By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 14, 2012) -- Hundreds of women gathered on Capitol Hill, March 13, to induct into the Army Women's Hall of Fame all those who served in Vietnam.
The afternoon event was hosted by the U.S. Army Women's Foundation, and followed a morning event, the 4th Annual Army Women in Transition Symposium, where former military leaders and civilians discussed the changing roles of women serving in the Army and the challenges faced by female Soldiers after they leave the Army -- finding employment after the Army, for instance.
In the afternoon, retired Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, who now serves as president of the foundation, discussed the challenges faced by women who had served in Vietnam.
"The women who served in Vietnam did it for their country -- in terrible conditions," she said. Those women, she said, dealt with adversity, and the nurses there dealt "with things they could not ever have been trained for the trauma, the shock, the tropical diseases, compounded all the things that happened."
When those women officers and enlisted came home, she said, Americans didn't take notice of the work they had done.
"They didn't even make a ripple at home. We want to change that today, and do our part."
More than a dozen women took the stage at the event. All had served in Vietnam in the limited roles for women at the time, such as nursing or clerical work.
The women, who represented all Army women who served in Vietnam, were presented with a momento that commemorated their service. It will be placed in the Women in Military Service for America memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Among those in attendance was Connie Slewitzke, who had served for one year as a nurse in Vietnam, first as a surgical supervisor, then as a chief nurse at the convalescence center.
"It makes you feel good that somebody appreciates it," Slewitzke said of the recognition. "You never really ask for 'thank you's' from people. But it really makes you feel good that people appreciate what you did."
Slewitzke said even today, she stays in touch with the women she served with overseas. "It's camaraderie," she said. "You work with these people for a year, and if you stay in the Army long enough, you keep meeting these people."
While she served as a major during Vietnam, Slewitzke stayed on in the Army for 30 years, and retired in 1987 as a brigadier general.
Today, she said, she is proud of the accomplishments that women have made in service to their country.
For women serving now in Afghanistan, and who had served in Iraq, Slewitzke said she is proud of the work they are doing. They are doing jobs, she said, that were never open to her or her fellow women while serving in Vietnam.
"I think it's great they are able to do that, and able to perform in an outstanding manner," she said. "You don't hear much of this 'women can't do this' anymore. It used to be 'oh, we can't have women in combat.' I don't know what they call it now, but women sure are in combat."
Not all women who served in uniform in Vietnam were nurses -- or even officers.
Carole Gittman served from 1968 to 1970 in Vietnam, a total of 18 months. She worked as an administrative assistant for an engineer construction division.
"It think it's pretty awesome," she said of the recognition. She too stays in touch with the women she served alongside. Today, women who served in Vietnam, from all branches of service, can participate in the Vietnam Women Veterans Conference. This year, Gittman will attend the event, April 26-29 in Biloxi, Miss.
Gittman had little negative to say about her time in Vietnam, but said she wished she and her fellow female Women's Army Corps sisters had been trained the same way female Soldiers today are trained.
"The only thing that would have been nice would be if we'd been able to have weapons, or training. At least women are getting that now. We never got that," she said.
The WAC ceased to exist in 1978, something that Gittman said she was disappointed with.
"If you were a WAC, you will always be a WAC," she said. "And if you were a Soldier, you will always be a Soldier. We could still have done the same job if you left us the WACs. We loved being WACs. It was us -- we think we're different."
Gittman retired from the Army in 1982 as a sergeant first class.
Earlier in the morning, standing before the crowd at the event, Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, the Army's surgeon general, asked all female officers in the audience to stand; most all were in civilian clothing -- long since retired from the Army.
"Thank you for leading the way and making a difference," the general said. She is the first female to serve as the Army's surgeon general. "It's really your shoulders that we have been able to stand on and build and continue to move forward."
Women today have made great advances in where and how they can serve the Army, Horoho said, stating that 412 of the Army's 438 military occupational specialties and areas of concentration are now open to women. But women have always served the military, she explained.
"Women serve and have served, with distinction, grace [and] honor," in wars back to the Revolutionary War, Horoho said. "Women have served honorably and have died in every single war and every conflict that this country has fought."
To the women of the WACs, she said, "You are the bridge that linked the WACs of World War II to today," she said. And the women who served in Vietnam made sure Americans didn't forget that "women could do hard work in hard places."
Amongst all military services, about 11,000 American women served in uniform in Vietnam. According to the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation website, about 90 percent of those women served as nurses in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.