he knows she is, that she never could have been anywhere near harm’s way.

A Few Good Women“It’s old school discrimination—sexism driven by false and outdated assumptions,” Sara McVicker said. “It minimizes women veterans, but we run into it all the time.”

McVicker, who served in Vietnam as an Army nurse before a 27-year career in the VA health care system and even longer as a VVA Board member, has her own version of this story. She had stopped for gas, and happened to have a Vietnam veteran bumper sticker on her car. A man at the next pump called across to her, “Your husband’s a vet? Where’d he serve?”

McVicker calmly responded that it was her car, and that she was the Vietnam veteran. “After that,” she said, “I peeled off that sticker and never replaced it. I was reminded that, as a woman veteran, I was invisible. And I just didn’t want to hear that again.”

“Invisible” is a word that comes up often in regard to women veterans. McVicker arguably brought the term into play for the first time with her 1985 article, “Invisible Veterans: The Women Who Served in Vietnam.” At that time, McVicker wrote, references to women serving in the Vietnam War had started to appear, “but only as an acknowledgement of their existence.”

While awareness of the contributions of women veterans has improved over the last few decades, that progress is achingly incremental. Just last year a former Navy officer named Andrea Goldstein published an incisive commentary called “Women are the Most Visible Service Members, and the Most Invisible Veterans,” in which she noted that younger women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars feel the same sort of institutional invisibility that McVicker documented thirty years earlier for women veterans of Vietnam.

©Michael KeatingSara McVicker has been a delegate to all but four VVA National Conventions, was secretary of the Washington State Council from 1987-90, and has been secretary of the Maryland State Council since 2008 and Region 3 Director since 2011. In addition, she served on the VA’s Advisory Committee on Women Veterans from 2011-16.

But before all that she was a self-avowed “Army brat” who first heard about a distant country called Vietnam because her father was stationed at Ft. Bragg. “I had friends’ fathers who had already gone to Vietnam,” she said, never imagining that country would loom large in her future.

McVicker went to nursing school on an Army scholarship, receiving her RN in June 1969. “Orders to Vietnam were expected,” she said. “Nurses with a three-year commitment like me knew they would almost certainly go to either Vietnam or Korea.”

Indeed, orders soon came assigning 2nd Lt. McVicker to Vietnam. “I had a choice of two locations in-country,” she said. “I chose Pleiku because I’d heard about it at Bragg and knew it was up in the mountains. I thought it might be cooler.”

McVicker laughed and said, “Wrong!” She was posted to the 71st Evacuation Hospital, part of the 44th Medical Brigade. “It was March and it was hot as hell.”

The Real Deal

The hospital was “very basic concrete slab and wood construction,” McVicker said. “We had air conditioning but it never worked, so they gave us those big stand-up fans for ventilation. Those things were roaring twenty-four hours a day. But we had running water and flush toilets.”

Growing up at Ft. Bragg meant the sound of artillery fire in the distance was an everyday event. “There was always training going on,” McVicker said. But it was different in Vietnam. “The first time I heard that booming sound of artillery in Pleiku I realized this was no training exercise—it was the real deal.”

McVicker’s “real deal” was exemplified by the day the 71st Evac compound was mortared. “The mortars walked straight across the front of the hospital,” She said. “They dropped in front of the ICU, the blood bank, HQ. The only direct hit was a covered walkway that connected the wards. It’s fortunate the enemy’s aim wasn’t very good. Off by just enough.”

71st Evac proved to be a transformative time for McVicker. “I learned how to push back my own anxiety, to step up, take responsibility, get in where I didn’t feel confident but saw that a job needed to be done and done quickly.” She served 355 days in-country and rotated to the States a changed person at age 23.

“When I left for Vietnam I was a sweet, well-mannered little southern girl,” she said. “I came home a self-confident, assertive woman who wasn’t afraid to express herself. My mother barely knew who I was.”

This transformation happened for many women who served in Vietnam, McVicker said. “They came home independent and resourceful adults with new ideas about their roles in society. But the great irony here is that we asked military women to do some of the same jobs and bear many of the same risks—and fears—as men. And just like a lot of those men, we matured. Some of us suffered wounds, both physical and psychological. We’d seen something of what the world could expect of us. But when we came home we were expected to retreat into subservient silence? I don’t think so.”

It is this same historical irony that represented the first stirrings of change in our national perspectives on women, including women service members and veterans. “When I came home it was the end of the 1960s,” McVicker said. “We had a new culture that said it was okay to do unheard-of things like question authority or debate the legitimacy of the war. We nurses had experienced some of the worst a war can serve up. None of these women, me included, thought we should just tolerate things as they had always been.”

The Flood Gates Opened

By the early 1980s Sara McVicker was working at the Dayton, Ohio, VA Medical Center. The city was facing severe unemployment after several big employers closed down. Health insurance had left with the jobs. “We started seeing more stress-induced PTSD among the Vietnam vets in the city, of which there were many,” McVicker said. “I got asked to do an in-service on Vietnam vets.”

