Lauro Play ‘A Piece of My Heart’ Dramatizes the Role of Women in War Zones
This is a story I did about a play whose subject matter brought me into contact with some women who fulfilled various capacities during wartime service, whether as nurses or USO performers. The women I interviewed are sort of the real-life equivalents of some of the characters in the play.
The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I hope you find the words of the women, fictional and nonfictional alike, as gripping as I did.
Lauro Play ‘A Piece of My Heart‘ Dramatizes the Role of Women in War Zones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As U.S. military action in Iraq unfolds, old war stories take on new capital. With women now on the front lines, their wartime roles gain added import. While their presence on the battlefield is new, American women have participated on the sidelines of war — as nurses, clerks, reporters, missionaries, performers — for generations, only their legacy seems lost in the heat of combat.
But since the 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C., a bronze sculpture by artist Glenna Goodacre of three fatigue-wearing females comforting an injured soldier, women have begun writing and talking about their wartime service as never before, the fruits of which can be seen in the acclaimed play, A Piece of My Heart, running now through April 27 at the Blue Barn Theatre.
Playwright Shirley Lauro based the characters of her impressionistic drama on interviews with real-life veterans, including those profiled in a book of the same name by Keith Walker. Lauro uses fast-moving vignettes to tell the larger story of American women in Vietnam. The six women characters represent varied backgrounds, roles and attitudes. There are military nurses, from stalwart Martha to sweet young Sissy to flower child Leeann. There’s the aristocratic Red Cross “donut dolly” Whitney. There’s the hard-ass intelligence officer Steele. And the playful, soulful USO trouper MaryJo. Whether sewing sutures, spreading cheer or performing on stage, they are angels of mercy for soldiers trapped in a hellish quagmire.
The women cope with laughter, tears, booze, pot. Some erect “the wall.” Others fool around. The nurses regret not knowing what happens to the boys whose bodies they patch up and spirits they boost. They fear no matter how many lives they save or how many smiles they elicit, they never do enough. Then, when their wartime service is over, they return home as forgotten as their G.I. brothers, wanting to put the war behind them but finding they can’t.
Even though each character tells her own story, they really all speak in one voice about the shared female experience of being thrust into the surreal, carnage of war. Regardless of where they hailed from or did their tour or what job they held or beliefs they espoused, they were all volunteers who elected to go there.
“The common ground we had, which is why I felt so strongly about honoring these women, was that not a single one of us had to be there,” said Diane Carlson Evans, a veteran in-country Army nurse who spearheaded the creation of the women’s memorial. “We were not drafted. We were not conscripted. Nobody put a gun to our head and said, Go to Vietnam and do your duty. We could have stayed home, got our master’s degree, had our kids, played golf and tennis and had a good life. But every one of us — Red Cross, military, USO — said, I want to do my part, and did during a very unpopular war. We didn’t have a lot of support from home, from peers or from our country…We just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Evans, who made remarks before the Blue Barn’s April 5 show, used her appearance to givr tribute to “the diverse contributions women made” in the war. “I am proud of the women I worked with and how hard I saw them work and how they asked for nothing in return. It was always, Do I need to give blood? Or, Can I work an extra shift? It was that always going above and beyond and never complaining because we had a job to do. I saw how these women saved lives at the risk of their own. And I just believe so strongly they deserve credit from a grateful nation. A grateful nation that needs to acknowledge they participated in a really extraordinary way.”
The story of women’s wartime service is, for many of us, unknown. “I’m just so glad this story’s being told because I lived through Vietnam and I didn’t hear nothing about the nurses…not a thing,” said Omaha actress Phyllis Mitchell-Butler, who portrays Steele. “The nurses went through as much as any of the soldiers. They saw the devastation first-hand. I’m just amazed how long they kept themselves together with all that inside them. All they had was what was inside and they had to keep that. They couldn’t let it go.”
In her role as state commander of the Nebraska Council of Vietnam Veterans of America, Dottie Barickman, who served at Offutt Air Force Base in the Vietnam era, has come to appreciate what women did in that war.
“I’ve never walked in their shoes, but I’ve heard their stories and I understand what they mean when they say they sacrificed their youth and their emotions. They were the nurturing ones for a lot of young boys hurting over there. Combat soldiers always mention to me that if they ever saw a nurse it was like Welcome Home, and that is what these women were…a touch of home that took them away from that war zone for a few hours.”
The stories in A Piece of My Heart echo those of thousands of women that served in Nam or nearby environs. Diane Carlson Evans is one of them.
