Women and war

November 11, 1993

Among the graves of several Revolutionary War soldiers buried in the cemetery at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., is that of Margaret Corbin. She is depicted on her gravestone standing by a cannon holding a ramrod. Although she joined the revolution to accompany her husband when he signed up with the Pennsylvania artillery, she clearly saw her share of combat.

War is thought of as a male enterprise, but in fact it never bypasses women. Not only do women often suffer as much as men from the effects of war, they also have a long history of participating in battle and, especially, the operations that support combat. But history typically overlooks their contributions.

During Veterans Day ceremonies in Washington, D.C., today, a statue is being unveiled near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that will partially redress that common oversight. The sculpture shows three women clad in fatigues; one of them, a nurse, is cradling a dying serviceman. The statue is a tribute to the 11,500 women who served in Vietnam and, like a similar statue of three servicemen, it complements the polished black granite wall that contains the names of 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War, eight of them female.

Most of the women who went to Vietnam in uniform were nurses, but women served in other capacities as well, some of them as dangerous as any infantry operation. As for the nurses, only in recent years has there been an adequate understanding of the emotional and physical toll the war took on these young women. Never before had medical staff faced such unrelenting exposure to the savage effects of modern weapons, often merely minutes after the carnage occurred. Many of these women are only now coming to grips with the psychological effects of constant exposure to so much death and devastation -- a difficult thing to do for people in whom the duty to see first to the needs of others is deeply ingrained.

Since Vietnam, women have played an ever larger role in the American military. With Operation Desert Storm, the nation became accustomed to hearing references to "our service men and women." Now women will have public recognition of their contributions. Dedication ceremonies on the Mall this afternoon follow the first Veterans Day march to be led by women veterans.

Statues and marches are merely symbols, but symbols take on an importance all their own. Women in uniform are important participants in the defense of the country -- too important to remain invisible.

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