But there was a problem: McVicker had never talked about the Vietnam War in public. “I had never told anybody I was a veteran,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to, either.” A friend suggested that it might help if McVicker talked to other ex-Army nurses. “It was around this time that Lynda Van Devanter hit the news. I saw a Parade magazine article on a former Army nurse by that name. I thought I remembered her from 71st Evac, but I wasn’t sure I was recalling correctly so I didn’t immediately reach out.”

McVicker eventually wrote a letter to Van Devanter, and the two would later become friends, along with a circle of other ex-Army nurses who had weathered duty at 71st Evac. “VA was starting to pay attention to PTSD at this time. Some of the first academic papers were appearing. VVA had pressured Congress to initiate a GAO investigation into the VA’s medical treatment of women. And the first major PTSD conference happened at King’s Island. I learned that Lynda was coming and she’d invited other ex-military nurses. I decided to go.”

King’s Island is about thiry-five miles south of Dayton. McVicker drove there after work every day of the conference. “And the floodgates opened,” she said. “For the first time I sat down with women veterans, many of whom had gone through what I had. We’d all come home to the same wall of silence. The double whammy: veterans of a very unpopular war, and women. We talked, we remembered together, we bonded, and we began to see a shape for what the future for women vets might look like. It was a very empowering time.”

McVicker added that she heard from a male vet at the conference that “we women went off by ourselves, it was some kind of private thing, and men were not allowed.” McVicker acknowledged that “we women probably did have a force field around us. But what the guys weren’t understanding was that this was the first time we were able—as women, peers, and professionals—to meet each other and take stock of what we’d been through and where our lives had taken us. That was something the masculine culture of the military, and the larger culture in general, had denied us. And it was something we were taking back.”

VVA’s requested GAO investigation into VA’s care of women was released in September 1982.

“And of course it was awful,” McVicker said.

Actions Needed to Insure that Female Veterans Have Equal Access to VA Benefits proved to be a landmark, a foundational document for women veterans that delivered, in dry bureaucratic prose, the bad news.

“VA has not adequately focused on the unique medical needs of women,” the study said, launching a litany of failure: Women could not benefit from medical care because of a lack of privacy in VA facilities. The reliance of many facilities on a pay-basis program resulted in denial of treatment to women. VA planning had not identified programs unable to accept women or projected the number of female veterans expected to seek care. VA had not planned renovation projects which would increase female patients’ access to care. 

The report sparked congressional hearings, McVicker said. “The VA was told to up its game with women vets. The first VVA Convention came in 1983 along with VVA’s Women Veterans Project that Lynda Van Devanter headed up. Diane Evans launched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project.”

Van Devanter’s memoir Home Before Morning had meanwhile ignited a firestorm with its images of drug use and casual sex in Vietnam, as well as its general antiwar stance. “The Army Nurse Corps was highly insulted, as would be expected,” said McVicker, “but the important point was that people were looking at—and thinking about and talking about—women veterans in a way that had not happened before.”

In its 2017 Woman Veterans Report, the VA noted there are some two million women veterans, a figure that will increase by about 18,000 annually over the next decade. As of 2015 more than 400,000 women veterans received compensation for service-related disabilities. While these numbers suggest a broad integration of women in both the active duty and veteran communities, assumptions and biases persist. A 2014 DAV report noted that the enduring perception is still “that a woman who comes to VA for services is not a veteran herself, but a male veteran’s wife, mother, or daughter.”

As late as 2016, women vets continued to feel they were denied recognition for their service. In a Service Women’s Action Network survey, 74 percent of respondents said that the general public did not recognize their service.

Invisibility can take generations to rectify.

Amid the VA’s ongoing attempts to improve its programs for women, many of which are very successful, McVicker observed that more changes are inevitable.

“The ways we define ‘combat’ are changing and that will drive changes in VA services,” she said. “In the Vietnam years, women were supposedly not allowed to serve in combat. Most of us therefore didn’t consider serving in a combat zone to be the same thing. Well, that’s nonsense, and it was women vets who helped us see that it’s nonsense.

“Women aren’t in combat? Getting mortared at 71st Evac was clearly being in the line of fire. Today women are flying fighter jets and serving in infantry platoons. The first women have graduated from Army Ranger School and Marine infantry officer training. We have a sitting U.S. Senator who was a chopper pilot and is service-disabled. Don’t tell us that women in the military have any limitations.”

The only real question, McVicker said, “is if a person can do the job. That’s all women are asking, and it’s all we’ve been asking over the last forty years: that we be given the same opportunity to serve, and receive the same level of care once we’re veterans.”

Sara McVicker has contributed to changes in perspective and philosophy that have fundamentally reshaped national attitudes toward women, both in the military and as veterans. She has helped redefine our understanding of what women can achieve—and what they must be allowed to achieve.

After all, the only real question is if a person can do the job.

© Michael Keating





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