“I was 21…right out of college…and I was assigned first to the 36th Evacuation Hospital in a beautiful place (Vung Tau) right on the South China Sea beach. I didn’t feel the war there as much as I did when I was transferred up north…to Pleiku, in the central highlands jungle near the Cambodian border,” Evans said. “I was with Two Corps supporting the 4th Infantry Division (in the 71st Evacuation Hospital).
“The war was very different there. It was the spring of ‘69…a pretty bad time. The 4th Infantry had something like a 75 percent casualty rate. I was made head nurse in a post-surgical unit where the patients were very sick. We had them on respirators and blood transfusions and chest tubes. It was very hard to see so many young men with such horrific wounds. We had to deal with patients dying on us and, in triage, we had to deal with setting aside dying patients to attend to the most salvageable ones. We blamed ourselves. We carried the guilt. And we were young…and so on our little time off we filled our days in human ways, whether it was playing volleyball or getting drunk or doing drugs or going on dates or falling in love.”
Playwright Shirley Lauro
In addition to the stress of dealing with crushing trauma patient loads, the threat of death was ever near. “Pleiku was not a safe area. We were under attack many times. We got to know the difference between the outgoing artillery and the incoming rockets and mortars that would fly in and hit our hospital, sending shrapnel everywhere. We were not only worrying about our patients — we had concern for our own safety,” said Evans, a Helena, Montana resident.
Since getting the Vietnam women’s memorial installed, Evans, whose efforts to make it a reality took 10 years, has become THE champion for female volunteers in that conflict, focusing her efforts on “encouraging women who served to share their stories…so we can understand what the memorial is all about.”
She helped start a storytelling program at the memorial site and on the web that invites women to speak their piece. She said telling it like it was is “very painful. It takes a lot of courage for women to admit how scared they were some young soldier was going to die on their watch or how they were so tired they could have made a mistake or how they were sexually assaulted or harassed. All of this anger and anguish comes out in the play.”
An admirer of the Lauro work, which had its debut in Philadelphia and has been performed across the country, Evans feels it gets to the heart of women’s Vietnam odyssey. “It does not show our service through rose-colored glasses — that we were all these heroic young women who went off to save the world and wore white halos — but instead it shows we were young women who went to Vietnam and did the very best we could amid all this crazy stuff going on. That’s what makes it very real, very authentic.”
As the war in Iraq rages on the director of the Blue Barn show, Susan Clement-Toberer, feels the conflict lends the play added urgency.
“Knowing that it’s happening now it brings it all very close and deepens everything we’re doing,” she said. “It’s real, just like the stories of these women are all real…taken from a myriad of interviews with different women.”
Cast member Erika Hall, who plays the USO entertainer, said, “You know, before it was important to do this piece, and now like it’s necessary.” Most of the cast and crew are too young to remember the war and therefore have immersed themselves in it via books, articles and tapes and by talking to actual veterans.
“What an interesting learning experience this is for me,” Hall said. “I was born after Vietnam and, you know, you read about it in school but you don’t really understand what they (vets) went through.” In her own research Clement-Toberer said she was surprised to learn “the extremes the women survived. I knew Vietnam was a dirty war, but I just didn’t realize they (the women) saw such extremes so quickly. I understand now why these women went and what they mean by honor…they believed in their country. It’s just a very strong feeling in what is right and what is true and what needs to be told.”
The characters have real-life counterparts in Nebraska. Lincolnite Judy Knopp, a former Army nurse at Camp Zama, Japan, treated G.I.s choppered in from Vietnam; Martel native and longtime Lincoln resident Brenda Allacher toured Nam as a member of the all-girl country-western band The Taylor Sisters; and Marie Menke of Superior, Neb. was a fellow Army nurse with Diane Evans at the 36th evac in Vung Tau, regarded as an in-country R & R site except for the grueling recovery and care that went on there. For vets like these, Vietnam seared into their memories and hearts the best and worst of humanity.
“I joined the Army nurse corps and in six weeks did my basic training at Fort Sam Houston and went straight to Japan…Camp Zama, 35 minutes southeast of Tokyo and an hour by chopper from Saigon. I was charge nurse in the orthopedic ward of a 1,000 bed hospital,” Knopp said. “Back then, we had to make our own IVs and pump our own blood and everything. After the Tet Offensive we were working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week. They used to call us the zombie squad. We didn’t even eat. We went home and slept…then came back. We’d have 30 to 40 evacs a day…20 to 30 surgeries a day, just on my ward. One-half of our cases were dirty wounds…shrapnel wounds or single and multiple amputees. Guys with half their faces blown off. One young man I especially remember…Billy. He was 18. He’d stepped on a land mine and everything was gone from the belly button on down. He was unconscious. We were pumping him full of blood. You wanted to save him but…you wanted him to go, too, because there was no way he could live.
“The guys, they were so young. They used to call me grandma and I was 22. They were all like little brothers. We used to stay up with the guys at night who were crying over having killed women and children. They had a real hard time dealing with what went on over there and the stuff they had to do to survive. A lot of ‘em came back injured and a lot of ‘em we never saw again. We never knew what happened to ‘em. The ones going back to the states we’d iron their uniforms, sew on their patches and go to the chopper to kiss ‘em goodbye. I have very fond memories of the guys and just atrocious memories of the wounds.”
She still regrets how, when her ward was busy, “there was no time for dignity with death…to get patients prepared and stay with ‘em and see ‘em through it. It was like, OK, this one’s dead, clean out the bed…there’s another one coming in.”
A Piece of My Heart cast members marvel at what women like Knopp endured at such a tender age. “They all have stories of their first day…just like in the play where my character takes off a soldier’s boot and his severed foot is in it,” Christine Schwery said. “They were so fragile and so young and yet they survived,” Julie Huff said. “With a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs,” Schwery chimed in. “Yeah, but they survived and they saved a lot of lives,” Huff added.
Riverdale, Neb. native Marie Menke, then Daake, was a 22-year-old nursing school grad when she got to Nam. Nothing could prepare her for what she saw:
“I was pretty naive about the war. It was very shocking to most of us to see the kinds of wounds and the tragic loss of life,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be. My thoughts about the war didn’t matter because we were there and people were getting hurt and we had an enormous job to do. We were tremendously needed. It was beyond comprehension almost. The nurses did do a lot but most of us downplayed it. We were just there to do our job and to take care of patients and to support them.”
Besides caring for American G.I.s, nurses treated Vietmanese, including children.
An estimated 265,000 American women service in support of the war. U.S. Army estimates place the number in-country between 10,000 and 12,000. Most were nurses, either Army or Marine enlistees or even civilians attached to field hospitals or more rear echelon units. American Red Cross volunteers were so-called “donut dollies” — a sort of comfort girl corps boosting morale with their short-skirts, smiles and care packages. Others were entertainers touring under the auspices of the USO or, like Brenda Allacher, as contract entertainers via private booking agencies that provided minimal security and scant creature comforts.
Blue Barn Theatre’s Susan Clement Toberer
Allacher, then known by her stage name Brenda Allen, got to see a lot of Nam during her three-and-half month tour in ‘69. She has bittersweet memories of her time in Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal Division:
“That was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember the commanding officer, ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson, said, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man,” she said. “The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers.
“We’d come back exhausted. One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. A G. grabbed me and threw me down under the bar.” It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”
The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. The incident shook Allacher to her core.
“What really gets me is it very easily could have been me, and not her.” she said. She recalls happier times there, too, like when the Taylor Sisters did an impromptu show for Nebraska National Guard troops, leading off with “There’s No Place Like Nebraska.” “The tin roof went off on that quonset hut. They just went nuts.” Or when she was secreted away to give a private performance for some special ops forces who, upon her finishing, “lined up and saluted me” she said tearfully. “As I was walking out, the commanding officer placed his Green Beret on my head.” She still has it. “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”
Allacher and Knopp have made the recognition of women’s work in Vietnam a personal mission. Together eith Evans they are featured in a NETV documentary, Not On the Frontline, that follows their story from the wartime service they rendered to the emotional “culmination” of seeing the women’s memorial dedicated, something Knopp worked for as state coordinator of the project. More recently, Allacher, who describes herself as “a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” was instrumental in bringing A Piece of My Heart to the attention of local theaters. She and her big booming laugh have become fixtures at the Blue Barn.
For Allacher, Knopp and Evans, the stories told in the play and documentary are part of the healing that’s taken place after the war. Acceptance of women’s service has come slowly, even as they have died alongside their veteran brothers from Agent Orange-related illnesses and have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Evans said there was once resistance to honoring women’s war record because “I don’t think people wanted to look at women as warriors — as soldiers. But women are soldiers, too. We fought just as hard as the men. We just fought with different instruments.” Or, as Judy Knopp puts it, “The guys were on the physical front lines, but we were on the psychological front lines trying to hold it all together. And we did it with a loving heart.”
- Woman who says she was nurse from WWII photo dies (dailycaller.com)
- Honouring nurses (bbc.co.uk)
- What did many American Women hold jobs as (wiki.answers.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)